Skip to main contentA logo with &quat;the muse&quat; in dark blue text.
Advice / Job Search / Interviewing

5 Red Flags in a Job Interview

Job searching in this economy is undeniably intimidating. Whether you’re itching to leave your current company or you’re a reluctant member of the unemployed club, it’s easy to feel like the interview is a one-way interrogation that tests whether you’re good enough for the job.

But keep in mind that an interview is meant to be a conversation. As much as your potential new employers are interviewing you, you should be using the opportunity to evaluate whether the company is a good match for you, too. Even if you’re desperate for a job, there’s no point in accepting one with no stability, little upward mobility, or co-workers who make you cringe—you’ll just be looking for another one come next year.

No, you’re not going to know everything about a place until you actually work there—but that doesn’t mean you can’t figure some things out. The interview process can give you great clues about an organization’s true inner workings—and tip you off if you should be running the other way. Here are five key red flags to look out for when you’re on the interview trail.

1. The Process is Unnecessarily Long

Of course employers have every right to thoroughly vet potential candidates, but the interview process shouldn’t qualify as cruel and unusual punishment—if it is, it’s probably a sign of things to come. A couple of years ago, I interviewed for a junior editor position. The process was longer than any I’d ever been through before, and consisted of  several rounds of interviews and three (quite lengthy) writing tests and assignments. I was asked to provide three references (which is normal), and then another, and then another. (Not normal. At all.)

While I eventually received an offer, the lengthy interview process and the personalities I encountered were enough to show me that the job wasn’t the welcoming and collaborative environment I was looking for. In many cases, the interview process can be an eye-opening glimpse into the company’s corporate culture.

2. The Process is Ridiculously Short

On the flip side, an interview that’s shorter than the time it took you to get there is rarely a good sign. Interviews are an opportunity for you to prove to your potential new bosses that you are a valuable addition to the team, and when they don’t take the time to ask you enough questions to figure that out, you have to wonder if there’s a catch. Trust me, there usually is—like they’ve been trying to hire for months and no one’s interested, or it’s a door-to-door sales job cleverly disguised as a glamorous “marketing” position.

If the interview is feeling short, it’s okay to elongate the process by asking your own questions to find out the inside scoop. How many candidates are they hiring for this position? Why is the company looking to hire? Is there an opportunity for growth within the company? Definitely don’t take a job with a company that’s willing to hire just anybody.

3. There’s a Revolving Door

You don’t have to look for a company where all employees are lifelong veterans married to their positions (that’s probably a red flag, too), but if the majority of your potential colleagues are relatively new, it may be a sign of widespread discontent. People stay at jobs that offer stability and job satisfaction—and they leave when they’re unhappy.

While no company willingly advertises a high turnover rate, try to assess how long most employees (particularly those in the position you’re applying for) stick around. And it’s completely fair to ask, “Where have the people who’ve held this position in the past moved on to?”

4. You’re the Oldest One in the Room

Yes, there are great leaders out there who are young (and horrible bosses who’ve been around for decades), but as a general rule, good managerial skills are acquired and developed. No matter how intelligent and ambitious someone is, most people don’t have the maturity and professional experience to be a great boss until they’ve been around the block a few times.

So think twice if your interviewers are all rookies. If you’re a self-starter, it might be fine. But if you’re looking for guidance and mentorship, a first-time manager might not be your best bet.

5. You’re Being “Sold” To

If you’re interviewing at a newer company, your prospective employers are probably doing a great job of selling you on the promise of their venture. That’s because they’ve had a lot of good practice talking to investors. Sure, Fortune 500 juggernauts like Google and Facebook were once considered startups, and it’s exciting to be a part of a small team from the ground up. But enthusiasm for a new venture doesn’t necessarily lead to monetization.

So, if you’re interviewing at a startup, look beyond the buzzwords, and make sure the company has a solid business and marketing plan with realistic anticipations for growth. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about the company’s financial stability and plans for the future—it’s your financial stability and future, too, after all.

Tell us! What red flags have you encountered on the interview trail?

Photo courtesy of Ha-Wee.