The first week after I quit my toxic job, I hardly opened my laptop. I didn’t peruse LinkedIn or subscribe to job boards or refresh my resume. I slept in. I potted plants. I watched a lot of 90 Day Fiancé. I drove to Sullivan’s Island in the middle of the weekday and read books on the beach.
I needed to take a step (or five) back before I could move forward.
When I left the marketing agency seven months ago, I was relieved to close that chapter and thrilled to have the time and mental energy to pursue a healthier opportunity. But my confidence was at an all-time low. The thought of digging through job postings made me want to swallow a Lactaid and eat blocks of cheddar. I no longer trusted my judgment. I missed the warning signs last time, I thought. What if I miss the red flags next time and end up in another toxic workplace?
Even when I felt ready to browse job postings again, I wasn’t. The first time I sat down at my desk, powered up my laptop, and typed a few keywords into the search bar, I was immediately triggered. One job post required an “ability to tolerate a high level of stress and constantly changing deadlines.” Another post for a popular food delivery service said it wanted a hire who could “operate at a feverish pace while never compromising the craft.”
High level of stress. Constantly changing deadlines. Feverish pace. I left my job because of unmanageable stress brought on by a dizzying workload and impossible deadlines. I didn’t want that again.
I missed the warning signs last time. What if I miss the red flags next time and end up in another toxic workplace?
“That’s what all job postings are supposed to prompt: a yes/no response from us,” says Katrina Kibben, whose own toxic experiences inspired them to start Three Ears Media, a company that specializes in job post writing services and training. “What happens when we have a series of experiences is that they become almost like an Instagram filter for how we read job postings.”
I was mentally bruised in those early days and my brain emitted immediate-no reactions in rapid succession. Am I being too critical? I wondered. Do other job seekers feel triggered by job postings? Are they turned off by the same language?
Recently I spoke with Kibben along with two other experts because I wanted to know if my instincts were right. I also wanted to know if there were any universal red flags in job descriptions that might signal a toxic culture. Spoiler alert: Yes and yes.
Here are the red flags they emphasized:
Cute, quirky titles or language
“There needs to be a professional maturity level in a job description,” says Muse career coach Anne Kelly. “When job descriptions are too cute or quirky, to me that’s a red flag that the organization is trying too hard, they don’t know who they are, and they’re trying to appeal to a more immature side of someone.”
I don’t want to be a “content wizard,” “word master,” or “copywriting guru.” What do those even mean? Unless the company is hiring an actual wizard—“Harry Potter, please send us your resume!”—that language is neither cool nor helpful to a job seeker. Cute, flashy language might also indicate that the hiring manager doesn’t fully understand what goes into this kind of work, the role is too much for one person, or they believe in magic—because a wizard or ninja could handle it, right? What happens when they find out you’re a human who can only do so much, makes mistakes, and wants a life outside of work?
An ambiguous or excessively long list of responsibilities
“Someone should tell you why you’re there,” Kibben says. “If they don’t tell you why you’re there then they don’t know, and that’s not a good place for you to be.” Do they emphasize that you’d “wear many hats” but neglect to tell you what they are or what the corresponding workload looks like? That’s an issue.
The first red flag at my previous job was the lack of a clear job description. Even during my interviews, they avoided spelling out my specific responsibilities. Eventually I took it upon myself to outline my daily tasks and responsibilities, but by then I was beyond the burnout stage.
It’s an employer’s job to identify the company’s needs, the tasks required to meet those needs, and the skills and experience they’re looking for in a candidate. It’s not an employee’s responsibility to guess what their position entails, try to meet unclear or constantly changing expectations, and fill multiple roles because a company doesn’t know what it needs. Alternatively, if the company knows what needs to be done but presents multiple positions’ worth of work in one job description, that’s also a bright red flag.
Vague schedule expectations
“Even if it’s a global company, they should tell you what and when your work hours will be and if you will be working directly with employees in international time zones,” says Modibor Fullah, a personal friend and certified HR professional who recalls one job posting, for example, that literally listed “TBD” next to “work hours.”
In my case, I wasn’t informed up front that most of my daily teammates were a half day ahead of our client’s time zone. As a result, urgent requests were harder to fill during the normal U.S. work day and required late nights from my international coworkers. I frequently waited hours for simple or time-sensitive requests. I felt like I was constantly behind and letting our clients down.
A lack of clarity around hours can also mean a lack of boundaries around work, which quickly turns a company culture toxic.
Extremely wide salary range
“If the salary ranges from say, $35k to $130k, those are two very different lifestyles,” Kibben says. “Recruiters often can’t explain that and if they can’t, it means they’re paying the best negotiators, not the most skilled people.” This is another sign of employer ambiguity regarding what the position is and what’s expected of the person who fills it. This isn’t a game of Bamboozled. The employer should know what the role is worth and offer an appropriate salary range.
Urgency and stress language
“Speed and time urgency are big red flags,” Kibben cautions. “It means they do not respect your time.” Be wary of language like “fast-paced environment,” “feverish pace,” “high capacity,” “handles stress well,” “works well under pressure,” and variations of these. “Phrases like ‘high capacity’ mean ‘we want to own you,’” Kelly says. This and other exaggerated or clichéd language might very well be euphemisms for something much less pleasant if said outright.
I remember my former boss calling me at 9 p.m. a few days after I started my job. I was already in bed, but I was new and wanted him to know I cared about the work. I assumed he wouldn’t call at that hour unless it was important. I ended up in a 30-minute group chat about something trivial that I couldn’t do anything about until the next day. That first late-night call was the beginning of a string of broken boundaries and a culture of false urgency.
You don’t always know when you can fully trust yourself again after coming out of a toxic culture, and it might be same-old-bad-boyfriend all over again.
Since I wrote about my experience at that toxic job, I’ve heard from friends and strangers all over the world who shared their own stories. Some are still in toxic jobs. Some are transitioning out of toxic jobs. Some have left toxic jobs. But all of them still feel the emotional toll of their toxic workplaces.
As Fullah pointed out, toxic cultures happen everywhere and affect employees in all fields. “Even though I’m in the HR space, I’m an employee too and I’ve had my share of toxic experiences,” he says. But we do have some agency. “The silver lining of that is it does give you the confidence to advocate for yourself. It does give you the confidence to identify what you’re looking for and which questions to ask. That has been a journey for me because I didn’t always have the confidence to speak up when something felt off.”
The process of recovering from a toxic job and dusting off your courage isn’t instantaneous. “You don’t always know when you can fully trust yourself again after coming out of a toxic culture, and it might be same-old-bad-boyfriend all over again,” Kelly says. “If you’re unsure about a job post, put it aside and look at it again at a different time.”
I regained confidence and learned to spot red flags the way anyone learns anything—with time, effort, and experience. I listened when my instincts said, Close the tab. Do not pass go. But I also applied to as many jobs as I passed over. When a job description felt like it was written for me and not just the employer, when I could picture myself doing the work and enjoying it, those were my green light moments.
Inevitably, we’re all shaped by our experiences. We may not be able to control every toxic situation we end up in, but we can control how we emerge from them. We can recognize our worth, learn how to communicate our worth to others, and set boundaries to protect it. Employers are accountable for the cultures they create. As job seekers, we’re accountable for the cultures we choose to accept.
I probably missed the red flags last time around, but I know better this time.
Read more on The Muse’s “toxic aware” landing page.