Some days it feels like all I hear and talk about are the toxic workplaces consuming the time and energy of my clients. And while it’s my ethical obligation as a psychotherapist to honor their rights to self-determination, I can’t help but want to—and admittedly sometimes do—tell them to “Get out!”
That’s because I know firsthand what it’s like to navigate a toxic work environment, to exist (albeit barely) within one. I’ve been blamed for mistakes that arose from vague direction and scant guidance, been called “unprofessional” for quitting due to a lack of interpersonal fit, and asked myself the invaluable question: “Would I still have taken this job if I’d known how toxic the workplace would be?”
If you’ve ever been in a toxic work environment, pause and ask yourself this question. Many of you will say no, but a few will give the answer that intrigues me most: “Yes, but it would have been helpful to know ahead of time just how toxic it was going to be.”
Knowing from a job interview that the workplace will be toxic won’t always mean you can reject an offer—for example, if your student loan payments are due or you need to make rent and feed your family. In these cases, spotting a toxic workplace in a job interview can help you manage your expectations and emotions more effectively and strategically when you have no other option but to enter it. And in doing so, you’ll be able to prepare to cope with inevitably toxic situations.
On the flip side—for those in the privileged position to reject a job opportunity—spotting the toxic nature of a company during the interview process can help you weigh the pros and cons of multiple positions and gain clarity, certainty, and confidence in your decision to reject even the most compelling of offers (and prepare for the company’s response to your rejection).
Knowledge is power.
That’s my intention for this guide. It’s not to convince you into or out of taking a position based on how toxic the work environment seems, although I admit I’ll always have the desperate urge to scream, “Get out!” Instead, my intention is to offer you insight so you can make the most well-informed decision about whether to take a first interview, move forward in the hiring process, or accept a role in a potentially toxic work environment.
Because while there are certain things about a job or company you may never know until you start, it is possible to begin collecting information and looking for signs of a toxic work environment starting with the job description and continuing through every conversation you have. With that, here are five red flags of a toxic work environment to look out for during the interview process:
1. You had to do unreasonable work just to get an interview.
It’s not uncommon to be given a work assignment during the interview process—companies often want to get a sense of your skills, creativity, and turnaround speed, and to see just how serious you are about the job before making an offer. But if you’re being asked to do an unreasonable amount or type of work before you even have the first interview, this might be a sign of toxicity.
According to Muse career coach Kristine Knutter, not only can assigning work before a first interview be disrespectful of candidates’ time, but it may also be a discriminatory practice, as “younger workers without significant personal commitments are likely the only candidates with the time needed to complete extensive work.”
So what’s unreasonable? If the task is one that requires several hours of your time or an unrealistically quick turnaround, this may indicate the company cares less about evaluating you and more about reaping the benefits of free labor, or that overworking employees and disrespecting their time is a normal part of the company’s work culture.
Be on the lookout for companies that communicate with you about this kind of work but don’t mention a future interview—because they may not have any intention of bringing you in for one. Other signs, Knutter says, include the employer emailing you about the assignment outside of regular working hours, being vague about the expectations or goals, and not providing satisfactory answers to your questions about it.
After all, how you’re assigned work during the interview process likely reflects how you’ll be assigned work once you have the job.
2. Your interviewers are ambiguous.
Imagine a recruiter explains during your phone screen that the position you’ve applied for involves doing “a little bit of everything.” This might appeal to you at first—it sounds like you’ll get diverse experience and won’t be boxed into only one area of the company.
In reality, interviewers’ ambiguity may be better explained as the company’s lack of transparency, justification for spreading you thin, or uncertainty about what exactly they’re even hiring someone to do. Take pause if your interviewers are vague about the hiring timeline, company values, responsibilities, schedule, or anything else. Missing details like these go directly against the principle that people are best set up to succeed when they’ve been given clear expectations.
Similarly, let’s say you ask your interviewers or other employees you have a chance to speak with about their experience at the company. You ask them direct questions like, “Does it feel like the company supports having a work-life balance?” and, “What are opportunities for growth in this role?” Answers like, “They do their best” and, “It depends,” are nondescript, vague, and could indicate employee burnout, deception, or a fear of punishment for being honest.
3. The company has a “go above and beyond” culture.
This commonly used phrase is so vague you might be asking the same question as Muse career coach and communication expert Eloïse Eonnet: “Above and beyond what?”
While there’s no way to define “above” or “beyond,” if your interviewer says this is what they’re looking for, sound the ambiguity alarm! Saying, “We’re looking for someone who will go above and beyond” sends the message that performing your job responsibilities won’t be enough and that setting professional boundaries is futile at best—and laughable or even cause for termination at worst.
“The ‘above and beyond’ mindset can quickly pit coworkers against each other, leading to a workplace void of trust, collaboration, and positive relationships,” Eonnet says.
Be on the lookout for discreet signs this is the kind of worker the company is after, as they may not say so explicitly. For instance, take note if your interviewer asks about your work ethic and commitment levels (“What lengths are you willing to go to in order to get the task done?” or “What is something that would get in the way of you performing your job responsibilities?), wants to know how competitive you are, or tries to scope out details about your personal life—especially family commitments and priorities.
Finally, Eonnet says, if your contact at the company treats you with contempt when you ask about schedules, commitments, workload, or expected deliverables, these may be signs that they value workers who go “above and beyond” without any reasonable limits.
4. Employees refer to themselves as a “family.”
How do you interact with your family? Do you drop everything when a loved one’s in trouble? Communicate passive-aggressively with that one sibling? How you engage with and show up for your family will inevitably look different than how you show up for your employer and coworkers.
A company referring to itself as a family may be telling you it values working outside of business hours, wants an employee with unwavering dedication, or blurs boundaries among employees or between work and home. According to Muse career coach Jamie Terran, referring to its workers as a family could also reflect “a company that values face time above productivity,” meaning that getting your work done efficiently and doing it well isn’t necessarily enough.
Even if no one explicitly uses the word “family,” there are other indicators of this mindset to look out for. For example, statements like, “We show up for each other,” “We’re more than just colleagues,” and, “We live and breathe our mission” could suggest blurred personal and professional boundaries and a value for putting work above all else.
Lastly, if your interviewers try to sell you on taking the job by going on about how much use the team gets out of benefits such as a free in-building gym or paid dinners on workdays, it may be a subtle way of communicating that all your needs can be met by the company—and there’s an explicit or unspoken expectation that you devote a disproportionate amount of time and attention to work, as if it were your family or home.
5. Your interviewer’s words or demeanor concern you.
Pay attention to your interviewer’s behavior, says psychotherapist Carrie Covell, LCSW. “Someone who presents as calm, patient, confident, and genuinely interested in getting to know you,” she says, “is likely attending to their mental health, secure in their position, trusted by their higher-ups, and has been afforded the time and space to accurately assess whether you are well-suited for the work environment and vice versa.”
When your contact doesn’t act this way—perhaps they’re visibly anxious, appear pressed for time, look distracted, or seem unsure of their own questions—it may be an indication that they’re “micromanaged, overworked, and fearful of making mistakes due to threats of punishment or job loss,” Covell says. “They're living with an autonomic nervous system in overdrive—a clear sign of a toxic work environment.”
And if your interviewer bad-mouths coworkers or past employees, gossips, or is reluctant to connect you to others on the team, they might be showing you evidence of a company culture in which people don’t trust or respect each other.
While there’s no algorithm for identifying a toxic work environment, spotting these signs as early on as possible can put you in a position to ask yourself—or be asked by your therapist—“Could this be a toxic work environment?” Which then allows you to ask the right questions in your next interviews and ultimately decide: “Knowing what I know, would I take the job?”
Read more on The Muse’s “toxic aware” landing page.