How To Spot Toxic Work Culture At The Interview: 17 Signs To Watch Out For

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Apr 4, 2023 9 min read

It feels like forever, but finally, here you are, confident and shining at your dream job interview.

Your family and friends congratulate you for taking a big step forward in your career.

While all sounds like sunshine and rainbows, before you get too carried away with exhilaration, you must ensure that everything is as good as it seems.

For example, sometimes we focus too much on how prestigious a role is, rather than how happy it would make us.

In addition, we get swept up in the company’s public image, which may not have much in common with their organizational reality.

If you close your eyes to anything that felt wrong during the interview, you risk ending up at a job that has a toxic work environment.

The good news is there are always signs you can look for to avoid falling into the “trap” of toxic employers.

Here’s what you need to take control of the interview:

  • Do your preliminary research
  • Stick to your "guns"
  • Trust your gut
  • Don't be shy to counter-offer
  • Take your time

So, let’s take you on a crash course on spotting all those tricky little signs of toxic organizational culture.

Do your preliminary research

You will significantly minimize the risks of being catfished by a company that does not deserve your potential simply by making sure to check out the company's social media reviews on websites like Glassdoor. Rest assured, if the organization is toxic, you will see it reflected in the comments.

Another excellent approach is to network on LinkedIn with experts who already work at the company. You can casually ask them about the organizational climate and what makes them happy to work there.

Furthermore, compared to employer reviews, where you can come across a false negative review, speaking directly to employers helps you find out first-hand, verified information. The important thing here is to take a mental note if you find something mildly concerning about your future potential employer.

Stick to your "guns"

You probably have heard of the so-called "behavioral interview," or maybe you have even experienced it yourself. Simply said - behavioral interviewing is simulating certain stressful situations to strike anxiety in the candidate and see how well they will be able to respond and come out of it. Even though the ethics of this old-school approach are very questionable, it is still used.

So we at Enhancv want you to be prepared if you face it, and to do so with dignity. A few examples here can be:

  • Spilling a glass of water or - worse (!), coffee on your white shirt, seemingly accidentally, and sitting across you impishly, watching if you will flip out or keep your cool.
  • Deliberately delaying the interview - we have heard of cases like 20-30 minutes of lateness, while the candidate has to wait in a tiny lobby room with no idea when the meeting starts.
  • Telling you that there are other “high caliber” candidates more qualified than you.
  • Gaslighting you with the statement that you don't seem qualified enough for the role.

Still, all behavioral interview tricks have one thing in common - making candidates stressed.. Getting a candidate worried and uncertain about their value is a favorite treat of most toxic organizations. And they gladly use it as a stepping stone to a lowball offer.

So, when you face the ugly face of toxic HR tactics, the most important thing is to stay calm. Remember, it is just a game they are playing as a means to an end, so do not take their devaluation personally. Becoming reactive or too emotion-driven is what they expect, as at that moment, they would have achieved their goal - that you lose your cool. Surprise them instead! Rather than getting upset about it, you can offer the HR a short and clear rational objection based on facts from your CV. It can be something like:

"I have 3+ years of mid-level experience as an Account manager at XCM Marketing New York."

Sticking to your "guns," e.g., skills, without lowering your guard, is an excellent exit strategy for that situation. You are the only person who knows best your work history and achievements. By learning such toxic HR techniques exist you will detect them with ease and be less likely to be negatively affected in any way.

Trust your gut

One of the ways we find ourselves in toxic work situations is by ignoring our intuition and the warning signs, which are always there from the beginning. Sometimes we may have been searching for work for too long, and we convince ourselves some job is better than no job at all. So we ignore or sugarcoat toxic attitudes, abide by dire conditions, and set ourselves up for work situations that do not align with our standards.

So to solve that puzzle and strip the mask of the toxic employer, you need to measure the facts carefully and track your body for reactions of anger, anxiety, and insecurity that the invasive or illegal interview questions may have triggered in you. For example, one of the most significant toxic culture indicators is that if you went to the interview happy and upbeat, and you felt down and squeezed like a lemon at the end. So don't ignore it, but trust the signals your body sends you.

Don't be shy to counter-offer

By standing up for yourself and counter-offering any lowball offers, you will demonstrate you don't fit the interviewers` projections. Hence, re-position yourself where you belong, raise the bar, and learn exactly how to ask for a higher salary than offered.

When you are unsure if you should negotiate, ask yourself if you are willing to compromise with possibly losing a fortune over a year, for example, because you signed a poor offer. Or if you will be ok with destroying your mental well-being by having a toxic boss?

Take your time

When it comes to significant personal and professional decisions, like starting a new job, you owe it to yourself and your professional growth to ensure you have enough time to decide.

Sometimes we rush ourselves to get just "a" job rather than "the" job that will make us emotionally, physically, socially, and financially happy. So, calming your job anxiety will help you not let the interviewers make you abide by their impossible interview time slots, or force you to accept a questionable job offer on the spot.

Slowing down the pace will allow you to feel the subtle nuances of communication. This will help you detect the level of toxicity, and whether you can tolerate it or not.

And now that you found out the steps to "navigate" out of a toxic work environment, here is the promised list of the most typical toxic environment signs to watch for in the (pre)interview phase.

17 toxic organizational culture interview signs

  1. DOWNSIZING your achievement and experience, typically upon salary negotiation.
  2. BAD-MOUTHING other departments in the company or competitor organizations.
  3. GASLIGHTING with speculations, you don't fit the organizational culture.
  4. GOSSIPING about current or past employees` mistakes or bad morals makes you wonder if you will be under a magnifying lens and how soon you'll be next in line for some hate-talk behind your back.
  5. OUT-OF-CONTROL EMPLOYEE TURN-OVER - The department is understaffed, and no force on earth, not even the best HR, can hide that they are in a hell of an emergency to find new employees asap.
  6. TOO MUCH EAGERNESS - No, wait! Correction - "TOO DESPERATE" to tie the knot and hire you - immediately if possible with a contract with yesterday's date, because - again - their people are dropping like flees.
  7. ILLEGAL QUESTIONS - HR pushes your boundaries by asking you many personal questions that are none of their business. By doing this, the interviewer "helps" you solidify your impression of toxicity, as it shows the company's selfish stance for their own organizational goals only, without consideration for their employees` aspirations or overall well-being.
  8. CHAOS - HR is disorganized, unprofessional, and not responsive - it may take ages till you get a reply, or you are not kept in the loop at all.
  9. LACK OF CLARITY - The interviewer avoids answering your questions, especially the tough ones.
  10. TOO MANY FREEBIES ASKED FROM YOUR SIDE - As - supposedly - a way to test your skills. This includes a full trial day, an unpaid assignment, etc. That should be rejected - or at the very least negotiated to something reasonable or require to be paid.
  11. SLIDING THROUGH THE SURFACE - Throughout the whole time, you may feel something is missing, or things are not quite right. And you may very well be right.
  12. TOO LONG OR TOO SHORT INTERVIEW PROCESS - Both can be symptomatic of deeper organizational problems. Timing is not a reason to ditch a potential employer, but in combination with several other warning signs- it may as well be.
  13. MICROMANAGEMENT & INFLATED ORGANIZATIONAL IMPORTANCE - Asking the whole team of your future department and all the other departments` team leads to "check you out" before they make up their "mind" for you - like you are some kind of purchase goods.
  14. “VIVA” ALL-IN-ONE JOB MULTITASKING! - Lack of clarity for your role specifics, or including duties of other job titles into yours.
  15. THE FAMILY "BRAINWASH" - Beware of organizations that emphasize too much that they are just "one big happy family." Typically, such companies (much like cults, by the way) conveniently use the "family" factor as an entry point to, later on, introduce unacceptable practices like too many overtime hours, underpayment, and so on. Much healthier and mature organizations know the company is not your partner or spouse and encourage "work-life" balance without exploiting the word "family."
  16. YOU ARE SILENCED - The interviewer entirely seems to forget to ask if you have questions. If being silenced happens to you, especially if other toxic signs accompany it, you should not end up at such a company anyway. You choose your own employer and not the other way around.
  17. LOW BALL OFFER - typically garnished with the excuse they can't offer you more, so you are left in a "take it or leave it" losing stance.

Key takeaways

These are the 17 most common toxic company culture interview signs we have identified in our practice and collected for your awareness and TOP performance at any interview! The list, of course, is non-exhaustive.

Lastly, in any case - even if you managed to raise the lowball offer the toxic organization may have thrown your way, in case you observed more than 4-5 signs of the above list, you may be better off declining the offer.

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How To Spot Toxic Work Culture At The Interview: 17 Signs To Watch Out For
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Liliya Foteva
Work Psychologist and Grant writer with 10 yrs experience in the Corporate & Social domain. Communication is my middle name! I love to travel, read (usually a la playa :) ) and chill with friends!
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