How to uncover a potentially toxic culture when interviewing for a job

I recently gave my thoughts to this Forbes.com piece on “3 Interviewing Strategies To Uncover A Toxic Team.”

Here are some further detailed insights on how you as a candidate can uncover a potentially toxic team or culture when you’re interviewing for jobs.

Many employees want to know how they can progress at a company and they want to have a clear structured path with clear objectives.

They want to know how a company’s vision relates to them and they want to feel a part of the company’s story.

They value equality in an organisation too, it's not good if an employee perceives a team being treated differently to his or her team. If an employee can tie their personal dreams to the success of the company, then it’s a win-win situation.

Not many companies have an 'employee value proposition', so asking whether this exists in an interview is a good first question. If a company dismisses this, or struggles to answer the question, it could be an indicator that their culture could be toxic, or at least that the needs of employees aren’t a top priority.

Websites like Glassdoor can paint a rosy picture of what it’s like to work at a company, but there are often different cultures from team to team – it’s dangerous to assume that a positive company culture exists all the way through an organisation.

So two good questions to ask would be “are there any ways in which this team’s culture differs from the company culture?” and “what would you say is the most important aspect of the company culture and the culture within the team?”

Throughout my career, the one thing that most people I have recruited and coached look for first and foremost is a good manager. It’s usually the most common reason why someone looks to leave a company – if an individual isn’t supported or doesn’t feel like the manager has his or her back then it’s not sustainable.

If there is supportive management, where they empower their staff to do great work rather than micro-manage, then that usually means there is a positive culture.

It’s important to question your potential new manager on their views around training and onboarding, career development, flexibility around working from home and working hours and work-life balance.

Be careful not to fall into the trap of assuming that a company offers certain perks across all teams - it’s usually down to a line managers discretion as to how they implement these, so rather than ask questions like “can I work from home?” ask open ended questions like “how often do the team work from home at the moment”?

This will give you a greater insight into how the line manager implements company policies – if their answers fill you with any doubts, then that’s usually a good indicator that something could be wrong and not match your expectations.

With anyone that you meet in an interview process, it’s important to get their perspective on the positives and negatives of the company and team you could be working for. Any organisation and team has negatives – it’s a fact of the workplace.

So don’t be afraid to ask challenging questions like “what steps do you take to keep employees highly motivated?” and “why do you think people leave the company, and this team?” You can often gauge a lot from their responses and their body language.

If they come across as calm and honest, it’s usually a good indicator of a positive culture. If they look flustered, taken aback and look to dodge those types of questions, it could be an indicator of a toxic culture.

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