The job interview is the first “gate” in a process that could set your career on a path to long-term success or could set you on a path to “corporate roadkill”. The first interview with a company is like the first date, with a potential spouse. But how many of us really take the time to investigate and ask the right questions to ensure future long-term career success.
The initial excitement of getting a job interview for your dream company or position can quickly overshadow all the pertinent questions or subtle cues that indicate serious problems in an organization. We often become hyper-focussed on leaving a good impression, while ignoring potential warning signs that could hurt future career progression.
Job interview preparation, with the sole purpose of getting the job, can have dire consequences for your future career progression and overall career prospects. We often forget that the hiring process is a two-way street. Just as a company wants to ensure that you’re the right fit for them, you need to make sure that the company and position are a good fit for you. Otherwise, you could end up at a job that makes you depressed — suffer a meltdown or end up in a situation where it takes a serious toll on your physical, emotional or mental health.
It is no surprise that workplace stress has been characterized as the new “Health Epidemic of the 21st Century” by the World Health Organization and is set to cost US Businesses a whopping $300 billion per year. Recent statistics suggest that roughly 40 percent of Canadian workers have experienced bullying in the workplace, and of these, nearly half suffer stress-related health issues as a result. Bullying is defined in this context as any behaviour that causes another individual to feel threatened, intimidated and/or humiliated in the workplace, and it is disturbingly common. In many cases, employers do not have proper infrastructure in place to handle these issues.
So, how do you make sure that your career doesn’t suffer irreparable damage? Keep an eye out for the following 8 red flags during the interview process. If one of them is present, you’ll want to think carefully about moving forward.
1. Extremely High Turnover
Employees leaving a company six months to a year after they start the job — or having many employees leave all at once — is a pretty strong indication of extremely high-turnover. If you start the job on day one – and realise there are all but 2 of you on the team, because everyone else left the team in droves, that’s definitely a red flag. However, at this stage its already too late. Not only will you have to start a job on an understaffed team – you may have to do the work of two or three people, without getting recognition for your efforts (No Manager is going to admit that a team is severely understaffed because no one will come and work for them). Yet these Managers persist in organizations and are even protected because they are “task masters”, who over-supervise but they are NOT good leaders.
Very poor management, non-competitive pay, poor interviewing, and lack of co-worker support… are some of the major reasons for high-turnover. When you are an external candidate for a position, its hard to tell what the internal culture is like. The Manager interviewing you may have a reputation internally as “The One” to avoid at all costs.
Rarely will a company freely offer this information up without prompting, so you should “ask how long people at your experience level stay with the company?”, and how the company promotes employee engagement to get a better idea of the retention rate.
Companies should also be conducting exit interviews to really gauge what’s going on and why employees leave. If there is no formal exit interview process – that’s also a red flag. It must be systematically implemented and the results conveyed to senior management on an ongoing basis. The sad fact is a lot of organizations are operating in a constant state of inertia – the wheels are spinning but nobody cares about the mental or emotional health of employees.
2. An Overriding Need to get the position filled
Some organizations are so desperate in replacing talent that their primary goal is to “get a bum in a chair” – regardless of which bum it is. After all, the work must get done. You may notice in the interview that your resume is quickly skimmed over with no great thought or detail put into the interview questions, or no thought or suggestions offered up for your future career progression. This is a tell-tale red flag that you should not ignore. After you start the job you may quickly notice that your Manager has little to no knowledge of your skills and competencies, because that was simply not the primary goal at the interview stage. The problem with this scenario is that you may be treated like a novice employee – relegated to the more mundane tasks that must get done rather than one who is primed and is seen as a high-potential employee to take on a leadership position in the organization, and given the requisite files and projects to go with it.
It can be tempting to think that an immediate job offer after an extremely short interview is a sign of the organization’s eagerness to get you on board — but it may really indicate that the organization is desperate to fill the position without consideration as to whether or not you’re the right fit.
However, the flipside of that, an unnaturally extensive hiring process, isn’t necessarily much better. That may also be a sign of a heavily bureaucratic organization. Industry experts indicate that the average interview process takes about 23 days, so use that figure as a frame of reference.
3. A Job Description with no Clear Focus
Even if you’ve landed an interview, you should still be wary of a job description that’s confusing as to the details. We all celebrate the employee who can multi-task and can fill in here and there whenever possible, however, I would generally shy away if the interviewer doesn’t have a really good handle on the essence of the role.
If the file set (or set of tasks) in the job description seems incoherent with a lack of inter-linkages among files – then you guessed it – a set of random tasks that no one else is interested in – is a good guess. Look at the job descriptions of the roles in the organization that are at the very senior levels – do you see your potential file set represented? Do you see the set of competencies that your file set would potentially give you represented in the job description? It could mean this role that you’re interviewing for isn’t a feeder position to more senior roles.
The other barrier that organizations put up by not being forthcoming with incoming employees in the interview, is about the requirements for moving up. Having senior managers with certain sets of qualifications but not ensuring that incoming employees are aware that to reach the next level (directly above the level at which you are currently interviewing) you may need to have a Certified Professional Accounting designation (for example) is never good. This indicates a lack of interest in future upward mobility and can potentially leave you “stuck at first base”, when you realise that just to get to the next level, you need a designation, that the company is unwilling to pay for and that may take a substantial amount of time to achieve. So after you have invested two to three years in the company, a job listing is advertised, that is directly on your team – that you are not even “qualified for” (even though you’ve been doing the job) because it has listed all sorts of qualifications which you never had in the first place – but no one bothered to mention that it would be needed for the next level.
4. Lack of Clearly Defined Criteria for Success
Even if the job description is well written with clear interlinkages between files, a company may not have a good handle on the criteria for success in the role — so asking about that early on is critical.
If you are interviewing for a brand new position, it is likely that the company will not know all the details yet about the goals and expectations for the role. However, if the company has absolutely no idea about the high-level description of what constitutes successful performance in a brand new role or an established role, it may be a sign that things at the company are disorganized, uncertain or in flux. If this is the case, you will want to consider how much ambiguity you are willing to tolerate — will you be fine with taking on multiple roles? Do you do well with changing targets? Do you thrive in an environment with a lot of change? If it is difficult to figure out what success looks like in your role, it may also be difficult to figure out whether you should get raises, bonuses, or promotions, too. Be wary if you ask these questions and the answer is a casual – “well it depends” it may well be that performance criteria is a moving target and is subject to a Manager feels about you on any given day.
5. Putting Down Past Employees
Hearing about the mistakes of past employees during the interview process (and even afterwards) can be an indication of a problematic company culture. If your interview turns into a confessional about your predecessor’s formatting skills then that company is probably not for you. In addition, Managers who zero in on seemingly insignificant errors that are important but cannot be used to gauge an employee’s overall performance, are typically signs of a micro-manager.
If any of your interviewers insult or badmouth anyone else, whether in the organization or out, this indicates that the organization views negativity as acceptable, and could signal a toxic environment.
6. No Explanation About Why the Role Is Open
It’s easy to be so excited about a new job that you don’t even think about why it’s opened up in the first place, but forgetting to ask why is a big missed opportunity.
Although the company will have to abide by human resources rules and respect the privacy of the previous employee, they should be able to give you some general sense of what happened to that employee — did the employee leave after six months? Was the employee promoted to another role in the company? Did the employee accept a promotion outside of the company? If you ask why the position is vacant and interviewer gives vague answers or completely dodges the question, this can be a red flag that the relationship with the previous employee ended badly. While you might never find out both sides of the story, if the employee was the reason for the departure, the company would likely share the general circumstances. If the company caused the fallout, they may want to avoid disclosing that information. If it seems to be the latter, make sure to ask more questions about the company’s culture.
7. Lack of Success Stories of Previous Employees in the Role
The past is a good indication of the future. Many interviewees don’t necessarily ask about the success of their predecessors. Past successes can indicate that the position or role is a “feeder position” or provides a good stepping stone to upward mobility within the organization. If on the other hand, you happen to hear that previous employees in the role ended up moving half way around the country “to be with family” or ended up on stress leave then even if the position is a promotion – I would seriously reconsider it.
The other indication is the length of time an employer takes to fill the position – has it been two years since the position has been vacant? If its taken an organization 2 years to fill a position, this may indicate other serious problems. Has everyone else turned it down? As mentioned above, not having the inside scoop on the internal culture of the organization can be a serious disadvantage in trying to evaluate the merits of working there. If you have serious doubts reach out to existing employees or friends who may know existing employees to get the inside scoop.
8. Heavy Concentration on Defined Roles/Files in the Organization
This is something that you may not pick up in the job interview unless you ask probing questions, but every organization has an internal structure in the way that the work is organized. Some organizations have a matrix structure where files are shared even across teams and managers while others have more vertical structures where files are set and you will have no control as to the set of files allotted to you. Without even knowing which files are deemed “the sexy ones’ – that lead to promotions or consistent recognition from senior management, you may get the files that lead to a long winding road nowhere. If in the job interview you hear a potential manager say “Well, I’ll just place you on this file, until we get a more Junior employee to come in” – make sure to get timelines as to how long you will have to work on that file. The word ‘Junior”, is the operative word here – as that’s a sign as to how the manager sees that file. You may realise after you’ve started the job that no one wanted the file and now you’re stuck with it (as the Junior employee never arrives).
You may also notice that the “sexy files” are held in such high esteem that they are held for a certain person or role. If on one team, employees aren’t encouraged to gain knowledge or participate in the work of all the files (I.e. there are walls put up so only certain people have knowledge or access) that’s a huge red flag.
Have you ever been in this situation? Tell us in the comments below.