How to Spot a Toxic Workplace Before Taking the Job, According to HR Experts

We spoke with four experts from the online MS in Human Resource Management program to identify the red flags of a toxic workplace and what to do if you end up in one.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, a string of layoffs affected companies across the country. Millions of workers lost their jobs or experienced extended furloughs, and career opportunities shrunk as stay-at-home orders lingered.

Over the past few months, however, that has all come to an end. It’s a job seeker’s market, and a historically high demand for labor has resulted in seemingly endless job openings and opportunities.

While it was safe to predict that most would return to their pre-pandemic positions or land new roles, there has been another trend at play: “The Great Resignation,” a nationwide movement in which employees are quitting their jobs in record numbers.

Whether this is due to recurring concerns over COVID-19, childcare issues caused by the pandemic, savings accumulated over lockdowns enabling workers to be choosier or just a general disinterest in returning to stressful or low-paying positions, businesses are having a tough time retaining employees and filling their open roles.

This means job seekers generally have the upper hand in negotiations, and many are able to avoid backtracking into toxic workplaces, instead landing roles they genuinely enjoy.

But how can you make sure you don’t fall into a stressful or negative work environment? We spoke with four faculty experts from the online MS in Human Resource Management program at USC Bovard College — Michael McGrath, Claudia Kropf, Trina Hoefling and Susan Berg — to identify the red flags of a toxic workplace and what to do if you end up in one.

What is a Toxic Workplace?

The easiest way to bypass a toxic workplace is to determine what you yourself consider toxic.

“First of all, you have to be clear what it is that you want, need and require from a workflow. Based upon that, you can begin to look for one that matches what you need,” McGrath told USC Online.

Hoefling agreed, adding that one person’s toxic workplace is another employee’s dream job environment.

“You can have a great culture that is very ambitious, forward-thinking, innovative, deadline-driven and very fast-paced and still have a climate of safety and opportunity and be very happy. Whereas somebody else would just wither on the vine in that highly competitive, fast-growth environment, regardless of the climate,” she said. “I think that’s a place to start — to really consider and know yourself well enough to know what kind of cultures you can do well in and thrive in and seek those out.”

To narrow down your options, make a list of your ideal workplace traits. That way, you’ll know exactly what to look for and can set personal expectations for the types of jobs you’ll apply to and accept.

What to Research Before an Interview

As a job seeker, you naturally research the hiring company before your interview so you can leave a lasting impression. But you shouldn’t be learning about the organization just to craft compelling responses to their questions — you should also be on the lookout to determine if the company is the right fit for you.

“Glassdoor is a pretty good window into the organization’s culture. And of course, you’re going to get some extreme malcontents and some extreme pleasers in the reviews. But still, it’s fairly insightful,” Hoefling advised.

And don’t stop your online investigation at Glassdoor. Complete a thorough Google search of the company, including its website and social profiles, to get a clear picture of leadership’s priorities, values and practices.

“Go to the website and look very hard at the values [and] the leadership team. You need to read up on what’s happened recently in the organization and check out the senior leadership, as those individuals have an incredibly big impact on the organization and its culture,” McGrath said.

You can also do a quick LinkedIn search to check if you have any connections within the company, Hoefling added. If you end up having a contact, you can ask them directly about the company’s culture and day-to-day work style.

Red Flags to Look Out for in Job Interviews

Once you head to the interview, keep an ear out for certain words or phrases that indicate the position will clash with your expectations, Berg advised.

“People talking in code words is an important indicator to watch out for. You’re looking for comments like ‘we work at a fast pace,’ and ‘we really want people to move fast.’ That’s code for a certain kind of environment, and that might not be the right environment for you. People are getting smarter about putting that kind of coded language in job descriptions. But you can certainly pick it up when you’re in a job interview,” she said.

Also pay attention to how the company treats you during the interview process. Are they responding in a timely manner? How lengthy is the application timeline? Are there any required practice tests or projects?

“Interviews … tell you about what’s acceptable for this company. How many hurdles did you have to jump over? How many people did you have to wait for? It tells you a lot,” Kropf said.

What Questions to Ask the Interviewer

The interview is your chance to ask the hiring manager about their company’s environment, communication style, cultural values, work-life balance and more.

Kropf recommends asking directly about communication channels in the workplace because it will give you greater insight into the hierarchies and collaborative nature of the workspace.

“You should say, ‘Tell me about your culture.’ How quickly and easily can they tell you about the culture? How does communication take place? How often do you hear from senior leaders? How often do you talk to your department? It tells you a lot,” Kropf said. “Ask them about how they handle ideas. Every employee wants to come in and work with everybody and have an impact. So if you have an idea, how are ideas handled here? If that surprises them, that might not be the place for you.”

She also emphasized the importance of paying attention to body language to see how your interviewer reacts to culture questions: “The questions aren’t as important as the actions that you get,” she explained.

Hoefling also stressed the importance of body language, explaining, “I would be listening more to the answers to my questions than worrying about the questions themselves. Get a sense of how they handle it.”

What to Do If You End up in a Toxic Workplace

In the worst-case scenario, you’ve ended up in a toxic environment despite doing your research and asking the right interview questions. It’s not the right fit, and you’re drained.

So, what do you do? Stick it out? Ask the human resources department for help? Hand in your resignation?

“You have to identify what the problem is,” Hoefling said. “Is it a climate issue? Is it a pure bullying issue? Is it a boss issue? If this is something within your control to fix, try to fix it. Change some things to make it better and problem solve.”

But if it’s not a problem you can fix internally, ask yourself if you can learn to accept the issue: “I’ve worked jobs before where I’ve had to be like, ‘All right, this isn’t illegal or unethical, so I can stick it out because I have to,’” Kropf said.

Another option? Go to HR for guidance or turn to a trusted person of power within the company for advice.

“You have to be careful, of course, of how you phrase things and who you turn to. Unless you’re willing to burn bridges, try to play by the rules as much as possible. But don’t be afraid to speak up because if we don’t speak up, we can’t change things,” Hoefling concurred.

Unfortunately, HR might not be able to fully address the cultural issues or workplace expectations that are plaguing you. If that’s the case and you’re truly unhappy, you have another option: You can quit. After all, as stated before, there are thousands of job options available, and plenty of companies are looking for new hires.

Remember, you have options, ones where you end up in a workplace that’s a better fit for your working style and personal success.

“There is more need for people — great, talented, technically skilled people — than there are people to fill those positions, so you can afford to drive a hard bargain. You shouldn’t have to work anywhere. You shouldn’t have to suffer in a place you’re not happy,” McGrath concluded.

Learn more about the online MS in Human Resource Management program at USC Bovard College today.

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