In a previous job search, I approached two friends for advice who had walked with me through significant work achievements and challenges. Besides knowing me well, we were all together for this conversation, making it more difficult for me to ignore their feedback — more difficult, but not impossible.
As I laid out the pros and cons of an opportunity that I had been offered, it was clear that my friends were concerned about several red flags. Since I was exhausted from the job search, I ignored my gut and did my best to make the case for pursuing it anyway. Their advice didn't change, and when the opportunity turned out exactly as they had described —and as my gut had told me — I gained a healthy dose of humility.
The most important time to evaluate a company is before accepting the job, as you decide whether an opportunity merits the skills and sweat that you’ll bring to the next stage of your career. Staying connected to supportive networks of other job searchers and listening to your personal intuition (that has lived through your work joys and pains to date!) are important ways to make sure that you’re talking yourself out of the wrong opportunities. In case your intuition isn’t catching these yet, here are five red flags to look for in the job search process.
While a few bad reviews isn’t cause for alarm, a succession of negative reviews means that the organization has some work to do before you join them. If you can, filter reviews by Most Recent in order to see these trends (this once helped me see 15 negative reviews back-to-back!). Fairygodboss is filled with company reviews from women about the gender equity & culture of their workplaces.
In previous job searches, I’ve been asked how many children I’d like to have, what criteria I use to evaluate romantic partners, what activities I was involved with way back in high school, and inquiries into the financial status of my previous employers (which would have been illegal to answer). Even if the organization responds appropriately when you report the behavior, ask yourself: How senior was the person who asked you these questions? If they are in a supervisory role, what does this indicate about how leaders are hired, promoted and trained at the organization? How long has this person been working at the company, and why hasn’t this behavior been addressed before?
I interviewed with a company that spoke regularly about its passion for people: both its staff and its clients. When I looked on the company website for its leadership, I saw people who were predominantly of the same age, race, and gender. A lack of diversity at the top of the organization often indicates a struggle for equity and inclusion at the bottom; research shows entry-level representation disappears with the first rung of promotions. It’s easy for a company to speak about Diversity and Inclusion, but actions speak louder than words.
Despite other leaders' best intentions to shield and deflect, senior leaders have the greatest impact on your ability to do your job well and to stay psychologically healthy. Imperatives, performance metrics, policy decisions and the office environment are all determined from the top down. Although a middle manager can provide you with coaching and support, their influence is limited if their own supervisor isn't able to accept feedback and exhibit high emotional intelligence. If employees at the company are telling you that this is a current issue, it won’t be long before you’d experience it as well — and the organization may not be able to identify and terminate ineffective leaders.
Many small, private startups don’t have an HR representative on staff yet or these employees are just at the junior level. Regardless of whether or not there are employees with HR in their title, you should ask yourself: Who holds leadership accountable for equity around hiring, promoting and terminating? If I need accommodations, will there be a neutral party to advocate for me? Is there a safe way for employees to report harassment or unethical practices without fear of retaliation? Whose job is focused on creating the ideal conditions for employees to perform at their best? An organization whose leaders understand the importance of having these practices in place is thinking about the well-being of its employees and welcomes the accountability and feedback loop that HR can provide.
There are organizations out there that care deeply about treating their employees well and won’t raise these red flags for you. As you get further context about an opportunity through the job search process, remember that you can make the best decision for yourself based on what you’ve uncovered about the company culture and leadership.
Kristen Yealy works as a Relationship Manager at BetterUp, where she consults with companies who are using BetterUp’s people analytics & coaching services to drive organizational change through personalized 1:1 development. She previously worked as a Director of Enrollment Services at 2U, where she built out the company’s first in-depth consultative sales training and worked with department leadership to develop a more effective yield process across their graduate program offerings. She has her M.S.Ed. in Counseling and Mental Health Services from the University of Pennsylvania.
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