Here are eight danger signs to watch out for when you’re applying for a job:
[See 50 Best Careers for 2011.]
1. Flakiness. The job description seems to be a work in progress that keeps changing. You’re told that you’ll be reporting to finance and later it changes to operations. They say they’ll get back to you within 48 hours and you hear nothing. You arrive for your interview with Bob and learn that you’ll be meeting with Jane instead. Guess what it’s going to be like to work there?
Of course, there can be legitimate reasons for any of the above. But an organized company will realize that these things can look flaky and will acknowledge it and explain what’s going on. It’s an absence of any awareness or concern about how this may be coming across that should alarm you, because it indicates it’s not anything out of the ordinary for this company.
2. Taking a long time to get back to you. This is common, but it’s still worth looking at. You want to work somewhere that can move quickly and make decisions and respects people enough not to let them languish. Companies are sending you a powerful message about their culture when they’re responsive or at least let you know what their timeline is—and they send an equally powerful message when they don’t.
3. Not updating you when a timeline changes. Every job seeker knows how agonizing it is to be expecting to hear back by a certain date, only to have that date come and go with no word. You want to work in a culture where people do what they say they’re going to do, or update you accordingly. This is about simple respect, and once you’re working there, it will also be about your ability to get things done.
4. High turnover in the position or department. High turnover means one of two things: a willingness to replace poor performers (good) or lots of people running away from a disaster (bad). Your job is to find out which one it is. For instance, ask, “It sounds like you’ve had some turnover recently. What’s been behind that?” It’s unlikely that anyone will come out and say, “The boss is a nightmare to work for,” but you should be able to get some sense of what’s going on from the type of answer you get.
5. Zero turnover, ever. You’ll know why this is a bad sign if you’ve ever had your quality of life destroyed or your effectiveness diminished by someone who your company should have fired but didn’t. You want to work for an employer that has high standards, holds people accountable, addresses problems, and gets rid of people when needed, because you want to have coworkers who pull their weight.
6. Rude or inconsiderate interviewers. If your interviewer treats you like you’re an unwelcome interruption, beware. It probably says something about the employer’s culture. The same goes for employers who ask you to do inconvenient things, such as interviewing on just a few hours notice, and don’t bother to acknowledge or apologize for the inconvenience. (To be clear, sometimes a great employer might ask you to do something inconvenient; the key is that they’ll realize it and be appreciative.)
7. No interest in your side of the transaction. An employer who doesn’t seem interested in ensuring that you get to know them and that you have a solid understanding of what the job entails is an employer that likely doesn’t think much about its employees. You want an employer that recognizes that they should be wooing you just as much as you’re wooing them.
8. Lack of transparency. Do you feel like they’re trying to sell you something? Are they painting a picture of a job that sounds way too good to be true? Smart employers will be honest not just about the upsides of a job, but also about the downsides. Employers who try to downplay the less attractive aspects of the job—like boring work or long hours—end up with employees who don’t want to be there. Look for truth in advertising, and you won’t end up feeling snowed once you’re on the job.
Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Leader's Guide to Getting Results and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development. She now teaches other managers how to manage for results.