How to Spot a Toxic Culture in a Job Interview

December 4, 2023

How do you spot a toxic culture in a job interview?

It may sound cliché to say that a job interview is a two-way audition, but when it comes to discerning the culture of a potential employer, it’s true. Let’s not forget that the balance of power is not in your favor. The employer knows a lot more about what they're selling than you know about what you’re buying. Unless you know people on the inside, you have few sources of intelligence. Yes, Glassdoor and other online sources can help, but ultimately you must decode the culture based on fragments of qualitative data you glean during the interview process.

How do you do that? Focus on three related skills:

  1. Ask the right questions.
  2. Listen and interpret verbal responses.
  3. Observe and interpret nonverbal responses.

Efforts to conceal reveal

If your interviewers work in a toxic culture, they will try to hide it through surface acting. But in spite of their best efforts, they will unwittingly share the air in their building through mild and subtle indicators. Always remember, efforts to conceal reveal. Your job is to gather the clues and get to the truth.

Begin by setting the expectation up front that you would like the opportunity to ask some questions. Here are nine questions to help you spot a toxic culture in a job interview.

What do you like about working here?

Manuel Franz, the president and founder of PEC Consulting, suggests this question because, as he says, “If it makes them stumble and hunt for a good answer, you'll know. If they comment about some extraneous variable, such as location, etc., you'll know. If they get defensive, you'll know. If you get a generic and overly broad answer, such as ‘I like that my work is meaningful,’ you'll know.” Remember, questions elicit answers. And it’s in the answers that we reveal ourselves. Although general and seemingly innocuous, this question penetrates to culture. If you give a genuine and insightful answer, we learn a lot. If you give a scripted, politicized, or general non-answer, we’re on to you.

If you were in my position, would you take this job?

Anna Bilderbach, an HR learning and development manager at Western Growers, recommends that an interviewee ask this question and then watch the reaction. “Do they respond with absolute enthusiasm as they say yes? Are they hesitant? Or does their tone or body language say no?” I would add that you must pay attention to the response time. If the answer is a genuine yes, there’s no hesitation, no time to reflect or gather your thoughts. It comes out as a natural, uninterrupted response. If there’s stumbling or awkward pausing, that may be a warning sign. Watch the nonverbal cues. Does the interviewer's body language betray his or her words? You’re looking for consistency in what you hear verbally and what you see nonverbally.

What does your organization know and believe about psychological safety?

I love this question from Mark Holmes, a scrum master at Azusa Pacific University. If toxicity is about culture and psychological safety is about the heart of culture, this question gets to the heart. If you get a blank stare, you know you’re in trouble. If your interviewer has to formulate his or her own answer, you’re in trouble because what you’re looking for here is an institutional point of view. If the organization hasn’t put a stake in the ground on this topic, if they haven’t wrestled with their stewardship to create a climate of rewarded vulnerability, that’s a warning sign. Psychological safety isn’t a new concept, so it’s hard to make the excuse that you don’t know what it is and don’t have a stance. Every organization should have a stance. You either create culture by design or by default. In almost every case, toxic cultures represent the unintended consequences of culture by default.

What are your values and how do you hold people accountable to live them?

This question is related to the last one. If you’re creating culture by design, you know what your values are. If it’s culture by default, you don’t. But that’s only the first part of the question: If you have professed values as an organization, how do you ensure they are also your de facto values—the ones people actually live? Chris Deputy, a remote operation center manufacturing technician at Intel, uses this question. He points out that the interviewer should not only be able to explain how the organization holds employees accountable, but also vendors, contractors, customers, investors, and other stakeholders. If the interviewer doesn’t know the values, that’s a red flag. If the interviewer is searching for an answer and can’t explain how the organization holds people accountable to those values, that’s a second red flag. You’re looking for evidence that the organization knows, communicates, models, and reinforces its values—that they are alive, not just behind glass.

What happens to employees who make mistakes?

Shannon Rheault, founder & CEO at TAP, likes this question as a culture diagnostic. It’s another question that makes you dance if you have a toxic culture. Toxic cultures punish mistakes rather than turn them into learning opportunities. If the interviewer comes from a toxic culture, he or she won’t be able to look you squarely in the eye and say, “I’m glad you asked. We look at mistakes as opportunities to learn.” Instead, they slouch, stutter, look away, and then multiply words that don’t mean anything. And if you really want to press, follow up by asking, “Can you tell me about a time when you made a mistake. What happened?” Just sit and watch. The interviewer from the healthy culture will smile and tell you the story. The interviewer from the toxic culture will squirm, fidget, and try not to spill the truth.

What happens to employees when they challenge the status quo?

Watch the facial expressions, the tone of voice, the posture, the color or lack of color in the face. This may be the most revealing question of all. How do you fake a response? How do you sit there with equanimity when you know in your heart that your organization doesn’t tolerate dissent and retaliates against those who dare take on the status quo? Brian deFonteny, a lean transformation coach and adjunct professor at the University of Oklahoma, recommends this question as a cultural x-ray. This penetrating question demands an answer. You can’t be neutral.

These last three questions are for you:

Is the interview conversational or scripted?

This question is more powerful than it appears. As Alexandra Pallas, the director of product design and innovation at New Leaders Org points out, this question draws out the culture. A highly scripted interview is not genuinely concerned with getting to know a candidate, which is an indication that culture isn’t that important. If it were, the interviewer would be connecting with you to draw out your personality, values, and attitudes to see if you’re a match. It’s in the flow of natural conversation that this comes out. If you’re on the other end of a mechanical and highly scripted experience, that’s a dehumanizing signal. Think about it: Why would an interviewer exhibit a stiff, robotic style? It usually comes down to arrogance or fear, both symptoms of a toxic culture.    

Are there smiles and transparency?

Remember that most interviewers coming from toxic cultures are either culprits themselves or they are unhappy and trying to leave. In either case, they won’t be smiling and they won’t be transparent. If you ask about culture and they want to talk about perks, as Melanie Smolter, a digital marketing specialist at Lion’s Den, points out, you’re probably uncovering a toxic culture. If your question elicits legal or HR speak, the interviewer has gone into a defensive mode. The interview needs to be a genuine human-to-human encounter. If you feel uneasy or uncomfortable, or if you see they feel that way, something is off. My advice? Probe harder and deeper until you’re satisfied one way or the other.

How do you feel after the interview?

Finally, take stock of your thoughts and feelings. Did you feel heard? Did you feel appreciated? Did the experience pass the dignity test? Was it real? Are these people sterile and scripted or truly warm, happy, and engaged?

The quality of your next professional experience will largely depend on the culture of the organization. It’s up to you to ask intelligent questions to uncover the norms, values, assumptions, and patterns of the organization, and whether or not you want to be a part of it all. After you excavate the culture with these questions, ask yourself one final question, “Can I flourish here?” Now go tackle your next interview!

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