How to identify a toxic culture before accepting a job

You did it. You landed the interview for a job that seems to check all the boxes. The salary is right and the job description is in your wheelhouse. As exciting as it is to get called in for an interview, you don’t have the job yet.

When the day of the interview comes, you’ll face a whirlwind of questions from your potential employer to help them determine if you’re a good fit. Most interviews focus heavily on necessary skills, but there’s more to a job than that.

How do you know if you’re walking into a toxic environment?

When being interviewed, you should already be looking for indicators to decide if this is the right job for you. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to finding a toxic culture before you get hired, but there are some flags you can look for during the interview process to help you make a better decision.

Listen to what’s not being said

According to studies performed by UCLA’s Professor Emeritus of Psychology Albert Mehrabian, only about 7% of communication comes from the actual words spoken. The other 93% comes from body language (55%) and tone of voice (38%).

Knowing this, make a note of how people are communicating during your initial office tour. Is there a sense of fear or panic in their body language or tone of voice? Or is there a genuine excitement and passion?

Another warning sign of a toxic culture comes when people need to eat meals at their desk.

As you’re taking the tour, look — or smell — for signs of this. When leadership doesn’t have a good process in place for scaling, people are left scrambling.

Take a restroom break

As silly as it sounds, you can tell a lot about the company’s culture by how well maintained their bathroom is. World-renowned chef Anthony Bourdain wrote in his book Kitchen Confidential about the importance of keeping the restroom clean. If they don’t, it leads to the imagination running wild with what the kitchen might look like.
The same concept can be applied to jobs outside of the restaurant industry.

If there’s an empty toilet paper roll, that’s a red flag. If someone didn’t care enough about the next person to take a few seconds out of their day to change the roll, what does that say about how they work together? This can be the sign of a culture where not taking the responsibility for each other’s well-being is commonplace.

Ask cultural questions in the interview

There’s always time to ask questions either during an interview or as you’re being given the office tour. Take advantage of these opportunities to get a peek into the culture.

A great place to start is by asking about their core values. In a positive company culture, everyone can identify what the core values are and what they mean. Are they real values or are they just used as decoration hanging on the wall around the office? For example, if “Trust” is a core value but you noticed people locking up the belongings on their desk during your office tour, that’s a red flag for a toxic culture.

Sometimes you can get an idea of how strong a company’s culture is, by how much they try to guard it during the interview. As the gatekeepers to the culture, are your interviewers asking you questions that are helping them decide if you’re a cultural fit? Or are they entirely focused on your skillset and just looking to check off the boxes to get the job filled?

Every company gives their employees a basic paycheck, but few go further to truly build a culture that matters. As you’re looking for a new place to work, keep this in mind as you think beyond the size of the paycheck and the skills to do the job. Some people can endure a toxic work environment. Some might be able to do great work under negative conditions. But you shouldn’t have to. Life is too short to not love the place you work.

Piyush Patel is the author of Lead Your Tribe, Love Your Work: An Entrepreneur’s Guide to Creating a Culture That Matters