By Rebecca Zucker
Partner, Next Step Partners
Originally published in Harvard Business Review.
Job interviews are a two-way process — you’re interviewing your potential boss and employer as much as they’re interviewing you. After all, you don’t just want any job — you want the right job. According to a CareerBuilder survey, two-thirds of workers say they’ve accepted a job only to realize it was not a good fit, with half of them quitting in the first six months. There are several reasons this could happen, including feeling like you’ve been sold a false bill of goods or a realizing that the culture is not consistent with your values or even toxic.
The saying “caveat emptor” — buyer beware — applies when interviewing for a job. This isn’t to suggest that you should go into the interview process overly skeptical or suspicious, but rather to encourage you to be attuned to potential red flags in the interview process that warrant your attention, as they can indicate larger issues with your potential boss, team, or the organization as a whole. Here are 10 red flags to watch out for.
People are busy and things may unexpectedly come up, so it’s not unusual that an interview may at some point need to be rescheduled. Yet, when it happens multiple times, it’s an indication that something is amiss. “If things get rescheduled let’s say twice, and they want to reschedule a third time, that’s it. That’s too much,” said Susan Peppercorn, an executive and career coach. “There has to be some real extenuating circumstances that get explained to you because your time is valuable just as much as their time is valuable. And it’s sending a message that says you’re not that important. And I think employers today have to be extremely conscious about getting back to job candidates quickly, communicating with them clearly, and treating them as if they were employees…because otherwise job candidates are going to go somewhere else.”
Caroline Stokes, an executive coach and leadership strategist, concurred, adding that constant rescheduling means “They don’t prioritize the people or the placement. They are not cognizant of the war for talent. If things are scattered, and they’re all over the place or they’re disorganized, it’s absolutely a red flag.” This includes their communication with you (or lack thereof). “If the recruiter or the hiring manager ghosts you for a considerable period of time — and by a considerable period of time, I’m talking a week, that’s a red flag,” Stokes said. It shows a lack of transparency and inability to communicate properly.
Every organization has some natural tensions or frustrations between different departments, such as sales and engineering. Are the people you’re meeting with during the interview process able to talk about challenges or tensions with other stakeholders in a constructive way, or do they do so disparagingly or disrespectfully? If it’s the latter, this is a red flag, not only indicating that the organization may be highly siloed, but also that there may be low psychological safety.
Stokes points out that if you participate in a panel interview, with two or more interviewers, it’s a good opportunity to observe the dynamics between the panelists. How do they interact with each other? Do they interrupt each other regularly? Does one person dominate the conversation, shutting the others down? What does their body language, including subtle micro-expressions, say, even if the interview is on Zoom?
A values mismatch is a big red flag. Get clear on what your most important values are before you start the interview process and have questions ready that will allow you to assess the company’s culture, the extent to which the organization shares your most deeply held values, and how well you’d be able to express your these values on the job.
For example, if you have a value of inclusion, and the company you are interviewing with says they are committed to this principle, what are they doing to ensure the workplace is, indeed, inclusive? How are they measuring it? Is the organization walking the talk or is it just lip service? “If you really are looking for a good, strong environment to commit to for the next few years, you need to be diligent about the values aspect,” Stokes shared.
Likewise, if you have a value of autonomy, you might ask your boss a question like, “Which decisions would you expect me to make, and which decisions would you want me to escalate to you?” Even if they tell you want you want to hear, take a “trust but verify” approach. Ask others who report to this leader what their experience has been in being given autonomy or to what extent have they been empowered with decision-making authority. A lack of convincing answers is a red flag.
As you ask questions throughout the interview process, how clear or precise are the answers you are given? Are the answers you receive vague or general statements, or does the interviewer give you tangible examples — the same as they’d expect from you? “If you don’t feel that you’re getting specific and direct answers, that’s a red flag,” said Peppercorn. You should ask follow-up probing questions until you feel like you’ve be given the specificity you need.
Throughout the interview process, you’ll be meeting with various stakeholders who will be important to your success in this role. Have a core set of questions that you ask each person to understand their perspective, as well as notice where there is alignment in their answers and, perhaps more important, where there is not. You’ll want to see that there is a fair degree of consistency in their answers from one person to the next. A different answer from one person may still be consistent and complement others’ responses, painting a fuller picture of the situation, role, or environment for you. Some variance is okay and is to be expected. It’s when you hear answers to the same question that are in direct conflict — or inconsistent — with others’ answers, that it’s a red flag.
When the job for which you are interviewing starts to sound very different from the initial job description that prompted your application, this is a red flag. To be sure, change is constant. Yet, if the hiring manager doesn’t explicitly highlight or call out the change, it can be an indication that they don’t communicate or manage change well with key stakeholders, both internally and externally.
Likewise, if the change in the scope of the role suddenly makes the job less interesting to you, this is well worth noting. “They may be moving so quickly that they haven’t stopped long enough to be able to explain to job candidates well that ‘Yes, we said this in our job description, but over the past 30 days, our needs have changed…so we really need the person to focus in this area instead of that area.’,” Peppercorn said. “That [lack of communication] would make me a little concerned about does the organization know what they’re doing?”
In the limited Showtime series Super Pumped that chronicles the rise of Uber and its toxic leadership during that time, it is no surprise to anyone that the hubris-filled “bro-culture” was revealed immediately by Travis Kalanick’s first interview question, “Are you an a**hole?” The only correct answer to this question (if you wanted a job there at the time) was “Yes.” There is no brighter shade of scarlet than that particular red flag. While you may not be asked a question as crude or blatant as this one, it’s entirely possible that an interviewer could ask a highly inappropriate or even illegal question or make an inappropriate comment.
If you receive a question or comment that is ageist, sexist, racist, or equally offensive, it is an obvious red flag that this organization not only has poor training, but also likely tolerates bad behavior — or just as bad, has not addressed unconscious bias in its talent management practices, including recruiting.
A good interview is an engaged two-way conversation that leaves both parties feeling energized and excited about the possibility of working together. When there is a lack of energy or connection and the interviewer doesn’t seem engaged, is not smiling, seems distracted, and/or is robotically asking questions as if following a script and not really trying to get to know you, that is not a good sign. “If you notice that the people that you’re talking to don’t seem engaged… it could be that they’re going through the motions because they already have somebody else lined up for the position,” Peppercorn said. “So, if somebody’s interviewing you, but they know that they’ve found the person that they want, they’re likely not to be so enthusiastic during the interview.”
Likewise, there can be a sudden shift in the energy or engagement from one round of interviews to the next. Stokes shared that a client of hers said after a second round of interviews, “The first interview was really great. You know, there was great chemistry….The second interview, not so great. There was no chemistry there. There was no warmth.” She immediately thought, “Yeah, because they like somebody else.” Stokes said that the sudden shift in enthusiasm was a red flag that they’d found another candidate that they preferred, and they just didn’t want to cancel the interview because they wanted to make sure that they their hunch was right. She added, “It’s also a sign that they don’t know how to communicate effectively.”
Open positions exist because an organization needs someone to improve the current situation — to build better products, create operational efficiencies, attract new clients, improve departmental performance and the like. Making improvements in the business requires change. A client of mine, “David,” was hired by his last employer to improve the organization’s customer support function. While he was hired to turnaround the department and create change, his boss’s boss ultimately didn’t want change and felt threatened by it. Since she was the one with the power, it didn’t turn out so well for David. I asked him what red flags there were in his interviews, and he noted that she had said to him, “I may have opinions about this [function], since I used to do this years ago.”
At the time, her answer didn’t really faze him, since most managers are going to have an opinion. But a simple follow-up question might have raised an important red flag, such as, “How do you deal with others who have different opinions?” He may have gotten more useful information here from both her words and body language, and from those who worked with her to see what their experience was of how she handles conflicting points of view. Sadly, it was her way or the highway. Even worse, as it turned out, she had worked in that function decades prior and much had changed since then, including the technology that she was woefully unfamiliar with. She overrode my client’s improvement recommendations in favor of outdated practices that hadn’t been used since the 1980s versus more efficient methods and technologies he proposed. It was frustrating — every day felt demoralizing and like an uphill battle to David.
Stokes shared that some hiring managers “just don’t have an improvement mindset. They may just be so old school they just want to keep it the way things are…You’ve got to keep your ears wide open on that.”
In an ideal world, the interview process itself would be efficient and optimize (versus maximize) stakeholder involvement and alignment, and not take more than a few months. A red flag arises when the number of interviews becomes excessive, and the process drags on for an extended period of time. Either (or both) of these can be a sign that the team or organization is overly consensus driven, indecisive, or has issues driving things to completion.
While the number of interviews and duration of the interview process is likely to be positively correlated with the level of the position (e.g., a C-suite interview process may take longer than a more junior position, as the stakes are higher, and the rest of the C-suite and board members will be involved), Peppercorn considers 10 to 12 interviews to be excessive. (She’s seen up to 14). While this many interviews could make sense for a C-level candidate, it does not for a director. She said, “It should be the hiring manager that makes that decision, so why do you have to have 14 interviews? What is that saying about the organization and its ability to get things done?” Some companies, like Google, are actively taking steps to shorten drawn-out interview processes to be more competitive in the war for talent.
Exploding offers are job offers that are given with a firm deadline (often on a very tight timeline), beyond which, the offer expires. While rare, these still occur on occasion. One client of mine was given an offer at one company on a Friday afternoon and was told he had until Monday to decide. He was still interviewing with his dream employer and succumbed to the pressure from the first company and the security of having an offer of employment versus tolerating the uncertainty that remained with his ideal company (which incidentally ended up backfiring for the company whose offer he accepted, as he left months later when the job at the dream employer finally came through).
An exploding offer is basically an ultimatum. Ultimatums don’t feel good or show respect for an individual’s desire to make a thoughtful career decision and weigh their options that will affect their career and livelihood for years to come. It shows rigidness, insecurity, and even bullying behavior on the employer’s part (not to mention a big blind spot in their awareness of how the company will be perceived in the talent market). Do you want to join a company because you are under duress to do so, or because you genuinely are excited to work there? When people (or organizations) show you who they are, believe them. Companies that issue exploding offers are not likely to respect your wants and needs once you’re on the job, and are likely to be inflexible, bullying and autocratic.
While no one can perfectly predict how a new job will turn out, staying alert to the potential red flags mentioned above during the interview process can help weed out suboptimal employment options. Being observant in your interviews as well as attuned to how the process is managed, asking good follow-up questions, and doing your due diligence can help mitigate the chances of making a bad decision.