Typically, before you apply to a job, you evaluate it against a few factors: title, pay, commute, responsibilities, and maybe the growth of the particular industry/sector.   But there’s one much more important factor people don’t often consider beforehand, probably because we don’t want to dampen our enthusiasm.  It’s this: could this employer have a toxic work culture?

After all, it’s a long-held maxim in the career world that “people don’t leave jobs; they leave bosses.”  Think about it: a commute can be awful, but if it’s the right boss who gives you great opportunities, and a fun work culture, you stick it out for a year or two, at least.  But if you go to a job that has a toxic work culture and listen to infighting, bullying, manipulating and a constant threat of getting fired, you’re going to be looking for a new job pretty much immediately.

Kathy Robinson, TurningPoint’s founder, recently had a chance to talk to Megan Leonhardt at Money Magazine about this very topic, and you can read more about that here: TIME/Money.com: How to Steer Clear of a Wells Fargo-like Toxic Culture.

Here are her top ways to identify a toxic work culture before it’s too late:

Online research:

  • Immediately look up the company on Glassdoor to see what employees have to say.  Of course, companies can post fake positive reviews, but typically if you see more than one negative review, pay careful attention.
  • Look up the company on Twitter and Facebook and look for hashtags or comments related to its product and/or customer service to see if customers are constantly complaining.  If you see a lot of external complaints, typically the internal culture isn’t so great, either.
  • Look for clues on the company’s own website.  How do they speak about their work culture?  If you see something along the lines of “work hard, play hard” it’s likely not a company that supports work/life balance.  Or “we only hire top talent” translates to “you better be on your A game every day, buddy, or we make your life a living hell.”
  • If you know the department that the role is in, research LinkedIn to find the department head.  Look at that person’s published recommendations.  From what you see, does it sound like the person’s a good mentor?  Also look at the CEO’s published recommendations, if any exist.  If all you see are good technical skills or results orientation, and no mention of mentorship, positive leadership, or creation of a good work culture, you know that you may have a tough set of bosses to please.

Get references:

  • Sure, the company gets to do reference checks on you, but there’s no reason it can’t be a two-way street.  See if you can find someone who knows someone at the company, who can tell you first-hand what it’s like to work there.
  • Also see if you can find a recruiter who’s placed people there or recruited people from there, and ask their honest opinion about the culture.  If it so happens that a recruiter told you about the job in the first place, you’re less likely to get an honest answer, but you can often read between the lines of what they say and don’t say about the culture.  “Good people get promoted” or “it’s a great industry and a great place to be for a few years” both leave out “everyone else gets harassed” and “you’re going to want to jump ship after a year or two, but hey, it will look good on your resume.”

Your own experience being interviewed:

  • Keep your eyes and ears WIDE open during the interview process.  You can learn a lot about the culture just by listening and observing, without ever needing to ask “what’s the culture like here?” (although you can certainly ask that directly once it gets close to the offer stage, if you’d like).
  • Observe their communications with you beforehand.  Do they seem respectful of your time?  Do they follow up in a timely manner when setting up interviews?  Do they provide you helpful information about the role or the interview process?
  • Evaluate how prepared they seem for the interview process.  Is there an actual, written job description?  If not, are they in alignment about what they expect from the role, or do they seem like they’re collaborating with each other and you in figuring it out?  Also, when you talk to the hiring manager, does it seem like he/she has actually read your resume or LinkedIn profile beforehand?
  • Watch how people interact at the work site itself, in the elevator, in the lobby, with the receptionist, and passing each other in the hallway.  Do you see happy “hello’s” or grumpy, quiet people too burnt out to greet each other?  Do you hear any snippets of drama as people pass you by?
  • Listen carefully to how the boss speaks about other employees, either in your future department or in other departments.  Does it seem like there’s an internal war going on, or do you hear any disparagement of future colleagues?
  • Pay attention to the actual interview time of day and what’s happening in the office then.  Are they asking you to interview at 5PM, and are people still buzzing around, working hard at that point?  Although they might be interviewing you at that time as a favor to you, it’s also possible that they don’t promote work/life balance.

Post-interview follow-up:

  • Evaluate their responsiveness to you.  After you send your thank-you note (you remembered that, right?), do you hear back from the hiring manager and/or recruiter thanking you for your time coming in?  (That’s not a common move, but if you DO get something like this, it’s a great sign of a respectful communication style.)
  • Watch what time of day the hiring manager sends you an email: is it 9PM?  Or on a weekend?  That’s a red flag that you’d likely get work-related emails while you’re trying to enjoy a nice family dinner.
  • If they ask for you to provide a work sample, or create something for them, notice how clearly (or not) they articulate their instructions for the assignment?  Do they give you a reasonable amount of time to complete the assignment?  In one case, a candidate was asked on Friday for a vaguely-worded assignment to be completed by Monday, then the boss emailed her Saturday to ask for it Sunday instead (which happened to be a holiday).  Yikes.

Let’s say you’ve done all that, but you’re still not sure.  If you’ve gone through several interviews and done your homework, but still can’t tell whether it’s a toxic work culture or not, then AFTER they make you an offer, ask for a follow-up conversation with the boss.  You can ask “I’d like to understand how I can integrate quickly into the team, so do you mind if I ask you a few questions about your work style and the company culture?” and then ask about management style, communication patterns, and how they view employee training and growth.  You can inquire about the biggest challenge you’d face when starting the job, and how aligned the other departments are with the goals you’d have on your plate.

It’s possible (but unlikely) that an employer’s really, really good at hiding this kind of information, and that you find yourself with a toxic boss or a toxic work culture.  I hope that’s not true, but if it is, here’s my Huffington Post article on coping with a toxic boss.