How to Spot Red Flags When Applying for a Job
Job applications take time, and the job offer is not guaranteed. To use your energy productively, think about job applications as networking opportunities. Before you apply for a job, you want to be confident that, at the very least, the experience of applying and interviewing there will be a positive one and you will make new professional connections.
Self-doubt may occasionally influence our clarity during the job search; after all, we are eager to start working and settle into the role. Red flags can happen at all stages of the hiring process. Don’t dismiss them: macroaggressions, micromanagement, false promises of growth, a rushed hiring process, many negative employee reviews on Glassdoor, interviewer’s reluctance to address your questions, too much focus on any of the gaps in your career instead of showing a collaborative attitude, a recruiter or an HR manager who does not fully understand the scope of the role, tense relationships between the leaders, a lot of rapid change in the organization, a very informal tone of the interviewer (including slang and swearwords), pressure tactics… and more.
A simple check on Glassdoor can reveal enough to make you want to look for other companies:
“Up until recently the company lacked solid leadership, the trickle effects could be felt throughout the company. With a new CEO hoping this changes.”
“Extremely rigid and strict manager, almost belittling to staff.”
“Strict rules and tracking. There is a feeling that you are in prison. You can be fired any time even for being not active on your computer for a couple of minutes. Only 1 week vacation. No work-life balance.”
“Salary is not competitive. Extreme internal competition.”
“Old LinkedIn profiles connected to the company page making it look bigger than it actually is. High turnover. Old-fashioned CEO doesn’t listen to anyone on the team.”
“Technology (systems) slow, processes aren’t always clear.”
Let’s review what you can do to recognize and eliminate these red flags.
1. Do your research before applying.
To save time and focus your energy, do as much research as you can prior to applying. This will ensure that you apply to organizations that are in line with your values and expectations. Your motivation to write a customized cover letter, network with their decision-makers, prepare for the interview, and keep in touch after the interview will be high. Enthusiasm is one of the key components of a productive job search, and we create our own enthusiasm.
The basic information you can uncover by researching the company includes its decision-makers, team size, investments, affiliations, dba names, business standing, locations, and offices. You may also be interested in finding out more about their turnover rates, debts, acquisitions, profits, work volumes, legal action, growth trajectory, and company culture (diversity, ethics, causes, etc.).
At this stage, a simple online search can reveal sufficient information about company’s stability and culture.
Company’s stability: find out their number of years in business, reputation, reviews of their services (Yelp, ConsumerAffairs, Foursquare, Yellow Pages, Google My Business, Trustpilot, etc.), and employee reviews on Glassdoor. You can also ask your network for additional information.
Work-life balance: Would this organization respect your identity, wellbeing, and health? Is COVID-19 safety an issue? Look into diversity in leadership roles and the board structure. Have there been any major publications about discrimination or harassment in those companies? If so, how were these cases resolved?
Remember that the company’s marketing materials (its website, videos, and company pages on social media) are written for customers. As a potential employee, you want to learn about the back office. One way to do this is to connect with the company’s former employees and ask them a few questions. When doing this, show the person that you have done your research, state what you have found, and ask, “Does this sound accurate?” or “Is this in line with what you have experienced or know about the company based on your time there?”
You can collect business intelligence using the following websites:
Glassdoor (salary data and employee reviews)
Dun & Bradstreet
Better Business Bureau
LexisNexis (via your library)
Bloomberg (via your library)
PrivCo (via your library)
Company’s annual reports
Company’s website (specifically, the portion written for investors)
Employer surveys by professional associations (If you cannot find any, reach out to the associations’ leaders and ask for such recent reviews or surveys.)
Various social media channels (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok)
Boolean search on Google
It allows you to combine keywords with search operators such as AND, NOT, and OR to produce more specific results, for example,
“XYZ University” AND “sexual harassment” | “ABC Company” AND “employee satisfaction” | “ABC Company” AND “investigation”
Jobscan (for information on what ATS is used by a specific company)
General employer and industry surveys published by independent organizations. For example, in Ontario: https://www.peelhaltonworkforce.com/employer-surveys/
Ask your librarian to recommend additional resources available by subscription at the library.
2. Do more research once you are selected for an interview.
The interview is a great way to learn more about the company in a collaborative discussion. You will approach it as a business partner and prepare insightful questions in advance. It is important to go into the interview well-equipped and without major doubts about the quality of the company. At this stage, you may want to find out more about the following:
Salary ranges for your target role.
These are location-specific. Make sure to consider your geographical location when you explore the market. Here are the tools to use:
Professional association surveys
U.S. Department of Labor
Salary Finder page of CareerOneStop (sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor)
Wages page of Job Bank (operated by Employment and Social Development Canada)
Salary data from a large recruiting company like Hays.ca
You may also check your research with the colleagues who currently work in the roles you are targeting. Avoid asking them to reveal a specific number. Instead, provide them with the ranges you have researched and ask if they are accurate.
Look into the company’s industry positioning, organizational chart, talent on the team (where they worked in the past), vision and mission (where the organization wants to be), investments, and annual sales (per the annual report). If you want to develop in one company over the years and go on to higher-level roles, does this company look like it is positioned to offer that? What are their key initiatives and projects at the moment?
A company that is bringing up growth opportunities early on in the hiring process may be trying to hire people urgently and may not deliver on those promises later on. You can ask,
How have others in my role [or in this department] developed in the past, over the years?
How was their performance measured?
What was the promotion structure like?
Nobody likes micromanagement. Try to find out or estimate the reporting structure and the number of levels above you. What is the leaders’ communication style like? Who will you be reporting to? What are the names and roles of your interviewers?
A probation period may be part of some jobs. If you are expected to report on your activities every day, are tracked through time management software, or are mentored closely in the first few months, note if is this done for you to succeed in the company or with a less supportive attitude.
3. Research the owner(s) and the leadership.
If you are preparing for an interview, you likely already know the name of the owner or the CEO. Is the ownership structure clear? What does the CEO share on their professional and personal social media channels? A leader who lacks professionalism and awareness may often share politically explicit messages, judgemental commentaries, or other content that lacks nuance. Examine their tone. Is this the leader with whom you could see yourself growing, learning, agreeing about the core values, and delivering value for their company?
Look up the biographies of all owners, C-level leaders, directors, and the individual you will be reporting to.
Also, look up the HR Manager or the Hiring Manager (including personal social media pages). Digital reputation is a good starting point to check for red flags.
Has there been a recent large-scale acquisition? A high turnover in leadership? If so, look into how this was covered in the media. Is the company growing or downsizing? Does your target role exist as an addition to the team or a replacement of several roles?
4. Understand the hiring and interviewing process.
Did you receive an interview invitation with clear information about the type of interview and the people you will be meeting? If not, ask early on what you should expect: how many interview rounds, what is the interview format, what are the names and the roles of your interviewers?
You may even let them know that you are interviewing actively and hope to start a new role in the next [month (include your own dates)]. Find your own tone and phrasing for this to be respectful and professional, but do voice your expectations and boundaries to encourage efficient and collaborative interactions.
5. Identify any ethical issues.
Has the company been fined for malpractice in any way? Any reports about leadership failure to create and manage diverse teams? Any harassment reports? This is where a Boolean search on Google can be useful:
“XYZ University” AND “sexual harassment” | “ABC Company” AND “fined” | “ABC Company” AND “investigation” | “ABC Company” AND “discrimination”
6. Know why your role is open.
If you have some doubts about your role, during the interview you can ask,
Why is this position open? (What happened to the last person in this role?)
How has the last professional in this role advanced the organization’s goals?
What was their biggest achievement/legacy in this role?
7. Ask past employees what it is like to work there.
Not everyone will agree to provide this information, but generally speaking, past employees may be more available to answer your questions about the company culture. Politely ask your existing or new LinkedIn connections about the culture in the company.
8. Note your interviewers’ preparation and attitude.
Like yours, their preparation and attitude should be professional and collaborative. It’s a partnership.
Here are potential red flags:
▻ The interview is rushed.
▻ The HR manager has conflicting/inconsistent information about the scope of the role.
▻ The interviewer is late or disorganized.
▻ The interviewer’s attitude is not welcoming.
▻ You’re asked to do some initial work for free.
▻ They are not interested or evasive when you ask a question.
▻ They say negative things about past employers (“The previous writer we hired was too young.”).
Be collaborative during the interview, but do note all the red flags and assess if you would really like to work there.
9. Clarify the contract structure, once the offer is made.
Many roles in the current economy are limited-term contracts. Review the conditions of your contract renewal. You can ask how the company handled contract renewal in the past. Some organizations have contract renewal dates tied to their fiscal/reporting year; others will count a year from the date of hire. Review all non-compete or non-disclosure clauses to ensure you understand your obligations. In some industries, a strict non-compete clause is not feasible. You may ask the company to remove or edit it in line with your needs.
10. Write a list of the characteristics of your ideal work environment.
Finally, create your own map of the workplace where you would thrive. No workplace is ideal, but once you define the components of a great place to work and write them down, you can begin to see which of those you absolutely need to have and which you may compromise on. Can you find an organization that meets 70%-80% of your preferences? Your vision and clarity should help you find the right employers and move forward with confidence.
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