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Job Hunters: 6 Ways To Stay Away From Toxic Workplaces

Ludmila Leiva

Katie Romero* was 24 when she got a job in the marketing department of a large fashion company. Having been told she would have ample opportunities to learn, grow, and be promoted, Romero was excited for what she thought would be a huge opportunity.

But after a few months, Romero realized that a lot of the growth opportunities she had initially been promised were not being practiced. "I was constantly told to focus on the job that I had; they never wanted to hear any new ideas from me," Romero told Refinery29. "There was so much pressure and very much this feeling of employees being disposable."

Romero also felt she was constantly penalized for little things, like looking at her phone or having a conversation with a neighbor. Eventually, it reached a point where she was so stressed she would have panic attacks and dizzy spells at work, and started to lose her hair. "My anxiety was through the roof," Romero added. Despite having been promised a job that would be a stepping stone in her career, Romero found herself in a hellish situation. "I was heartbroken and left after only four months," Romero said.

Looking back, though she did some research before accepting the position, Romero said that she didn't look into company's culture, swayed instead by the external brand image the company maintained. "They make a big deal out of their eco programs and how much good they do," Romero explained. "I guess I was a little seduced by that."

Conversations about workplace culture are increasingly at the forefront of our minds. Whether it's re-contextualizing what it means to feel safe at work in the age of #MeToo or becoming increasingly aware that there really are toxic workplaces out there, these days finding a positive, healthy workplace is a priority for many. And, given extremely low rates of unemployment, many job-hunters are feeling the need to be a little more picky with where they choose to work. After all, it's a good idea to get into the habit of doing some research on workplace culture to make sure you don't inadvertently land somewhere inhospitable to your needs or values.

Resources such as Glassdoor provide workers and job-seekers with an inside scoop into company culture, but can also be an imperfect metric. After all, crowdsourcing can sometimes be dominated by individuals who have an axe to grind. Organizations, such as Glassdoor, also release annual and semi-annual lists of the best places to work, and though these resources can be extremely helpful, not everyone is considering jobs at companies that make these lists.

So, if you're someone considering working at a company that isn't on any of these lists — or whose culture isn't widely-documented or well-known — how do you begin to figure out if it's a company you want to join?

We chatted with Cynthia Pong, of Embrace Change — a lawyer-turned-career coach who works to empower women and women of color professionals — for some insight into how job-seekers can find out whether a company culture is toxic before applying for, or accepting, a job. Read on for six simple tips to find out if a company you're interested in has a toxic workplace culture so that next time you're on the hunt, you don't accidentally wind up with a job you hate.

* Name has been changed

Find someone who works at the company

According to Pong, one of the best ways to find out about a company culture is to simply approach someone who works there.

If you already know someone at the organization, it might be a good idea to reach out and see if you can have a candid conversation with them about their experiences there: What are their favorite things about their company? What do they think could be improved?

"The best time to reach out is when you're still pre-application because nobody is on their guard and you don’t appear to have any motive," Pong says.

If you don't know anyone directly, Pong recommends looking on LinkedIn or on the company website and reaching out to a couple of people, expressing interest in learning about their field or position, and seeing if they’re willing to talk to you. Preferably, Pong says, not while they’re at the workplace or in the neighborhood of work, because "they might not give an objective or open opinion," Pong says.

Before going into the conversation, it's good to think about what some of your proxies and red flags are, Pong says. She also recommends asking open-ended questions about what it's like to work at the company and how they find their colleagues. Pong says you'll likely be able to gauge how a person feels based on how they answer, whether they hesitate or fall short of answers to some of these questions. "Pay close attention to non-verbal cues," Pong adds.

Pong says to keep in mind that some people may not feel like airing dirty laundry about their workplace. "Make sure you balance harder questions with questions that are related to the company's mission, work, and the real substance of what they do," Pong says, adding that it's important to be sensitive about how you frame things, start with the open-ended questions, and pay attention to how individuals answer.

"Depending on how they answer you can also ask follow up questions," Pong concludes. "Such as whether people tend to work there for a long time or turn tail and flee."

illustrated by Paola Delucca.

Ask candid interview questions

Another possible way to find out about company culture is in an interview, but Pong says this isn't always the best approach. After all, many recruiters and interviewers might not have much incentive to be fully transparent. Remember, their main job is to get the position filled.

"Some workplaces people are very open but with the vast majority you may get a canned answer," Pong explains. "You know, something that sounds good but doesn’t necessarily mean much."

If you start to get suspicions about a company's culture before your interview, whether from outside investigation, having spoken to someone who had lukewarm reviews about the company, or because of any red flags in the interview, you might even consider asking the interviewer if you would be able to talk to staff about their experiences, especially if you frame this ask in a way that makes it clear you're being diligent in your job search. "If they balk [at this request] that’s a red flag," Pong adds.

illustrated by Paola Delucca.

Look for public records

Since you can't ever really count on a company recruiting you to be totally transparent, Pong says that a great way to look into a company is to search for public records of any sort of litigation. This information is usually widely available and can be found through a simple Google search.

If you see a history of litigation for things like harassment or racial discrimination, this may not be a company you want to work for. "If it’s one or two [litigations] over the course of many years, that’s one thing," Pong says."But if it’s a trend, that would also be a red flag."

illustrated by Paola Delucca.

Look at leadership and upper management bios

Pong says that jobseekers can learn a lot from looking at the bios of leadership and upper management. From this, you'll be able to see what people look like and whether there is really diversity at the company regardless of what their HR or marketing departments says. You are also able to look into these individuals' pasts and see what they’re about and where they were before they joined.

Through this technique, you may also be able to get a sense of the company's likelihood of cultivating growth among its employees. "Can you find a pattern [indicating] whether they tend to promote from within?" Pong asks. "Or [did upper management] come from other places?"

illustrated by Paola Delucca.

Research company 990s

If you're looking to work at a nonprofit, Pong recommends looking up 990s.

990s are IRS forms that provide the public with financial information about nonprofits. In other words, they give you insider information about how an organization is spending its money, including whether they invest in training and professional development for their staff or spend their funds on lawsuits.

"990s can also help you figure out who’s getting paid the most [at an organization]," Pong adds.

illustrated by Paola Delucca.

Take a look at company blog posts and press releases

Another effective way of finding out whether you want to work at a company is to take a look at company blog posts, press releases, or any other forums for public information.

"See if the company celebrates or praises their staff's achievements," Pong recommends. "Do they seem to support their staff? Or are they just focused on bottom line and profits?"

Beyond this, Pong says it's a good idea to see if the company posts about things like professional development, or publicizes initiatives in support of their staff. And, when it comes to press releases, it might also be helpful to keep track of patterns regarding whether they tend to promote from within or hire from elsewhere. There are also organizations, such as Catalyst, that can provide some resources on gender, race, and discrimination in the workplace, that may also be helpful.

Ultimately, no matter what methods you end up trying, remember that doing your due diligence about a prospective employer means you are being responsible. And remember, by making sure a company culture is a good fit for you, you're doing both yourself and the company a favor in the long run.

illustrated by Paola Delucca.

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