Shikha Bhatnagar

Global Social Impact Consultant

Over seventeen years of programming, policy analysis, advocacy, and business development experience across sectors with stakeholders on critical global issues such as economic & political development, education, health, security, diversity & inclusion, and civil society (including women's rights). 

Warning! Dysfunction Ahead

My track record of picking good employers to work for is almost as dismal as my track record of finding a good man to spend my life with.  It seems appropriate, therefore, for me to use a quote from Maya Angelou about personal relationships and apply it to my hunt for that elusive right job.  Dr. Angelou once said, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them.” What she meant was that people give implicit or explicit signals about their personalities, their shortcomings, their potential failures to commit – it’s up to you to see those signs, not dismiss them, believe them, and if necessary, run as far away as you can. The same goes for potential employers. While the stakes may not be as high as finding a life partner, the potential ramifications of ending up in a dysfunctional work environment can be devastating to your emotional and physical health.  Trust me, I know.

I’ve learned a lot over the past decade about warning signs one should look out for during the job search. Sadly, I’ve ignored or dismissed many of these signs, sometimes out of desperation of needing a job, my insecurities, or just naivety.  I’ve also spent a lot of time taking bad advice from others instead of trusting my own gut. No more.

As I move forward on my professional journey, here are a few of the red flags I will be watching out for: 

·       Position vacant for too long:  homebuyers are often taught to be careful about properties that have been on the market for a long time.  There’s usually a reason behind this – lots of repairs that need to be done, priced too high, or… termites? Similarly, if I meet a seemingly normal 40-something year old man who has never been a serious relationship, I start wondering what his deal is. Commitment issues? Peter Pan syndrome? Both of these scenarios require an extra bit of due diligence, as do job vacancies that have been unfilled for an extended period of time, especially in today’s still-recovering job market. Are there internal dynamics preventing a suitable candidate from being hired? Are expectations too high? Even seemingly minor reasons, such as not having had enough time to properly vet candidates potentially points to deeper issues of organizational capacity and disorganization…in other words, dysfunction. Be careful.

·       [Very] Low turnover: I was taught somewhere along the way that low staff turnover was a sign that employees were happy and that the organization treated them well.  And, that’s probably generally true.  But, there’s also a flip side to this that I think a lot of those, especially those of us who thrive in dynamic environments, need to pay attention to.  Staff that have spent the majority or sometimes all of their career at one organization likely have not been challenged in different types of environments, can be entrenched in group think, and may actually be risk-averse.  Also, sometimes the reason employees stay in a job for an extended period of time isn’t because they’re happy, it’s because they either lack the willpower or the ability to leave their current circumstance for another position.

·       Interview etiquette: In my experience, how you’re treated during an interview process is the most telling warning sign of organizational or leadership dysfunction.  This can manifest itself in many ways, but it usually involves basic respect, or rather, lack thereof. Here are a couple of examples from my own experiences:

o   Repeated postponement or cancellation of interviews. Shit happens – meeting go over – unexpected things come up, but a responsible and respectful employer will contact the candidate immediately, apologize for the inconvenience and reschedule the interview for a later date, if necessary.

o   Pressure to take job: Years ago, an organization, after offering me a job, pressured me about giving my current employer notice even though we hadn’t finalized the terms of my employment yet, nor had I signed the offer letter. I remember feeling so sick after this conversation and panicked about what to do. I was so afraid of losing the opportunity that I did give notice despite not having signed the letter, which was really stupid in hindsight. A potential employer will respect you as a professional, understand that there is a process in hiring, and will not expect you to endanger your standing in your current position.

o   Changing terms of agreement: If you find that verbal arrangements that you made with your potential employer change significantly when written on paper, be careful - it may just be harmless miscommunication that can be quickly cleared up, but it may also be a signal that this company/organization thinks they can take advantage of you and expect you to sign without reading the fine print.  

·       Low-balling salary: I can write paragraphs about this, but I’ll sum it up by saying – if an organization is seriously low-balling you on salary, walk away unless you’re desperate for money, especially if you’re a woman. There are always salary negotiations, but a sizeable difference from what you should be earning in that market/industry based on your experience and what they are offering you only indicates how little the organization values its human capital.  (If you’re unsure about what salary you should expect to make in that type of job/industry, ask around and also check out online resources such as Salary.com.)  

If there’s one thing I have learned, dysfunctional men will say anything to get in your pants. The same applies to dysfunctional organizations – they will lie to you, exaggerate, hide the truth if necessary to get you on board. It’s up to you to protect yourself and perform proper due diligence and look for warning signs. The more we learn to recognize these hints of dysfunction, the more likely we are to end up in the right place – where you’re challenged, respected, paid fairly, and where you can focus on making an impact through your work rather than spending your precious hours dealing with bullshit. 

Here are a few articles that offer additional advice and tips:

“10 Warning Signs of a Toxic Boss at the Interview” | Monster.com

“10 Tips to Avoid Joining a Toxic Workplace” by Bill Pieroni | LinkedIn

“10 Signs that a Company Has a Serious Culture Problem” by Shane Atchison | Forbes

What are the red flags that you look for in a potential employer? Comment below or shoot me a tweet.

 

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