Sure, job interviews are nerve-racking—especially if it’s a role you really want.
But when you’re in the throes of printing out résumés, rehearsing answers and making sure your interview outfit is culturally on-cue, don’t forget to observe what you can about the company, and your interviewer too.
Because there’s one little-heralded truth about job interviews: They’re a two-way street, and paying attention as you go through the process can show you a lot about what working there might really be like.
Recent college grad Nihad Peavler, 23, thought she’d found the perfect job when she heard about a role assisting a film producer on a major project. It seemed so glamorous!
Then, in the interview, her would-be boss swore like a trooper, and couldn’t get Nihad’s name right, saying it “was too ethnic.” Despite her misgivings, Peavler took the position. She lasted all of four months. And it turned out those first few clues were just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
“She was like the boss in ‘The Devil Wears Prada,’ except not as important,” she now says, wryly.
And, if you keep your wits about you, you can determine a lot about the job you’re gunning for by reading between the lines. Of course, job number-one is to impress your interviewer and make them want you—you can always decline the offer if it doesn’t feel like a fit. But don’t forget to take stock while you’re busy knocking their socks off.
“An interview should be an employer’s best day,” says Dana Manciagli, a career expert and consultant in Seattle, “so candidates should pay close attention to anything that seems amiss. If things aren’t right at the interview, it can only go downhill from there, and you’ll likely end up looking for another job.”
Here are eight red flags to pay attention to before you sign on the dotted line.
1. Your interviewer is very late.
“Not respecting someone’s time isn’t just rude, it’s bad for business,” says Manciagli. Sure, scheduling mishaps happen, but she points out that interviews are often scheduled with plenty of lead time, and most hiring managers should give themselves at least 15 minutes of prep before someone comes in. For your interviewer to sidle in considerably later than you agreed on, without an ounce of contrition, is a major red flag. “If they’re this rude at the interview, imagine how they would be as a manager,” she notes.
2. She badmouths the person you’d be replacing.
While it’s appropriate for your interviewer to talk about current roles in the department, or how it’s structured, be wary of any hiring manager who badmouths someone who just left the company, or the boss she currently works for.
“No hiring manager should ever speak ill about the person they are replacing. That shows poor character and judgment and also speaks poorly of the organization,” says Melissa Gentile, a recruiter in New York City.
3. The hiring manager hasn’t reviewed your résumé.
If you’re one of many candidates coming in that day, it’s entirely possible that the hiring manager may not have spent a lot of quality time with your résumé, but they also shouldn’t react as if you just dropped in from Mars.
While this realization may (rightly) give you pause, it’s also an opportunity you can use to your advantage: Manciagli suggests using your interviewer’s lack of preparation, as off-putting as it may be, to package yourself as best as possible for the position: “When they open with, ‘Tell me about yourself,’ you can control which parts of your career to highlight,” she says.
As for whether this is truly a deal-breaker, first consider who didn’t do her homework: If it’s a recruiter who meets with hundreds of candidates a day, file it away, but don’t be overly concerned. If it’s the person who would be your manager, pay closer attention and keep your eyes open for clues during the rest of the interview. She may just have been rushed that day, or it could signal a more serious issue.
4. Your would-be boss couldn’t explain the role clearly.
“If you’re having a hard time explaining the role to friends and family after an interview, that should raise some questions,” says David Lewis, a human resources consultant in Norwalk, Conn. “Sometimes hiring managers—especially ones who are visionary, entrepreneur types—think you’d be great at the company, but aren’t quite sure exactly what they want you to do. They’ll spend the interview talking about the company, the culture, but not exactly what you would do.”
Lewis says candidates shouldn’t be afraid to speak up and admit that the specifics of the role aren’t clear to them yet. “Sometimes people are afraid to do this, because they don’t want to rock the boat or make the hiring manager feel awkward,” he says. “But it’s important from the onset that you can clearly answer the question, ‘What will I be doing?’ ” Another good clarifying question: What would success look like in this role?
5. The company has high turnover, or a toxic culture.
Of course you’re going to do your homework before a job interview. Check LinkedIn to see what friends of friends you may know at a given company or organization, and read up.
When Kate Groebe*, 36, was contacted about a senior role with a stellar salary at a well-known company, she considered relocating her family for the opportunity—until her husband forwarded her an in-depth and reputable article chronicling the firm’s aggressive, antagonistic work culture, promoted by the hard-driving C.E.O. That was one factor Groebe had overlooked while busy getting starry-eyed about the package.
Similarly, if a hiring manager mentions that they’re refilling the role for the second or third time in a short amount of time, it’s important to ask why. Lewis says a good question to pose is what the person who recently had the role was doing five years ago, or what your hiring manager’s trajectory has been in the organization. If there’s been a lot of transferring out of the department you’d be working in, proceed with caution.
6. The firm’s online reviews are bad.
Similarly, websites such as Glassdoor offer employees a place to anonymously review companies they’ve worked for. Since they are anonymous, they should be taken with a grain of salt. “A lot of these reviews can just be angry elves with an axe to grind,” Lewis says, but adds that it’s important to look for recurring themes in poor reviews.
If the reviews are recent and all seem to complain about the same thing—bad communication from management, low morale, etc.—that should carry some weight. While you should never lead with that information when you meet a recruiter or hiring manager, you can find a subtle way to ask about the company culture, or what sort of values or management techniques are embraced, during the question and answer portion of your interview.
7. Your interviewer asks personal questions.
“An interview should be objective, not emotional,” counsels Gentile, “and your interviewer shouldn’t blather on about her personal life, or probe about yours.” In general, asking personal questions—about your family, marital status, etc.—is never O.K.
“Hiring managers have lots of ways to try to find out if you’re married or have kids,” says Manciagli, “but that doesn’t mean you have to volunteer any information, especially if they start telling you about their own families. They might not even have one.” Bottom line: You’re there to talk about the job, not how you spent your weekend.
8. Your interviewer checks her email during your meeting.
Yes, we live in a digital age, but that doesn’t mean that someone should be checking their phone during the time they allotted to get to know you, says Manciagli. If they’re not paying attention during your interview, chances are they won’t be all ears when you’re an employee, either. Again, consider what role this person might play in your work life.
If it’s a recruiter, you probably needn’t be overly concerned. If it’s your future supervisor, and they demonstrate other less-than-courteous tendencies, take heed.
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