"ASK HR" is our advice column where we answer readers' questions about pressing work dilemmas, job search queries, resumes, and navigating Hollywood. If you have a career-related question, email us, and the answer could appear in a future newsletter! All submissions will remain anonymous.
Dear Hollywood Resumes,
I finally got hired at what I thought was a great job, only to find out a few weeks in that the company was a nightmare to work for! I ended up resigning and am now back searching for jobs, but I'm nervous about the same thing happening again. I'm wondering if there's a way to tell whether a company is horrible to work for before you apply.
-- Scared of the Search
Dear Scared of the Search,
Kudos to you for prioritizing your well-being and walking away from a situation that didn't feel right! That takes a lot of bravery and strength.
It's not always possible to know what a company is like until you're already working there, but there are some red flags you can look out for along the way. When you a read a job posting, you should consider if anything sounds sketchy, like a promise of money down the line only after your work is done, an application fee, or other any other financial or invasive personal information request. If you haven't heard of the company previously, Google it to see if you can find a website. No online presence at all is a red flag, and if any articles come up about past lawsuits or allegations, avoid applying.
Even if the company is reputable, there may be other red flags in the job posting. Does it describe a position that sounds like it really should be multiple roles (meaning: can you envision one person being responsible for all of the tasks, or are there so many disparate responsibilities listed that it would be more typical for 2-3 people to share the duties)? Are there any trigger words, like "thick-skinned" and "no ego?" These can often mean you're expected to keep your head down and be yelled at from time to time.
It's also important to read the posting carefully to see whether the role matches what you're looking for, as not all jobs that are wrong for you are objectively bad. Read the company overview section (if there is one) to find out if the organization's values align with yours. Ask yourself if you're interested in spending your day doing the responsibilities listed and if they match your expectations for the position's title. Note whether the posting includes information about limited work/life balance -- sometimes, this is transparent, like "Must work long hours and occasional weekends," and sometimes it's less so, like "Looking for a dedicated team-player to contribute at a high level in our all-hands-on-deck, fast-paced, maximum-output environment." Keep an eye out for culture indicators, like the types of benefits offered; you might be the type of person who wants a relaxed, fun atmosphere with free lunch and a ping pong table and a gym on site, or you want to keep your head down at your desk from 9-5 and leave your socializing and fitness regimens out of the workplace -- sometimes you can find clues about these things in the posting.
Often, you can't determine everything about a company's culture or whether it's bad to work for before sending in your application, especially if it's a large company, and you're trying to assess one small department. Luckily, you have additional opportunities to evaluate during the interview process. Ask questions at the end of your interview, like "What is the company culture like?," "What is your day to day like?," or "What would success look like for a candidate in this role?" If there are yellow flags that come up in your interview, you can also address them -- "I noticed our interviews have all been scheduled for 8pm; is it typical to work into the evenings here?" While it's important to put your best foot forward at an interview and not ruffle feathers, it's equally important to protect yourself and make sure the company is a good fit for you.
Lastly, you can see if any of your contacts have experience working at the company or with anyone on the team and ask them for their insight. You can also check sites like Glassdoor and read reviews, though they're not always 100% accurate. If you're part of a tracking board or other networking group, you can ask if anyone has experience with X company and would be willing to chat with you, but know that these groups are often quite large and not as private as they may seem.
All this due diligence can be helpful, but it's not foolproof, as companies will sometimes act very differently in an interview than in practice, you might not meet some of the more problematic managers or get enough insight into problematic practices in the interview process, and your contacts may have had different experiences with the firm than you'll have. Ultimately, you'll just have to trust your gut, and know that if you end up somewhere that's not right, you can always do what you've already done: have the strength to quit.
-- Angela & Cindy