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6 Red Flags to Look Out for When Interviewing

Posted by Emily Moore

Last Updated May 19, 2017
|7 min read

During the interview process, we often become hyper-focused on leaving a good impression. Resumes are updated, cover letters are tailored, and interviews are prepared for all with one thought in mind: I want this job. But don’t forget that the hiring process is a two-way street. Just as a company wants to ensure that you’re the right fit for them, you need to make sure that the company and position are a good fit for you. Otherwise, you could very well end up at a job that makes you unhappy — and quitting a job (or worse, staying at one that you don’t enjoy) is a heck of a lot more difficult than never taking one in the first place.

So, how do you make sure it doesn’t get to that point? Keep an eye out for the following six red flags during the interview process. If one of them is present, you’ll want to think carefully about moving forward.

1. High Turnover

Employees leaving a company shortly after they start a job — or having many employees leaving at once — is a pretty strong indication that all is not well at a company, and that you may be happier elsewhere.

There's a variety of reasons that this might be the case, but they are rarely good [ones] — bad management, non-competitive pay, poor interviewing, and lack of co-worker support... are some of the major ones,” says Jill Santopietro Panall, HR consultant and owner of 21Oak HR Consulting, LLC. “Maybe you'll set the world on fire or maybe you'll just be the next victim of the cycle.”

Rarely will a company freely offer this information up without prompting, so you should “ask how long people at your experience level stay with the company, and how the company promotes employee engagement to get a better idea of the retention rate. Research reviews of the company on Glassdoor to see what former employees are saying,” says Wendi Weiner, Resume Writer & Career Transition Coach.

To some, however, high turnover may not be a dealbreaker. “If you're still intrigued and feeling like you could make a difference… see what they have done to try to fix the issue,” Santopietro Panall recommends. But, she warns, “continuously hiring new people and expecting them to be better than the last person is not ‘fixing’ the problem. I'd want to hear that they have taken active steps to understand the issue and do better.”

2. An Unusually Quick or Lengthy Hiring Process

It can be tempting to think that an immediate job offer after an extremely short interview is a dream come true — but it really indicates the organization is desperate to fill the position without consideration to whether or not you’re the right fit,” says Natasha Bowman, Chief Consultant at Performance ReNEW and author of the book You Can’t Do That At Work! 100 Common Mistakes That Managers Make. “It can also mean that decisions are made in a reactionary way, or in isolation. Either reason means that the organization is not a healthy place to work, and you should steer clear.”

But the flipside of that, an unnaturally extensive hiring process, isn’t necessarily much better. Beyond simply being frustrating to candidates — no one wants to play the waiting game — “an extensively long process could be an eye-opener of uncertainty within the company in terms of their hiring parameters,” Weiner says.

Keep in mind, though, that just because the hiring process feels like it’s taking forever, doesn’t mean it objectively is. Glassdoor has found that the average interview process takes about 23 days, so use that figure as a frame of reference.

3. An Unclear Job Description

Even if you’ve landed an interview, you should still be wary of a job description that’s a little wishy-washy on the details. After all, as Santopietro Panall points out, “if they don't know what they want you to do, how do you know if you can do it? Although smaller companies might have a hard time getting their arms around a good job description, as everyone wears a lot of hats and has to put their imprint on all parts of the business, I would generally shy away if the interviewer doesn't have a really good handle on the essence of the role.”

“For a specific example,” she says, “I went on an interview a few years ago (before I started my own business) where the job was described to me as an HR learning and development role educating managers and team members on communication skills, leadership topics, and HR compliance areas — right up my alley and a great fit for my experience. When I got to the interview, they handed me a partially completed job description for a sales software trainer, instead! Totally different and not my core skill set. They didn't even really know what they wanted the person to do, so it felt like the interview was prematurely timed and hastily-planned, instead of coming about as the result of much thought and strategic direction. I declined to continue with the process before I even left the office.”

4. An Unclear Definition of Success

Even if the job description is crystal clear, a company may not have a good handle on what success in the role means — so asking about that early on is critical.

“If you are interviewing for a brand new role, it is likely that the company will not know all the details yet about the goals and expectations for the role. However, if the company has absolutely no idea about the high-level description of what [constitutes] successful performance in a brand new role or an established role, it may be a sign that things at the company are disorganized, uncertain or in flux,” says Mary Grace Gardner, career strategist at The Young Professionista. “If this is the case, you will want to consider how much ambiguity you are willing to tolerate — will you be fine with taking on multiple roles? Do you do well with changing targets? Do you thrive in an environment with a lot of change? If it is difficult to figure out what success looks like in your role, it may also be difficult to figure out whether you should get raises, bonuses, or promotions, too.”

5. Trash Talking

There can be an illicit thrill in hearing gossip, but during the interview process, this can be an indication of a problematic company culture.

“If any of your interviewers insult or badmouth anyone else, whether in the organization or out, this indicates that the organization views negativity as acceptable, and could signal indicate a toxic environment,” Bowman shares.

No matter how curious you might be about the dirty laundry of a particular company or employee, it’s probably best that they don’t immediately air it out.

6. No Explanation About Why the Role Is Open

It’s easy to be so excited about a new job that you don’t even think about why it’s opened up in the first place, but forgetting to ask why is a big missed opportunity.

“Although the company will have to abide by human resources rules and respect the privacy of the previous employee, they should be able to give you some general sense of what happened to that employee — did the employee leave after six months? Was the employee promoted to another role in the company? Did the employee accept a promotion outside of the company? If you ask why the position is vacant and interviewer gives vague answers or completely dodges the question, this can be a red flag that the relationship with the previous employee ended badly,” Gardner says. “While you might never find out both sides of the story, if the employee was the reason for the departure, the company would likely share the general circumstances. If the company caused the fallout, they may want to avoid disclosing that information. If it seems to be the latter, make sure to ask more questions about the company's culture.”

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