when can you use someone’s first name, when to disclose salary, and more

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It’s five answers to five questions. Here we go…

1. When can you use someone’s first name?

I’ve been wondering for years – what is the appropriate way to address someone once you’ve had an initial exchange? The first email typically says Ms. Blank, but once they respond, do you keep addressing them as Ms. Blank in every single email until you have an offer? Seems strange, especially if there are a few emails back and forth in the span of a day and they address you each time by your first name and also sign with their first name.

In a professional setting, when someone is addressing you by your first name, you can address them by theirs. You don’t need to put yourself on unequal footing. (In fact, I’d argue that in most professional settings in the U.S., you can start out with the person’s first name. There are some exceptions to this — the military, some parts of the government, some particularly formal workplaces — but in general, most adults these days call each other by their first names.)

Plus, when someone signs an email to you with their first name, that’s the equivalent of “Please, call me Alison.” They’re calling themselves by their first name in their interactions with you and expecting you to do the same.

2. I wasn’t included in a meeting I’d asked to be a part of

I asked a colleague to include me at a meeting to discuss an idea of mine to compliment our overall strategy for a particular project I am partially responsible for. She did not and I received a detailed list of directions from one of her colleagues as a follow up to the discussion I was excluded from. I am disappointed and feel undermined. What would you do in my situation?

I’d say this: “Jane, I heard from Apollo with a list of instructions that came out of the meeting on X. I was surprised I wasn’t part of that meeting, since we’d talked earlier abut making sure I was there.” Then see what she says. Depending on her response and the context around your project, the next step could be any of the following:

“Could you be sure I’m part of any future meetings on this?”
“When are you likely to meet about this next? I’d like to be there.”
“Before work moves forward, I’d like to sit down with both of you and work out Y and Z.”
“Apollo’s note raised some concerns about Y for me. I think we need to go back and revisit that before moving forward.”

In other words, direct, calm, and to the point.

3. Is there ever an okay time to disclose your current salary in the hiring process?

Is there ever an okay time to disclose your current salary in the interview process? I am paid about 30% under market value for my current job. I am looking to make a huge pay jump into my next one and obviously trying to avoid giving current salary information as much as possible. I’ve heard some employers will ask for pay stubs, not for your salary information but to verify your employment. If I’ve already negotiated my package and salary, is it okay to handover a W2 or pay stub? Is it possible that the company could come back and try to renegotiate my salary to a lower number?

If you didn’t disclose your salary earlier, it would be shocking and unlikely for an employer to try to lower your offer just because they later learned your salary.

But I’d also be surprised if you were asked for W2s and pay stubs as employment verification; typically verification is done by contacting the company directly, and those items would only come into play if for some reason they couldn’t (like if the company had closed down).

4. Avoiding toxic workplaces

I want to avoid joining another toxic workplace. I think a key indicator of a toxic workplace is when people leave frequently. I’m finishing a fixed term contract at the moment and will look for something new soon. In future job interviews I want to somehow ask “Why did the last person leave?” Or even better, “Why are people leaving the company?” It’s a tough question, but I’d like transparency and honesty. Leadership is becoming very important to me. A high turnover rate indicates bad leadership and toxicity.

I’d also like to request a lunch with the other members of the team, or the manager, to get a feel of the culture and the team. Does that seem reasonable? If they say no, I will probably turn down their offers.

Sure, you can ask, “Why did the person previously in this position leave?” It’s a normal question. So is, “What kind of turnover does the team have? Why do people normally move on?” But be aware that incredibly toxic companies can have perfectly reasonable-sounding answers to these questions, so it’s one data point but it’s far from everything, so here’s more advice on how to assess company culture.

Once you receive an offer, you can also ask to meet with others you’d be working with (but generally not before that), although how reasonable that request is will depend on the specific job (it’s probably not reasonable in a call center, for instance).

5. Interviewing when the job posting has disappeared

I’m actually asking this for a friend of mine. She got an interview with a company she really wants to work for, but the job description has disappeared from their website! She did not receive an automated confirmation when she applied and the HR rep called her to schedule the interview so she doesn’t have any email contact info. Should she call? What should she say? She feels like she had a good idea of what it was when she applied, but that was weeks ago! She wants to be prepared. What should she do?

Yes, she should call and ask if they can email her a job description ahead of time, noting that it’s no longer on her website and stating mildly apologetically that she doesn’t seem to be able to find her copy from when she applied. (Ideally she’d email this, but if she can’t find email contact info, then it’s fine to call.)

In general, it’s good to keep a copy of any job postings you apply to on your own computer, since they can indeed be taken down like this.

{ 196 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. James M

    OP4: Have your prospective employer fill out a short mad-lib: “Employees are _____(verb, present participle) your company like ____(rodent, plural) deserting a ______(adjective) ship.”

    I jest, but I think you should be specific with your tough questions (you’ll find it easier to recognize a disingenuous answer to a specific question).

    I assume you’ve perused the stories of “Bad Interviewer Behavior” linked on the right?

    Reply
    1. FatBigot

      The best approach I saw suggested here was “Can you tell me the history of this position?”. This is way less confrontational, but allows you to find out if this is a new position, how many previous incumbents there have been, and how many have been promoted further in the organisation.

      Reply
      1. themmases

        This is definitely a good question. Having finally gotten the whole story about my (pretty toxic) position a couple of years in, I’m pretty sure the history of my position would be illuminating no matter how much my boss softened it.

        Reply
      2. AnonAthon

        Great way to phrase it. I’d also add that turnover as such isn’t always a problem. At my job, we like to promote from within, which can lead to multiple people moving up at once and thus a bunch of positions “turning over” at the same time — even though only one person actually left the organization.

        Reply
    2. Ten-Year-Old Inside

      Except I would answer at least two of those with derivatives of “humping” and that doesn’t help anyone.

      Reply
  2. IronMaiden

    For years I have addressed almost everybody by their first name. If they expect to be be addressed otherwise, they can address me as Ms IronMaiden.

    The exceptions are religious, military and judges etc in a court context.

    Reply
    1. Paveway

      If someone I have not met, nor given permission to use my first name, reaches out to me and addresses me with my first name, they immediately go to the bottom of any positive list. It is disrespectful and unprofessional in a business setting. Is there some reason they can’t address me as Mr.? If I don’t know them and do not have a personal relationship with them, then why do they have the right to address me in the manner than my friends and coworkers do? And yes, I would absolutely agree that I would address them as Mr/Ms as well. As I do.

      Reply
    1. Jen

      Indeed. I was going to say that companies going through any sort of significant change (growth, acquisition, etc.) generally endure a ton of turnover, as those who were tied to the ‘old ways’ decide to move on, and new leadership bring in some of their own contacts.

      Sometimes this is a bad thing, sometimes a good thing. Look for other culture indicators like asking people what they enjoy about the company, or what their recent growth/change has been like.

      Reply
    2. Data Solutions Architect

      Also, the last place I worked was very toxic, but because we were in a small town, there was a very small select of other places to work. So people may have wanted to leave, but they didn’t have a lot of choice so they stuck with the toxic place.

      Reply
  3. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.

    #1

    First names pretty much always, unless the person is a Dr.

    As a woman in my 50’s, I don’t think it is odd to be initially addressed as Ms. XYZ by someone much younger, but that is usually dropped when I sign my first name in reply.

    (I think it shows good manners for a young, college age or just out of college person to start off with a title/last name, but I only notice when it is done, not when it is not done. I don’t think a person can go wrong with starting with first name.)

    Reply
    1. Chocolate Teapot

      I address senior colleagues as Mr or Mrs, until they tell me to use first names.

      There are a few older gentlemen who I still call Mr, and they have never said to do otherwise, but they call me by my first name. For them, I prefer to err on the side of formality.

      Reply
      1. Dawn K

        I have a question about this. I generally use people’s first names as well. What do you do if the person signed Ms. Formal in her reply email instead of their first name (which I addessed the email to)? I usually address future emails to Ms. Formal instead of using her first name.

        Reply
        1. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.

          I guess.

          I’m too old and cranky to Mr/Ms just about anybody unless it is Mister President, Madam President or Mr. (Bruce) Springsteen.

          Reply
          1. Lucy

            I don’t know.. I think We The People are the president’s boss, right? So really we can call him/her by the first name. ;)

            Reply
            1. Kelly L.

              You probably already know this, but “Mr. President” or “Mr. Lastname” was meant as a major informality when it was chosen as the standard form of address. Other suggestions were way more pompous!

              Reply
        2. Jamie

          IME first names are the default across the boards (I don’t work with doctors) – but if someone signed with a title I would call them that, as I think we should address people how they wish to be addressed.

          I can’t say I wouldn’t find it off-putting in an environment where everyone is on first names for someone to insist on title. Lastname – because I would.

          Since my kids graduated the only people who call me Mrs. Keyboard-Monkey ever are the grocery store clerks reading it off my receipt.

          Reply
      2. Elizabeth West

        When I worked at a materials lab, my boss had a metallurgy colleague/customer from India who would often call and sometimes visit. His last name was Singhania (Sing-HAHN-ya). He told us to call him by a very informal nickname, but I always called him Mr. Singhania just because I LOVED saying his name. It just rolls right off your tongue. :)

        Reply
    2. Cat

      Or a judge. I also start out by calling judges’ law clerks and other staff with Ms. or Mr. until they tell me to use their first name (or sign an e-mail with their first name). I doubt they’d be offended if I didn’t, but I figure it’s a situation that calls for some formality.

      Reply
    3. businesslady

      another good option–if you’re addressing someone senior who you’ve never contacted before–is “Dear Firstname (if I may).”

      it acknowledges that you’re being less formal than you could be without being overly obsequious.

      also, if you email someone with “Dear Firstname” & their response is signed “Firstname Lastname” &/or they address you as “Ms./ Mr. Lastname” that’s usually a sign that they prefer a less informal salutation & you should proceed accordingly when you reply.

      Reply
      1. businesslady

        yes, generally–although I think the convention in Europe is to go with “Dr.” for PhDs too. (I’ve emailed two German academics this week–deferentially–so this is especially on my mind.)

        but if you’re emailing someone who’s in a tenure-track faculty position, “Professor” (or “Prof.”) is more appropriate than “Mr./Ms.” (or “Dr.”).

        no one asked this, but while I’m thinking of it–ALWAYS “Ms.” for women, NEVER “Miss” or “Mrs.” unless you know for a fact that the recipient prefers it.

        Reply
        1. monologue

          Even in North America it’s better to start with Dr. or Prof. according to the distinction made above if you’re working within academia or trying to sell shit to people in academia. The vast majority of people will then sign their reply with their first name only and continue with first names from there, but it’s a little presumptuous to just start off like that I think.

          If you’re interacting with someone with a phd outside of work though, they’re being kind of a dick if they insist you call them Dr. Whatever, I agree.

          Reply
          1. SimonTheGrey

            My mother-in-law has her Ph.D. Her name plate at work says Dr. MIL, and that’s the only place she uses it (in formal communication). As she’s said, it’s the only place it matters, for publications.

            Reply
            1. Trixie

              When my Ph.D. earned-mother was at the doctor’s office, he started to call her “Miss Jones” and she jokingly yet quickly corrected him with, “That’s Dr Jones.”

              Reply
          2. el conejo del fuego

            This! I usually always start with Professor/Dr./Mr. Ms. LastName. After receiving a scathing response from a client when I addressed him as FirstName in my initial e-mail, I’ve learned to always err on politeness. You’ll never offend someone if you address them formally first, but you can run the risk of offending someone if you come across as too casual. Why risk it when you’re trying to establish a relationship?

            (On the flip side, if you are hung up on formalities, and respond rudely, do know that your response will be instantly forwarded to everyone in the office for general “can you believe this” enjoyment.)

            Reply
          3. Cath@VWXYNot?

            The only time I ever said “actually, it’s Dr” (other than when joking with friends in the first couple of months after getting my PhD) was when a young male colleague was emailing a group of us, at various levels within the organisation, all of whom have PhDs. I was the only female in the group, and the emails always said “Dear Dr. X, Dr. Y, Dr. Z, and Cath”

            (I told him at first that he doesn’t need to be so formal and can call everyone else by their first names, too, even the professors – everyone else does. He said he wasn’t comfortable with that, so I said in that case he has to call me Dr. too :) )

            On the other hand, if I’m filling in a form for the bank or when buying flights or whatever and the drop-down menu has Dr in the titles list, I do select it. It’s factually accurate, yo (although it’s never got me the free upgrade to business class that my PhD adviser assured me it would)

            Reply
        2. Gjest

          Because I work in a field where there are a lot of PhD’s, I also err on the side of using Dr when emailing someone who might have one but I am not sure. Usually when they email back they sign their first name, and/or say they don’t have their PhD and to use their first name. I (only*) have my master’s degree, but am in a position where someone might think I do, so I often get emails to Dr. Gjest. Though unnecessary, I think it’s a nice way to begin the interaction with respect, and then I quickly tell them to use my first name and that I do not have my PhD (unless it’s just someone trying to sell me or my org something).

          * I feel like Howard Wolowitz most of the time.

          Reply
        3. Ashley

          I once had a history professor that, on the first day of class, insisted that he be referred to as “Dr. History Teacher”, because, in his words, “I did not go to school for that many years and spend that much money to be referred to as Mr.”

          I immediately disliked him and though the was a pompous jerk. And he was. Personally, I think it’s ridiculous to be offended by something so frequently used as a sign of respect. You can have a preference, but please don’t be a jerk about it.

          Reply
        4. HR lady

          businesslady, thanks for mentioning the Ms. thing for women. Never use Miss or Mrs. in a business context (such as a thank you note).

          Reply
        5. EE

          In Europe ‘professor’ means something totally different. In America, if I understand correctly, pretty much every lecturer/researcher/whatnot is a professor.

          In Europe it’s reserved for quite senior positions. I remember my old Classics lecturer saying wistfully that he liked the way American exchange students would call him ‘Professor’…

          Reply
          1. Sophia

            Well, it depends. Students call their college teachers professors, but job titles are ver distinct – assistant prof, associate professor and professor, which correlate to tenure status. Then you have lecturers etc who are not on the tenure track

            Reply
    4. A Teacher

      But then as someone that is 20 years younger than you, I would expect the same level of formality until I give you the same permission. Formality is fine, but it is a two-way street. Adults are adults be it 25, 32, 41, or 50s… it is why our big boss doesn’t like coming to our building she wants to be Dr. X and when we then say “Hi, Dr. X. I”m Miss C.” She isn’t sure how to respond she wants “Hi Dr. X, I’m Kim”

      Reply
        1. the gold digger

          If I am meeting you socially or for work, it’s either first names for both or honorifics for both.

          The only time I am going to call a doctor “Doctor” is if I am naked in her office or if I am taking a class from him.

          About the only good thing I can say about my husband’s dad is he has never asked anyone to call him “Dr Sly.” He did, however, sniff in disdain that anyone with an EdD should expect to be called “Doctor.”

          Reply
          1. Artemesia

            as a PhD holder I definitely agree that ‘Dr.’ should not be used socially; it is sort of a sign of a third rate college when everyone is ‘Dr.’ all the time in Academia — and pretentious socially.

            But I will extend that to MDs outside their office. An MD is a body mechanic. The demands of a PhD are often more demanding of intellect and creativity rather than just acquisition of mechanical skills and vast quantities of memorized information. I have never understood why MDs have this superiority complex.

            Reply
            1. fposte

              I’m another PhD with you on the not-being-called doctor thing, but I think it’s dying out, sadly. One of the things I like about the first-name trend is it avoids the “Ms./Dr.” tension, which I’ve found awkward when I’m at a university or department where people *do* use “Dr.* and I really don’t want to.

              I can’t say it’s logical, but I’d rather be called “Flora” than “Dr. Poste.”

              Reply
              1. Ann O'Nemity

                Flora Poste of Cold Comfort Farm?

                I’m also a PhD but I like to avoid the Dr. thing as well. Even when I was in academia I preferred Professor O’Nemity to Dr. O’Nemity. Now, the only people who ever call me Dr. are my boss and my mother, who both do it when they’re making introductions and trying to impress.

                Reply
                1. fposte

                  Yup, that’s the origin.

                  One of the rare times I was called “Dr.” was when I was being given an enema prior to my colonoscopy. I felt that was an apt summation.

                2. Judy

                  At the big 10 university I went to, Professor seemed to be considered a “higher” title than Doctor. Nearly all of the Professors had their PhD, but there were lots of non-Professor doctorates around doing research, etc. So any teacher was known as Professor Smith in the classroom. But that was 20+ years ago, so I’m not sure how it goes now.

                  When I took some courses at a community college, they only had a requirement of a master’s degree to teach, and the professors that had PhD’s were called “Doctor” while the ones that didn’t were called “Professor”.

                  The people at work with PhDs, we call Bob or Jane.

                  I do get upset on my sister’s account at times, she’s an MD, as is her husband. I’ll see mail at their house stating Dr & Mrs X. Either it’s Mr & Mrs or Dr & Dr or Drs. How his MD counts and hers doesn’t does raise my eyebrows.

                3. Elsajeni

                  Judy, my parents both have Ph.D.’s and the “Dr. and Mrs.” phenomenon has driven my mother crazy for years — she doesn’t use “Dr.” socially (or professionally, for that matter, since she left academia many years ago), but goddammit, if her husband is gonna get Dr.’d by telemarketers, SO IS SHE.

              2. A Teacher

                At the college where I adjunct, some of the people with the MS or two (that’s me degree wise) think they need the formality and not want to be Mr. or Mrs. I’m not one of those, I’m totally fine with students using my first name but then I think you can get and give respect despite what someone calls you.

                Yes, as an athletic trainer that worked in the medical field for a period of time, doctors with the attitude of being called by last name exclusively annoyed me. I did as many years in school for two graduate degrees and that still doesn’t make me better than anyone else. My sister works at the hospital and is friends with many of the doctors she works with–none of them are this way.

                Reply
                1. fposte

                  This relates a little bit to what Artemisia is saying–the rarer doctorates are in a group, the more likely the PhD holder is to be using the doctorate as a title.

                2. Banana

                  After I got my MS, I had (joke) business cards with my new desired title: Banana Rama, Mistress of Science.

                  First names all around in my company, including people with PhDs, which is a large percentage of my coworkers.

                3. Cat

                  With the caveat being that if you are, as some people I know are, a PhD working in a “normal” business office, you cannot ask to be called “Dr.” ever or people will hate you for ever and ever.

                4. ThursdaysGeek

                  @Banana Rama, Mistress of Science – at a long ago job, my husband was getting mail addressed to “Lord High Chemist Firstname Lastname”. I think he put in the title somewhere as a joke, and it got added to a mailing list.

              3. Donna

                This always makes me chuckle!

                Officer Shin: Mr. Cooper, there’s nothing…
                Sheldon Cooper: Dr. Cooper!
                Officer Shin: Seriously?
                Leonard Hofstadter: Not the kind with access to drugs.

                Reply
                1. Jamie

                  Or, when he told everyone Missy was going to have a baby…

                  “Oh, you’re going to be Uncle Sheldon!”

                  “No, I am going to be Uncle Dr. Cooper.”

                2. Judy

                  In reply to Jamie…

                  Or my father-in-law with a PhD, who insists that the kids call them Grandma Smith and Grandpa Smith. (He originally insisted on Grandmother Smith and Grandfather Smith, but the kids didn’t follow that as hard as we tried.) My parents were called Grandma Jane and Grandpa Wakeen by my nephews because my BIL has a complicated family structure. My parents wanted to follow that tradition.

                  “I don’t think it’s appropriate for young kids to call me by my first name.” I bit back the “so you have your nieces and nephews call you Uncle Smith when they were young?”

                3. SimonTheGrey

                  Reply to Judy –
                  None of my grandparents had doctorates; one grandfather never went to High school and my grandmothers went to nursing school instead of traditional college. They were Grandma and Grandpa [Lastname] on both sides. On dad’s side, that’s how grandparents were addressed. I was closer to my grandma on that side than anyone in the world, and she was ALWAYS Grandma Lastname to me. It’s just how it is in my family.

                4. Jamie

                  They were Grandma and Grandpa [Lastname] on both sides.

                  Mine, too. Not due to any formality or anything – just convention in our family. When you spoke to them you just called them Gramma or Grandpa, it was only in referring to them we’d add the last name.

                5. Lucy

                  Reply to Judy –

                  I always thought it was weird too though, to call grandparents by their first name. I couldn’t call my mom by her first name.. and she didn’t call her mom (my grandma!) by her first name, so where does that work in that I call my grandma by her first name?

                  I just called them Grandma and if we needed clarification it’d be “Dad’s mom” or “Mom’s mom.”

                  My husband calls all his grandparents (he has a lot) by different names, so he has Grandmother, Nanny and Nana, for example.

              4. NK

                Reminds me of when I was in college and took a class from the department chair. On the first day of class, he said, “when you first get your PhD you get all excited about being called Dr. But the problem is, if you call my house and ask for Dr. Thompson, they’ll say, “which one?” And if you ask for the really good professor who tells all the funny jokes, you’ll get my wife.”

                Reply
              5. AdjunctForNow

                I don’t mind my students calling me by my first name (especially grad students), but I like when they ask, rather than presuming that’s okay. This is largely because I don’t think they go right to first-name basis with their older/male/whiter professors.

                Reply
                1. fposte

                  I just tell them that I go by my first name; it minimizes the “Uh…” when they don’t know what to use and makes it clear I authorize the use rather than it being automatic.

                2. A Teacher

                  I do the same as fposte, when I introduce myself, I say “Hi I’m J, Please call me J because I don’t do formality” and then when responsding to emails I sign my first name above my full required esignature.

            2. Stephanie

              Yeah, it’s pretentious to use the PhD honorific outside work. It’s even kind of pretentious at some (non-academic) offices. We got a company-wide email at OldJob telling us to stop using honorifics at work.

              I worked retail and occasionally saw “Bob Smith, MD” on credit cards. That is overkill.

              Reply
    5. Dan

      In my line of work, there are numerous PhDs. It was really weird coming out of college, where PhDs were “Doctor”, to the “real” world, where PhDs are “Bob, Frank, and John.” At my last employer, we didn’t even use honorifics on the name plates, so I actually didn’t know who all of the PhDs are. At my current employer, we do.

      Reply
    6. pgh_adventurer

      I also almost always use first names–but ran into trouble with this today. I’m a grad student who has been out in the professional world for several years. Recently I emailed the dean of my program, and addressed the email as “Hi Donald”. He wrote back and chewed me out a little for using his first name even though we’d never met.

      It just seems odd to me to have to revert back into “child mode” to address my superior in a graduate program where the average student is a fully fledged adult with several years of work experience. To be clear, I would never have addressed a professor/dean that way in undergrad unless they requested I do so.

      Reply
      1. Ask a Manager Post author

        It’s such BS. I hope you write back, “I would hope you’re preparing graduates for the outside professional world, where adults are generally on a first-name basis with each other.”

        Reply
        1. businesslady

          I work in academia & address deans & other senior administrators by their first names all the time.

          that being said, I’d always use “Dear” when addressing a dean I’d never met–maybe “Hello” if it was an email on an informal topic (like emailing them an article I thought they’d find interesting). in business contexts I only use “Hi” with people I’ve met & with whom I have a certain camaraderie.

          regardless, though, chewing you out was a vast overreaction.

          Reply
        2. Jeff A.

          Eh, I work in academia (staff though, not faculty), and though I address the Dean of my program by her first name, anytime I see a Dean or PhD from one of our other programs on campus (or off), I refer to him/her as “Dean or Dr. So-and-so.”

          This formality ends either when they’ve corrected me, “Jeff, please, call me Lucille” or when we’ve spoken often enough for us to have shared some personal detail about our lives (e.g., mentions that s/he has young children, talks about an art exhibit or film seen recently, etc). I.e., as soon as there’s a personal element to our relationship, I drop the professional title when we speak to each other (unless in the presence of students or if I’m introducing him/her to someone).

          Reply
        3. pgh_adventurer

          Now I’m wondering how to write back. Dear Dr. Spock? Dear Dean Spock? Dear Mr. Spock?

          Or…. Hey dude, u mad? ;)

          Reply
    7. Kou

      Ok so on that note, something I’ve been debating writing in to AAM with– I work in a hospital, work with a lot of MDs, and I’ve always called them Dr. Soandso even though most people usually use their first names, just because it’s what I was taught to do at first.

      At first bring the issue. I’m used to people telling you when to not use their title, but that’s not happening if it hasn’t happened already. Now I’ve been doing it so long I feel like it’ll be really noticeable if I suddenly STOP doing it. Not sure which is worse.

      Reply
      1. A Teacher

        My sister, an ED nurse, just gradually started calling the older doctors (the ones that are older there in age by a lot) their first names when she became comfortable with them. The doctors about her age or a few years older, she always addresses as first name and since its a teaching hospital the newbie residents are always first name. In fact, the 3rd years (residents) like to make a joke of the 1st year they get that is entranced by his/her “DOCTOR” title. She says they don’t really notice and none actually care. They don’t call the nurses “Nurse Smith” (except on General Hospital) so it kind of works both ways.

        A few of the doctors I worked with as a physician extender were first names from day one and a few always wanted formality for their end but I was always “first name”. Doctors that wanted to be treated formally but not return the favor, ended up getting a generic “hello” or “hey” and I wouldn’t use their names at all. Its surprising how much you can avoid using names if you try.

        Reply
      2. themmases

        I call most attending physicians at my hospital “Dr. Lastname” too, unless they’ve asked me to call them by their first name (and then I generally take time to get used to it).

        Residents and fellows are all addressed by first name though, and if they later become attendings here most people keep right on calling them by their first name except to introduce or refer to them to others.

        I do work with a PhD physicist. I (and everyone else) call her by her first name when talking to her. But, if I talk about her outside the department I call her Dr. Physicist, because I’m usually talking about her to people who don’t know her, in her role as a primary investigator. My emails say “Dr. Physicist would like support for a new study titled…” and then the application makes clear that her degree is a PhD.

        Reply
  4. Diamond Lil

    Perfectly good companies can also have toxic teams…and vice-versa. I’m currently on an exceedingly toxic team of 12 where everyone (minus perhaps 3 people) are actively looking for work elsewhere, but none have left yet. Why? Because even though the day-to-day is truly awful, we have amazing benefits and a high-prestige name. It’s hard to move on unless we’re moving to something tangibly better, or at least tangibly equivalent.

    The sad thing is, the toxicity is mis-management from above. There are 2 people causing 90% of the problem, and the final 10% is everyone else scrambling to adapt to them. But when those 2 people are the leaders, and the company’s leadership above them doesn’t care? Good times.

    Reply
      1. Matteus

        And golden handcuffs aren’t just made of salary. I had one employer (won’t say who, but it rhymes with Gederal Fovernment), where job stability (until recently) was the primary excuse for people to stay despite any workplace toxicity.

        Reply
  5. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.

    #4
    mmmmm, don’t forget golden handcuffs. Some abusive workplaces pay high $$ and see low turnover because they have used money to make it hard for people to escape.

    Define what toxic means to you. Is it gossiping and backbiting (peer level) or abusive management or incompetent management? Figure out what is toxic for you and then see what questions you can form to suss out how healthy your interviewers are.

    Reply
    1. Anonymous

      Yes, definitely! The most toxic place I worked at had an extremely low turnover rate. And honestly, I can’t even think of any questions that would have allowed me to realize in advance how toxic they would be.

      Reply
    2. Anonymous

      So true. I once interviewed at a place where I was certain to make 30 -50% more than my (at the time) current salary. Plus, the company and their values seemed very aligned with the type of work I wanted to do.

      However, within 10 minutes of my interview with the VP, I could tell there was a lot of dysfunction in the office, mostly because of the VP’s lack of goals and need for his workers just to “do work” without any guidance and direction. He wanted people to be “self-starters” (which is perfectly understandable) but to accomplish this with no direction, guidance, and any clear goals.

      “Just do work” isn’t good enough for me.

      Reply
      1. Ruffingit

        If he wanted then to just do work without any guidance, direction or clear goals, then the role of manager certainly wasn’t needed. Makes me wonder what he thought his job description was.

        Reply
        1. Anonymous

          It was a very…interesting interview to say the least. He had been in his position for about a year and a half. When I asked him what he was most proud of accomplishing during his time there, he said, “Nothing – nothing has been done because I don’t have a staff.” That was a major red flag to me, for a lot of reasons. And he did have a fairly large staff to help him “get work done.” Weird.

          He also asked me very odd questions that were not related to the position at all, like what my favorite color was and what my favorite restaurant is. I’m guessing this was his attempt to a.) throw me off and see how I reacted or b.) be cool and hip.

          Weird. Weird. Weird.

          Reply
  6. John

    #4 — Allison’s suggestion to meet with other members of the team is a great one. Assuming you are at all adept at picking up cues, it should be apparent. I would ask those other employees their understanding of the responsibilities of the position and what challenges they think will be the biggest ones for the person hired. While listening to their answers, stay attuned to judicious pauses and how carefully they seem to be crafting their responses — that tells you something right there.

    I interviewed for a position a number of years back. The boss then sent me to meet with someone I’d have been dealing with a lot. That woman said, “So, what did SHE tell you you’d be doing?” Okay then! Of course, even before that, just sitting in the waiting area I could pick up on a bad vibe. There were clear factions. And I knew I would have no part of it.

    I would also beware of situations where they interview you off the floor. I’ll tell you, just spending a few minutes sitting waiting in the group’s workspace, you should pick up a sense of the group. You can see whether people seem to be keeping their heads down to avoid gunfire and what happens to their body language as they pass the boss’s office. Little stuff that says everything.

    Reply
    1. monologue

      My boss was interviewing with someone I assume to be a prospective graduate student yesterday. He gave that person a lab tour, but failed to introduce him to me or 2 other colleagues that were working in the lab at the time, even though I had to apologize as I walked between the two of them to get to my fridge.

      In the past 3 years, the only people that have been hired are people that have not spoken to any of the current lab members. Massive red flag, prospective employees!

      Reply
  7. Anna G

    @#4: absolutely nthing all the responses about turnover =/= toxicity. In one of my previous jobs we had clockwork turnover about every three years–but this was because the library director supported the paraprofessional staff who wished to work toward their MLS degrees and transition into professional work. It was one of the most supportive, welcoming, and no-BS places I’ve ever worked. By contrast, my next job had an incredibly toxic environment, mostly perpetuated by folks who had been there for decades. Unfortunately this was almost invisible in the (extremely short) interview, so I think your idea of a lunch and meeting other potential coworkers is a good one.

    Reply
    1. Ethyl

      Yeah I wish I could go back in time and ask better questions at one of my previous employers. Like some other folks experienced above, the company overall was pretty great, but the local office I was in was AWFUL. There was a LOT of turnover, and during the interview they acknowledged that (it was common knowledge in the industry) and claimed they were looking into why that was. I realized once I got in there that the turnover was entirely at my level of staff, not in the upper levels.

      It became clear that a lot of the reason for the turnover at my level was that the management was essentially one big clique that had been together since the office opened 15-20 years ago, and that in addition to there being nowhere to get promoted to, the management clique played favorites and was pretty exclusionary to the “newbies” — and no matter how long you stayed, you’d ALWAYS be a newbie.

      If I could go back and ask better questions, I would get clarification about the turnover situation — who was leaving, and why, not just *that* there was turnover that they were trying to address. I would also try to get a clearer idea of whether they were thinking of restructuring the office/roles/responsibilities in order to address the turnover, because that happened 3 months into that job and I had a totally new supervisor — one who, if I had known during the interview that she would be my boss, I would have never taken the offer.

      Good luck, OP 4, toxic work cultures are the worst.

      Reply
      1. Artemesia

        Don’t kick yourself too much because good questions don’t always get good answers. I asked exactly the right questions at my first post grad job; they lied. The place was sinking fast and I moved my family and uprooted my spouse for that. Some of them later sheepishly apologized for misleading me.

        Reply
        1. Tris Prior

          Yep, the exact same thing happened to me. I thought I asked all the right questions, both of my interviewers and the future peers that I asked to talk with before accepting the job, and they all lied to my face. They were so understaffed and so desperate to get warm competent bodies in there, they told me what I wanted to hear.

          Reply
          1. Ethyl

            Yikes, that sounds awful Artemesia and Tris Prior! But I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who tried to make good decisions only to find myself in a lousy situation with awful people. When I left that job, the office manager called me into his office to berate me at the top of his lungs, literally shaking in anger, for having a brief social conversation with a coworker during my two week notice period. Surreal.

            Reply
      2. Anna G

        “3 months into that job and I had a totally new supervisor — one who, if I had known during the interview that she would be my boss, I would have never taken the offer.”

        Oh man, YES. This is exactly what happened to me at the Toxic Environment Job. Sometimes you just can’t predict what toxicity will float to the top after your arrival!

        Reply
      3. Anon for this

        I would absolutely go back and ask different questions in interviews now.

        Had I known what I needed to/should ask, I would NEVER have taken the job I have presently, and therefore hopefully not be in the Office Space loop of “every day you see me, it’s the worst day of my life.”

        Because 3/4 of the office should not leave in tears every day. That’s just not how things ought to work.

        Reply
    2. amaranth16

      Agreed! I’m surprised more people haven’t mentioned this. I work in an extremely supportive and totally non-toxic environment that happens to have high turnover because we hire a lot of recent grads who often only spend a few years here before applying to grad school, and my field is a little arcane, so most people come because they’re looking for experience with the functions (research, client management, etc.) rather than because they want a career in the field. The assumption that turnover=toxicity is incredibly myopic.

      Reply
  8. Jess

    “Why did the person previously in this position leave?”

    In my previous job, we never answered with the full truth if the employee left under bad circumstances. Body language and the interviewer’s responsiveness to the question might tell you a lot. But, as others mention, this could be the toxic person that left. It can be hard to figure out toxicity from an interview (in my experience).

    Reply
    1. Anon

      There’s also times when the interviewer/s is scared that they’ll drive away all the good candidates, or get in trouble, if they do answer honestly and admit to toxicity in the office. I’ve seen that happen several times.

      Reply
      1. Accountant, US Gov't.

        You just never know….I had one interview at an accounting firm where the interviewers [who ran the business] were very candid about why the position was open, they fired an employee who was creating a toxic environment. They’d finally had enough, and let her go right before busy season, which you rarely see.

        Ended up not getting the job, and they were another employer who never followed up with me, but I found it interesting how much they aired their dirty laundry during the interview.

        It was my experience as a job seeker that you were more likely to get a straight answer when interviewing with smaller companies, especially when you were speaking with the owner.

        Reply
    2. Stephanie

      Yeah, at best, you get platitudes. “Mike left for other opportunities” could mean anything from “Mike spent half of his time here watching Hulu and we had to fire him” to “Mike was trying really hard, but not performing to the standard we wanted” to “Mike was awesome, but got into medical school and we were really sad when he left.”

      One time, I asked this and I got an overly long answer about the predecessor leaving due to taking full disability due to a chronic illness. The interviewer himself got a bit choked up. It was sad to hear and I felt kind of awkward being like “Oh. Uh, so what’s a typical career path for this role?”

      Sometimes I find asking “What’s creating the need for the position?” gets the focus away from the predecessor and gets more specific answers (like “this is a backfill” or “we have a lot of new business”).

      Reply
      1. Elizabeth West

        Aww, poor interviewer. I’ve had that happen before too–it’s TMI, but I just cluck sympathetically and then try to move on like you did. There’s not much else you can do.

        Of course, that raises the issue then of possibly being hired into a job where everyone LOVED the former employee and isn’t thrilled about a replacement.

        Reply
  9. V

    Just wanted to say that I’m really loving the increased use of the name “Apollo” in the hypothetical scenarios. It is a really nice change from “Bob”!

    Reply
      1. AnotherAlison

        Bob was the actual name of two of my more challenging coworkers, so it always seemed appropriate to me. Then again, I always had to anonymize them with some other name when mentioning them here.

        Reply
    1. Kelly L.

      “Dear AAM,

      My new employee, Apollo, obnoxiously hits on all the female employees. Just last week, he harassed my secretary, Daphne, and now she’s gone and turned herself into a tree! Should I relist her position, or is this something I can work with?”

      Reply
      1. the gold digger

        He has also threatened to kill the children of our CFO, Niobe. Do I have to wait until he actually kills the kids to take action? Do I need to make an HR policy against threatening to kill children or can I counsel him now?

        Reply
  10. J.2014

    #2
    I have never heard that companies were asking for copy of last payment check or document.
    And even if, that’s just the number they pay to your bank account. Your contract may have some more benefits included which does not show up on the payroll. As for example Cell-Phone, leased Car, lunch-vouchers, retirement provision etc.

    Reply
  11. Calla

    Yeah, agreeing with everyone who basically says there’s no single (or paired) question that can determine whether a job is toxic. In my last awful job, they bragged about how long employees stayed and also how quite a few of them moved up (ie from clerk to paralegal, paralegal to attorney) within the firm. Sounded great! Was not. My current job has probably higher than average turnover, and I know there are issues that could be fixed, but you also would have to take into consideration that the majority of the jobs with turnover are entry-level and we’re pretty supportive of people moving on, either within the company or elsewhere.

    I think if you can get a sense of employee attitude there, that’s a good barometer.

    Reply
    1. amaranth16

      Yep. Lots of people moving up the ranks rapidly can also mean that a.) people are really careerist and competitive, which you may not be into, or b.) the Peter or Dilbert Principles are at work.

      Reply
  12. PoohBear McGriddles

    Footmen and maids may be addressed by first name, but butlers and housekeepers by last name.

    Sorry, got AAM confused with Downton Abbey for a minute there. Since the OP referred to an email exchange where the person signed with their first name, it is absolutely appropriate to use that name when emailing them back. Most workplaces are less formal these days, with even executives wanting to be called by their first names. In fact, many use nicknames (“Bill” Gates, “Steve” Jobs, etc.)

    Reply
    1. The IT Manager

      But is was so much easier (and harder) back then. The rules were clear-cut, but there were a lot of them. LW1 wouldn’t have to ask this question if she were on Downton Abbey.

      And then Anna is promoted to be a Ladies Maid (as soon as Lady Mary marries and warrants one) and most people still call her “Anna” because its old habit. Notice Baxter does call her Mrs. Bates, though.

      Reply
    2. fposte

      Butlers and ladies’ maids are addressed by their last name by their employers; housekeepers by an honorific and their last name. Downstairs all of them receive honorifics and last names.

      Of course, this is also in the era (which isn’t entirely over) where wouldn’t sign with an honorific, because you don’t give a title to yourself; hence the putting of “Mrs.” in parenthesis after your signature. So even people who want to be addressed by an honorific may be signing their names without one (though I figure if they’re just signing their first names, that’s a clue).

      Reply
  13. anon-2

    #3 – the reality of many situations is that they pay you what they can get away with — and often, if it involves removing you from a current situation, they want to pay you what they can get away with paying you.

    Not what you think you might be worth.

    Hokey? Oh yeah. But that’s the way things are, just as the counter-offer is sometimes a means to try to set things right.

    Reply
  14. #5 OP (Melissa)

    Thanks! Though, she did end up finding a copy she had saved when she applied, so it all worked out in this case! I know I will definitely be saving job descriptions in the future!

    Reply
    1. I'll Play!

      Whew.

      Sometimes you can also luck out by Googling the company name and job title, and you’ll find it cached on Indeed or the like.

      Reply
    2. Elizabeth West

      Yay!
      Yes, I do what the gold digger said. It’s a good idea because you never know when they’ll pull it. Also I like to print it out and take it with me to the interview so I can refer to the exact verbiage and even make notes on it.

      Reply
    3. ThursdaysGeek

      I had applied to a job (that I wasn’t really qualified for), and was contacted and asked if he could send my resume on to another job with the same company. I agreed. I was on my way out of town, but I quickly looked up the other job description and read it, thinking that I’d copy it to a file as soon as I got back to town. It was gone by the time I got back.

      I didn’t think of contacting the company and asking, and it was awkard in the interview, because I wasn’t really sure what I was interviewing for! I did mention that I didn’t have the job description (hoping for clues). I guess I got enough clues, because I did get the job.

      Reply
    4. Jill of All Trades

      After submitting my materials for a job, I copy the job description and paste as page 2 of the cover letter (since the CL is unique to the job). That way I have what they said and what I said all together in one file.

      Reply
  15. Anonymous

    #4 – Besides high turnover, there are other ways I try to gauge the toxicity of a workplace.

    When you come into interview, how do the associates/co-workers act towards each other? What’s the atmosphere like? I’ve walked into workplaces where the office as happily buzzing with activity, and (in general) I had a good experience there. Likewise, I’ve walked into offices where you could cut the tension and awkwardness with a knife, and it was not a very pleasant experience for me.

    How do the associates act towards the supervisor/director/manager? Are they scared to look him/her in the eye? Or do they have a good rapport?

    How do the associates and person/people interviewing you treat you? I’ve interviewed places where I was treated with dignity and respect during the interview process, and it was no surprise that I was treated with dignity and respect when I worked for them. Likewise, if the company is disrespectful of your time, leaves you waiting in the lobby for 2+ hours, and generally treats you like they have better things to do than interview you, it’s a good indication of things to come.

    And lastly, related to the OP’s question, how does the interviewer act when the interviewee asks questions? Do they seem open to answering questions, or uncomfortable or put off? Do they seem genuine when answering the questions, or do they have a “PR perfect” answer for everything? Are they complimentary/respectful of their competitors or past employees, or do they rip ‘em to shreds?

    Reply
    1. some1

      All of this!

      When I interviewed at my previous toxic employer, I felt like a few guys were ogling me while I waited in reception. (I am female and most people would probably describe me as attractive, but I can count the number of times on one hand guys have checked me out openly enough for me to notice.)

      Sure enough, in addition to other problems, sexual harassment was rampant there and the offenders got promoted (rewarded) for it.

      Reply
    2. Ethyl

      These are also all good! I wish I would’ve listened to my gut in the previous job I spoke about above and the worse one that came after it — aside from not asking enough of the right questions, I decided I was just imagining things and that getting a weird/bad/scary vibe was all in my head. Gift of Fear, people.

      Reply
  16. The IT Manager

    Plus, when someone signs an email to you with their first name, that’s the equivalent of “Please, call me Alison.” They’re calling themselves by their first name in their interactions with you and expecting you to do the same.

    I live and die by this in emails. Also if they refer to me by first name in email and are not signifigantly higher “ranked” than me, I presume that we’re close enough equals that I do the same.

    I did have a slightly ackward “Do you mind if I call you Starbuck?” conversation last week. It’s for an outside project and I am not entirely clear how “high ranking” this guy’s position really is, but I figured better safe than sorry. He said “yes” and made a joke out of it. If figured it was safer than accidentally offending him by being too informal first. People are less likely to be offended by formality than informality.

    Reply
    1. AnotherAlison

      The one that throws me off is when someone continues to sign their emails with their 8-line autosignature. It’s generally the type of person who is:
      Hank Rollins, CPA, CFA, PMP
      Senior Project Manager
      Assistant to the VP of Operations
      Chocolate Teapots, Inc.
      etc.

      Can I call you Hank, or should I stick with Project Manager Rollins for now?

      Reply
      1. Stephanie

        Oh God. Those are the worst. I had a college professor who’s signature was often times longer than the email. You knew every fellowship he had been awarded, all his licensure, every weird endowed departmental title (e.g., the Assistant Apollo Sanders Chair of Thermodynamic Teapot Studies) and so on.

        Reply
        1. TL

          My professors often had signatures longer than their emails but that’s because they were the kings of short emails. E.g.:

          “3 pm works

          fjk
          Professor Microbiology
          Jenkins University”

          (they often signed with lowercase initials instead of their name.)

          Reply
        1. AnotherAlison

          I can forgive it being there, as long as there is a “Thanks, Hank” above it.

          I’d *strongly prefer* that you autosignature your first response & then leave it off for out other back-and-forth emails, but I understand if it’s required. I’ll know it’s required because there’s an ridiculously long confidentiality paragraph after it. ; )

          Reply
          1. businesslady

            that’s what I do–I only include a sig if it’s either the first exchange (which I’m initiating) or if I’m replying for the first time to someone who doesn’t necessarily know who I am.

            then again, I also have various sign-offs programmed into Outlook as signature options (“All the best,” “Take care,” etc. along with more informal ones) & right-click on the one I want to use rather than actually signing my emails. I don’t think any of my colleagues realize I do this, but it’s a huge time-saver if you don’t mind a bit of effort upfront (& then you can just delete the rest of the sig after your name).

            Reply
    2. Zelos

      I almost always add my signature block to all my emails, whether it’s the first or second or tenth exchange. When I don’t, it’s usually because I forgot while doing a bunch of other things.

      I work in law, where this kind of thing seems common place. People often sign “Regards, First Name” right above the 5-8 line signature block. I’ve seen emails without the sig block too so I don’t think it’s absolutely required, but it’s much more common to have the sig.

      It’s rare for people to call me Ms. Lastname even when I end my emails only with the signature block; people just respond back with “Dear Zelos.” Then again, I’m not exactly high up on the ladder. All that said, I didn’t know that not including an informal signoff above the sig block seems pretentious; I’ll be sure to add one from now on.

      I actually like the signature block in every email thing, even though it makes email chains more unwieldy. When I have to find a person’s name/address I just look up the most recent email, not the first in the chain…which, given law, can be months apart. It just makes finding emails/addresses/other information a lot easier since I often deal with different people in the same firm. And people are always sending me things to the wrong address (usually the previous office location) despite my email sig in every email; I can’t imagine how bad it’d be if I left that out!

      Reply
      1. AnotherAlison

        The long sig block without the informal sign-off only bugs me when I haven’t met you and don’t know what to call you. You never really put the communication on a peer or casual-working level when you do it that way. I know some coworkers leave it on everything because that’s their preference or they’re too lazy to delete it on internal emails.

        That said, with small fonts and putting the company address on one line, you can make it compact AND get all the info in there. Unfortunately, our sig block formats are dictated by corporate. Maybe that’s why I have so much hate. . .

        Reply
        1. Zelos

          Oh, I should’ve worded it better. The sig block is for all outbound emails–even to people (firms) I’ve conversed with dozens of times for the reasons outlined above.

          To my coworkers/bosses (there’s less than ten of us total), I delete my sig block. Although sometimes the associates email me back with the block. It just never occurred to me that this is a thing…I’ve lots to learn about work life still.

          Reply
  17. Jen

    In regards to #5, this may seem a little extreme but I have an excel document I make when I apply for jobs. The columns are:
    -The company
    -Job title
    -Date I applied
    -Contact name/e-mail used for applying
    -Job description copied from the site.
    -Interview date (If I get one)

    It helps me keep things organized during those periods of my life when I’m applying for a lot of jobs (during two relocations I was applying quite a bit). That way, when I get a call, I can check and see that I’d applied with Gayle on the 13th of January and take a look at the description that was posted when I applied.

    I know it’s too late for your friend now, but it’s not a bad system to start. It also helps you keep track of how often you apply somewhere. and how often the same businesses are posting the same positions (which gives some clues about high turnover).

    Reply
    1. Banana

      I have the same. I can’t keep it straight otherwise. I also include logins to the application system since that’s nearly impossible to remember.

      Reply
    2. CH

      Thanks for this. I was just this morning talking with my soon-to-graduate daughter about making this kind of spreadsheet as she is starting to apply for jobs–so I sent your system to her.

      Reply
    3. Elizabeth West

      I did that too. The time before, I used a Word document, but it grew to an ungodly length. The spreadsheet (color-coded) was a huge improvement.

      I kept job site log-ins in a small program where I store all my passwords, on a page set up especially for them.

      Reply
    4. the gold digger

      I am not as organized as you are. :)

      I just save a copy of the cover letter like this: “Acme Chocolate Teapots Company Marketing Manager Jan 28 2014,” with the date being the date I applied for the job, and I save a copy of the job posting with a similar title.

      I just use the same username and login for all the job sites.

      I only get about one interview per 20 applications, so I don’t have a hard time keeping track of them. :)

      Reply
    5. Trixie

      Jen, out of curiosity do you include a link in your spreadsheet to the saved job description in your spreadsheet?

      Reply
      1. Jen

        No. I do usually have a column for the company’s overall web page but after most of the job posting links expired, I just started copying the text of the ad and putting that into a column.

        Reply
  18. AdAgencyChick

    #4: I would ask for the name of the last person who held the position and, if possible, get in touch with them — if the company won’t provide contact information, perhaps message them through LinkedIn.

    Unfortunately, people are really good at lying about how great a place is to work when they want to fill a position. I’ve been burned twice. The first time was the only time I’ve ever accepted an offer and then rescinded my acceptance — because after I accepted, I got in touch with the person who had left the role and when we talked, she used the words “soul-sucking.” I knew she might have had an axe to grind, so I took her words with a grain of salt — but then I happened to mention to a friend of mine from the industry that I was planning to take a job there. I hadn’t known that he’d done consulting work with them, or I would have talked to him about it before accepting — and he told me to run away as fast as I could. In hindsight, I missed some warning signals at the interview (“you can hire exactly the team you want!” really meant “there’s no one on the team now because everyone has run away!”).

    The second time, I thought I was asking all the right questions about culture and work-life balance. I even spoke to my predecessor, who said she was going freelance because she wanted to spend more time with her children, not because she hated the job. Several months later, when I was miserable, my coworkers — the ones who had sweet-talked me in the interview about how great it was there — started coming out with stories about how fed up my predecessor had been, and how dysfunctional things were. And then, when I was asked to interview someone for another position on the team (not reporting to me), I was flat out told by upper management to butter her up and tell her how happy I was at the company because they really wanted her. So I’m guessing that was what was told to my colleagues when they were interviewing me.

    The bottom line is, I don’t think you can trust a toxic company to reveal its toxicity during the interview process. I think more detective work may be necessary.

    Reply
    1. some1

      “I even spoke to my predecessor, who said she was going freelance because she wanted to spend more time with her children, not because she hated the job. ”

      Was she counting on this employer as a freelance client, I wonder?

      Reply
    2. Mephyle

      And then, when I was asked to interview someone for another position on the team (not reporting to me), I was flat out told by upper management to butter her up and tell her how happy I was at the company because they really wanted her.
      So what did you do?

      Reply
      1. AdAgencyChick

        I didn’t say I was happy there, but I didn’t tell her I hated it either. IIRC I stuck to talking about specific items that I liked or would have liked to change, but avoided using adjectives to describe the company or my feeling towards the company :P

        In other words, I didn’t want to dis the place enough that I’d get in trouble, because I hadn’t found another job at that point. But I could not look this person in the face and flat out lie to her.

        Reply
  19. another anonymo

    #4
    Two ideas for you. One is to reach out to your network. If you can find someone who has left the team or company, try talking to them in person. They are likly to be more honest than a current employee. Works best if you know them, or if a trusted friend can introduce you.

    The shitty economy is going to keep some people trapped in toxic places. It’s getting a little better, but still shitty. Good luck!!

    Reply
  20. Us, Too

    re: toxic workplaces.

    I worked for a company once that hired only two types of employees: those who lasted less than a year and those that made it at least five years. This company was very good at making sure that anyone who didn’t fit in exited ASAP. And it was usually voluntary – they quit. If you were someone who didn’t fit in, you’d probably consider that environment “toxic” because you’d feel like a fish out of water. If, however, you fit in you felt like you spent your whole day hanging out with good friends who happened to also be working on the same projects you were. For example, we worked insanely long hours sometimes during peak periods. When interviewing people, I’d enthusiastically explain how much we all loved our projects enough to work long hours and, besides, it was like a family there. People actually had their spouse and kids come to work when we pulled all-nighters – the company bought pizza and sodas and snacks and the spouses and kids would come up and join us for dinner and sometimes crash on the bean bags/couches and watch movies in the conference rooms so that we could join them during breaks. Now – horror or awesome? ;)

    My point is that one man’s trash is another’s treasure. You really need to have enough self-awareness to know what your own “toxic” vs. ideal work environment criteria are. And, honestly, this likely changes over time. I was perfectly fine with the workplace above for 7 years early on in my career. But now – I just don’t want that.

    Reply
    1. Graphic Designer

      it was like a family there.

      This is such a red flag for me. Your family is your family. They probably won’t fire you, and you’re bound by blood.

      Reply
      1. Stephanie

        “Work hard, play hard” as well. Or any mention of free meals, lots of happy hours, dry cleaning, or ping pong tables. And I’m one of those millennials who’s supposed to want all that

        All that gives me pause because I’m aware it’s all a ruse to get me to work more.

        Reply
          1. Stephanie

            Ha, I want to go to one of those interviews like “Based on my research, the median salary for a rockstar is $1.2 million, including indefinite royalties, copyright agreements, and licensing deals. Can you meet this requirement?”

            Reply
        1. Laura

          Yep! When I hear “game room” I think “So I’ll be here how long every day because people like to play games at 2 PM?”

          Reply
        2. A Teacher

          or when they describe stuff as “team.” My biggest pet peeve is when we get an e-mail that says “Team” as the opener rather than “Good Morning Everyone,” or something else…. I hate the collective team thing.

          Reply
        3. another anonymous

          agree! the “free meals” is a red flag. I remember being impressed with a friend’s job until I realized the free meals and on-call fancy taxi meant there was no end time to the work day. yikes!

          Reply
      2. amaranth16

        Yeah… maybe it’s unfair, but I hear “family” and I hear “drama” and/or “cult.” (I swear my family isn’t like that!) But I think employers who are using that word sometimes really mean something more like omertà.

        Reply
    2. Jen in RO

      Judging by what I know about the regular commentes, most will say “horror”. I… don’t know. I love an informal environment, but I don’t love long hours, so it would depend on how long and *for* how long. It’s great that you disclose everything to candidates!

      Reply
    3. Jess

      I’m with everybody else on the “family” thing. I’ve always found something manipulative about workplaces claiming to be a “family”.

      Also this: “This company was very good at making sure that anyone who didn’t fit in exited ASAP” sounds like total nightmare material. Especially, if instead of just firing people they drove them to quit.

      Reply
      1. A.Y. Siu

        Shouldn’t they be doing better hiring, then, in the first place, instead of taking people on who won’t fit in, and then trying to get rid of those newcomers right away?

        Reply
  21. Laura

    #4 – I always ask “what do you like best about working here, and what would you change?” This is especially good if you get to talk to more than one person.

    Reply
  22. Anon

    #4 – Sometimes there are red flags that show up during the interview process. In my last job search, I applied at two companies. One treated me respectfully and the other had a recruiter who was inconsiderate and condescending. Both offered me the job, but of course I went with the first.

    Thinking back on it, the things I don’t like about my current job were apparent during the interview process. I saw these as potential problems, but decided they were things I could deal with.

    Reply
  23. Anon

    #3

    I’ve been asked for W2s as part of a background check in lieu of having them contact my current employer. Slightly different situation (and I’d be surprised if the numbers came back to the employer in question) but there’s an example where it might come up.

    Reply
  24. CH

    #1 – I know you are talking about in the workplace, but is anyone else bothered when store clerks who are complete strangers to you call you by your first name? Usually it is when I use a customer loyalty card and I can only assume they are instructed to do so to appear “friendly.” I don’t want to be “Jane” their new friend, I don’t care so much if they call me Ms. Smith, and I don’t mind a comment on the weather or such, but I’d prefer that we both just leave it an anonymous encounter.

    Reply
    1. Kelly L.

      Write the management! This is almost certainly a blanket policy that the clerk must follow or get reprimanded/fired. But some companies have changed these policies in response to customer complaints (see the thread from the other day about “greeting coworkers by name”).

      Reply
    2. some1

      Actually, when I was a cashier and had to wear a nametag I experienced the opposite. “How is your day going, SOME1?”, “Is it cold enough for you, SOME1?” like we were old friends. And it wasn’t regular customers I’d built a rapport with, either.

      Reply
    3. ThursdaysGeek

      I use the customer loyalty number from my sister or a friend (yes, to deliberately mess with their database and tracking), so they often don’t even use the right name.

      Reply
  25. Bonnie

    #4 – I agree with those above who say that the question of people leaving is too easy to get around. The last two people who left my employer did so because they moved. We are not toxic but if we were the answer that they moved away wouldn’t help you. Also, I think some turn over is normal in any company. While some people may work for the same company for 25 or 40 years most don’t. If no one ever left their first job there would be very few job openings, right?

    I think asking about culture can help but agree with many above that said no one question will tell you for sure if a place is toxic.

    Reply
  26. Mephyle

    #1 (first names): there’s an additional complication if you work in one of those languages where there is more than one way to say “you” – especially if it’s not your native language. I never initiate the informal “you”, but wait for the other person to use it first.

    I’m a freelancer who communicates with clients almost exclusively by email. Some use the informal “you” at first contact, others switch to it after the first exchange of emails, and others stick to the formal “you” throughout our relationship. Something I’ve learned along with my second language, though, is that a relationship can be warm, friendly and longstanding even while maintaining the formal “you”. This is true in my second language and culture; it’s not a universal for all languages and cultures where there are multiple “you”s.

    If I was employed in an office, I suppose would pick it up from people around me and follow the lead of my peers.

    Reply
  27. anon in tejas

    #1. another thing to take into consideration when deciding whether or not to go with first or last name is if you are weighing gender/race/ethnicity into play.

    I always address clients and other colleagues as Ms./Mr. because I am a lawyer, and it equates a certain level of professionalism and respect which is necessarily for court. I do default to first names after working with an attorney closely, but rarely with a client. More often than not, other attorneys will just start calling me by first name, because my last name is so difficult, even when they are still calling every other (male) attorney by last name.

    Also, I had a receptionist who did this. I was Ms. Anon and all other attorneys at my office were Ms. Tejas. Not cool.

    Reply
  28. posterof#4

    Hi guys,
    I asked question #4. Thank you everyone for the comments in addition to Alison’s.

    Someone here had a great suggestion about asking the interviewer the name of the last person to leave, but I think they would feel that I’m investigating them. After I left my last job, I found out why the last 3 people had left. Their comments were not good.

    When I wanted to know more about the culture fit before I started, I had a conversation with a person who I never saw in the office again after starting instead of talking with the other staff who I would interact with every day. I think they didn’t want me to talk to them, because within a month 2 people had already resigned.

    A definite red flag for me is the use of the ad hominem fallacy when you ask a direct question and they evade answering it and their answer is about me instead of answering my question.

    Reply
    1. James M

      I like your attitude towards evasive answers. I’d be tempted to call them out on the evasion by saying “I accept how I am, but I noticed you failed to answer my question”. If the interview is already going down in flames, why not have a little fun?

      Reply
    2. HAnon

      Hi OP,

      I have worked for a couple of toxic workplaces at this point in my career, and am now working at a “non-toxic” workplace :)

      I think discerning that right off the bat is something that comes with time, but there are some questions you can ask in an interview. I’ve started asking employers what they are most excited about that the company is doing, what a typical day looks like in this role, etc…and you can see from their responses if they are actually excited about their work (faces light up) or if they look fatigued and stressed and have a hard time coming up with a positive response. Also, trust your gut when it comes to the office vibe. If it seems “off” it probably is. I’ve walked into offices before where no one looked happy, people looked super tense, and it was just bad energy all the way around. I’ve also walked into offices where it seemed like people were working hard, but they were laughing or smiling or friendly when I walked by. Companies that overemphasize how “cool” their culture is do not necessarily win in my book…seems to usually equal more hours + less pay. A previous company bought a ping-pong table, state of the art smoothie machine, and top of the line drink machine one year. We all just wanted a bonus to boost our tiny paychecks. The extra cash would have been much better than the “perks” the boss thought we should have.

      Reply
  29. The Dream

    #2 and #4 combined – Toxic and exclusion from meetings.

    I left what sadly became a toxic workplace last year. (I posted versions of this story in messages over the last few months but it fits this thread nicely)

    Anyway, the brand new IT manager told me I was being transferred into a project that I had been assisting in for about a year. The plan was to hire “someone to replace me in the department.” When I asked why I was not involved in the meeting or in any discussions about my job or this transfer, she told me that I did not need to be there and the transfers happen all of the time.

    The job I had required contestant attention and I was the only one in the company who knew how to do it at the time. (Including being on call 24/7 or the company would lose money) It was also not a job where you could just find someone and just “plug them in.” I worked as a backup to the person who ran these systems before taking over for the last few years. There definitely should have been some organized discussions on how to transition my duties to someone else. Which would have been no problem, but the word being spread was that I was too attached and possessive of the systems. Any IT pros who come here can confirm that mission critical systems have to be protected. There were zero discussions. This manager later kicked me out of the department before this supposed replacement was brought it. (The catch: The systems I ran were going to be replaced by what the project brining in so there was no need for such drastic action in my opinion). The project was not a promotion in my case because they did not file the paperwork and I did not get the raise that others got and I was doing all of the work anyhow. My issue was the way this was being handled.

    Members of this project could not assist in their old jobs without clearance. When someone in IT requested my assistance for those systems that were now unmanaged, I followed this project protocol and the IT manager tried to have me fired for insubordination. She told executives I refused to assist during an emergency for systems I was still responsible for and the part that I will always remember since I have a copy of the email “I want someone else in here immediately!” Again this was news to me since we had no discussions about covering my old job. (The Project manger and this IT manager did not get along which did not help either)

    Anyway, I decided I was leaving the company that very day after HR reps came to me and only encouraged me to respect the transfer, and did not address my concerns about clarifying my accountability. Executives who I had regular contact with prior to this incident were awol or silent on this issue as well. Based on something that happened in the past, I at least expected someone to follow up and get my side of the story. I had been with the company for over half a decade, had a solid reputation but even after this incident there was nothing done to correct this version of the Kobayashi Maru. They fired me when I put it my two weeks notice after finding another job a month later and had to spend $2000 a day to the consultant who trained me to cover my old job because only after I left did this manager learn how complex the systems I ran were.

    Like I said, Toxic

    Reply
  30. Ali

    I use email to contact my future thesis adviser and in his replies, he addresses me with my first name i.e. “Ali” and signs with initials of his first and last name i.e. “JD”. What is the appropriate way to address him back? I opened my previous emails with something like “Dear Prof. Doe”.

    Reply

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