how can I warn job candidates about how awful this place is?

A reader writes:

I’m finally coming to the end of my contract at an incredibly poisonous company, and I’ve been tasked to replace myself. We don’t have an HR department, and my own boss just split suddenly, leaving behind massive amounts of debt, so the parent company has tasked me to do this.

My question is, how can I explain the reality of the workplace to a new hire? I know you’re never supposed to speak negatively about past employers in professional circles, but I’d feel wrong bringing someone into this company with blinders on. The problems range from intense understaffing to interpersonal problems and poor management, which is leading most of the existing team, like myself, to leave in the next few months as our contracts end. I’ve already tried to stress the benefits by targeting new grads, as the work itself is interesting and a great opportunity for someone fresh out of school, but I worry that in a years time whoever replaces me will be cursing me, the same way I cursed the manager who lied to me about the company when I was hired.

How can I explain the huge negatives in a professional manner? I’ve already encountered questions, as trying to explain the full job description and range of tasks makes it clear that this job encompasses the work of 5 people, on a junior person’s salary. I’m worried if I can’t figure out how to explain the job in a way that doesn’t make it seem undoable, I’ll never find anyone to take my place, and once I do, how will I sleep at night knowing I brought some fresh-faced new employee into such a toxic situation?

You’re right to want to share the negatives with your top candidates. I’m a big believer in “truth in advertising” when hiring, both because it’s the right thing to do and because you want people to self-select out before they’re hired if those negatives are deal-breakers to them.

I was recently hiring for a position that came with a range of negatives, and I talked to all my finalists about them. (If the negatives are sensitive, there’s no reason to get into that before you have finalists; I’d keep it on more of a need-to-know basis.) Everyone thanked me profusely for being candid, and every single one noted how unusual it was to find honest explanations of a job’s downsides in the hiring process, even though every job has downsides.  And here’s what happened afterwards: One candidate emailed me the next day, thanked me for being candid, and said she’d realized that it wasn’t for her. Everyone else said they were still interested (with a couple saying they were more interested, because they appreciated being leveled with and knowing there wouldn’t be surprises).

The key is in how you present negative information. If you just whisper, “This is a terrible workplace, everyone is miserable, the managers are jerks, and we’re all trying to leave,” then yes, you’re not going to find many (good) candidates who will take that job. But as you yourself point out, there are positives too. You should present a full picture, in a professional way: “There are plusses and minuses to this job, and I want to talk to you about the minuses. Frankly, we’re very understaffed. There’s a lot of work, and you’ll be expected to juggle a high workload. And between you and me, a lot of the staff has been frustrated with some of the management, and that’s led to turnover recently. That said, the work itself is interesting, and you’ll get great experience, especially as a recent grad.”

You could also add, “If you’re someone who gets extremely frustrated by __ (fill in some of the management’s most objectionable qualities here), this job may not be for you. But if you think you can handle that in exchange for great experience, we should keep talking.”

Now, smart candidates will ask you to elaborate on these frustrations with management, and you should be prepared to talk about it in a way that’s objective and professional. In fact, you need to say all of this professionally — no venom, no vitriol, no mentions that you yourself wanted to throw yourself out the window. And the reason for that is that that’s the line to walk that balances your obligations to your employer and your obligations to the candidate. (You do have an obligation to your employer here — and it’s to find a way remove yourself from the hiring if you can’t stay professional about it.)

I think you’re going to be surprised by how many candidates will thank you for telling them and say that they’re still interested. Yes, part of that is that people just want a job and they have rosy-colored glasses on about how bad it could really be. But some of it is that knowing about problems before you go in can make them more bearable. Being blindsided by them is a lot harder. And some people genuinely don’t care about this kind of thing — they just want to show up and work and they’re going to tune out things that would drive others insane.

Your obligation is to present the good and the bad, unemotionally. From there, your candidates will make their own decisions. Good luck!

{ 15 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    In mentally preparing for how to answer and elaborate on the issues at the company, I think OP should open their mind to the idea that everyone has different expectations of a job, and different work styles.

    Understaffing to you may mean an opportunity to take on new responsibilities to another person. Interpersonal problems may not be a problem at all if the applicant has a similar or complimentary personality to the management.

    That someone else may not see the situation as 'poisonous' is not completely beyond the realm of possibility. I recently began a new job and met the person who would be my immediate boss during the interviews, and could tell he's very introverted, very scatter-brained, very non=communicative. in the past month nearly everyone in the company has wondered at my patience to work with him because nearly everyone has refused to work with him. And I in return wonder what the big deal is. I'm a bit of an introvert too, so not only do I not mind, I actually LIKE working with him. And I've definitely worked with worse (divas, power trippers, angry ragers). So don't discount the idea that one person's he11 is another person's heaven.

  2. Anonymous*

    When leaving my current position, I decided to take my negativity off the table and think of two things: what were the positives of the job, and what could I personally do to make the job better for the next person (which was a lot, b/c the person before me destroyed all information related to the job, while I left samples of my work, a tip sheet, etc).

    I told my replacement what I think she could change and what I didn't think could change. She's very different from me, so I think there's a good chance she'll be happier than I was. And if she's not, its not b/c of me!

  3. Mike*

    I really hate that "being professional" means that one must whitewash the situation.

    How does one "professionally" explain situations like bosses who rage or work environments that border on the illegal?

  4. Ask a Manager*

    Mike, depending on the details, I'd say something like, "The manager for this position has a strong personality and isn't shy about making his displeasure known when something goes wrong. That's not everyone's cup of tea, so I like to mention it up front."

    People will generally read between the lines.

    Regarding borderline illegal environments, depends on what the specific issue is — can you say more?

  5. Charles*


    A "strong personality" and "rage" are not the same. You are assuming that every candidate will read between the lines? I say it is better to be totally honest as this will be fair to both the candidate and the organization.

    I once went to work for someone (stayed less than one month) who had one of these "strong personalities." Really, the guy was a complete A$$. When the woman who interviewed me for the job heard that I was leaving she then told me that she knew I wouldn't stay because of his "demands." For example, he would do things such as call employees at home on Christmas Day to inquire about non-emergency work issues. He felt that Christmas was a religious holiday and should not be an official holiday. Calling employees at home on that day was his way of dealing with this issue of his. I spent Christmas with family at another house; but there were three messages on my answering machine when I got home that night. (did I mention that he was a complete a$$?).

    The woman who interviewed me did not tell me anything about his "demanding nature" when we interviewed. And, I am not sure that I would have been able to read between the lines if she had said that he was "demanding." I have worked for "demanding," but fair, bosses before. This situation was beyond that of a "demanding boss."

    There was one very strong clue that I should have seen. I was employee number 56 in an organization that had been in business for less than 2 years and currently only had 12 employees.

    But job seekers are sometimes too happy to get interviews and job offers to really "read between the lines." The interviewer really does need to be more honest.

    So, to the OP, simply ask yourself what you would have liked someone to tell you before you accepted the job.

  6. Anonymous*

    aS a contractor, it's not your place to warn anyone, let those people find out like you did.

    Find and train your replacement ? Anyone find or replace when you were blissfully led down the altar ? Let the time expire, the game was over when you walked into that job. When they stop paying you FMV you have no obligations, the employer wasn't doing you any favors, you worked an hour for an hours pay scale.

  7. Mike*

    AAM – Regarding the illegal part of my comment I intended to speak more generally, but now that I think about it, my workplace totally ignores the ADA* and generally pay our H1-B visa holders much less for more hours than their citizen/permanent resident counterparts.

    *Yes, the building is under renovation all the time, yet they can never manage to build a ramp to the front door, or use the marked parking spots for anything other than reserved parking for the owners.

  8. Anonymous*

    OP here:

    AAM, is there more strong language I could use to describe the situation, beyond 'demanding'? Where's the line between coming right out and saying 'listen, this place is ridiculous, you'll be doing three times the amount of work because they refuse to hire more staff or pay for freelancers, you'll spend half your time talking contractors off ledges as management has screamed or made unreasonable demands on them and then refused to pay them in a timely manner, or your coworkers as yet another one of them has been reduced to tears in the bathroom thanks to tyranical owners. You'll learn the ins and outs of invoicing and begging bank managers and clients as, even though it's not at all in your job description, you will have to do it to get your job done as management is too cheap to pay their bills on time, and you'll regularly want to beat your head against a desk as you're asked to do something that makes you wonder how your soul will ever emerge from this hell"

    without, you know, actually saying that :P

    All that said: I'm nervous because this job is overseas- once you're here you're stuck. But because it's overseas, it looks attractive, and it does have pluses. it pays better than back home (altho chances of my replacement ever getting a raise is nothing- the 'official' reason I'm not renewing is because two years in, two promotions later, i've never had my salary increased past my inital start salary, to match other people on the management team), altho not as well as many jobs in the region. And it's good experience. I'm just nervous as i'm targeting new grads- as they're the ones, I feel, will most benefit from the small pluses of this job- who are LESS likely to read between the lines on things.

    Put it this way: this isn't just a difficult office, as the first Anon post thought. I asked several friends to circulate the job posting in channels they run in, and they all refused- none of them wanted any responsibility bringing someone into a work place where I can totally relate to the boss-calling-at-christmas (mine likes to text at 3 am on a Friday and will continue to text until she recieves a response).

    as for finding and training my replacement: it's part of me leaving and not feeling guilty for abandoning my team to the wolves, as well as securing a release so I can stay in the country and move on to my much, much, much much better job. I have to keep crazy-management happy so I can have my lovely future :)

    Any advice?

  9. Anonymous*

    I was in a position where we had many interns coming in, and there were a few times that it was obvious I was not happy in my position (and was not alone) – I always made sure to say to the interns that they needed to look at this job as a stepping stone, to take what they could out of it, but don't expect to stay (we had a VERY high turnover). I think I handled it the best I could in that situation. I tried to give them a slightly more calm and objective view after they'd caught me in near-tears or something.

    What I wonder now, is whether I can warn people about this job even from afar. I'm no longer there, I'm not recruiting, but I see the same old position postings and I cringe, thinking about the desperate job-seeker I was, who took a job at an innocent, small company and ended up being asked to work on what was practically porn, and then being retaliated against when I refused to do it any longer (as ONE example of my problems there).

    I have warned an old professor who often helps students find their first jobs, but I wasn't specific because I was embarrassed and also wanted to try to stay professional, but as time goes on I realize what a terrible place it was. I know it's not my responsibility to save people from themselves, but I wish I could do something to save other recent grads from making the same mistake.

  10. Anonymous*

    Re:"…generally pay our H1-B visa holders much less for more hours than their citizen/permanent resident counterparts."

    You're joking, right? In my old company the H1B's got 10-25K more per year than the citizens.

  11. KellyK*

    One way to make the downsides clear but still be professional about them is to put them in numeric terms, as objectively as posslbe. For example, if it usually takes a 12-hour day to get done what needs to be done, that's a clear and specific downside you can point out.

  12. fposte*

    I'm with Kelly. There's a temptation to be really emotional in warning somebody for their own good. Stick to being factual–not only is it not whitewashing, no matter what it feels like to the person who wants to vent, it's actually going to be a lot more effective. If I'm told by an employee that the boss is a hideous hag and that the employee goes home and cries every night, that's going to warn me off of the employee even more than the job. Tell me that the last three paychecks were between a day and a week late, that there have been nine people in this job in the last year, and that it's expected that employees will work twelve hour days and be on call weekends and holidays, and I'll pay a lot more attention to your words.

  13. Interviewer*

    how will I sleep at night knowing I brought some fresh-faced new employee into such a toxic situation?



    Perhaps with the benefit of hindsight, you see where you could have negotiated a better salary on the front end. Help the person who takes your job do that, and sleep will come.

  14. Anonymous*

    I've been on interviews where employees said things like "you'll regularly want to beat your head against a desk as you're asked to do something that makes you wonder how your soul will ever emerge from this hell."

    All it did was make me assume that those people were fussy wimps who'd probably add ME to the list of people to blame for their problems once I was hired.

    Coworkers like that are an unattractive quality in a workplace, so saying this kind of thing might successfully scare off the people you're hoping to scare off, if that's what you're hoping for.

    I never ended up working at those companies, so never got to find out if they actually were wimps or if they were justified in warning me, but AAM's original advice is still right on: If you actually do need to hire someone, stick to the facts.

  15. Anonymous*

    I would bluntly tell the candidate to begin looking for a new job soon after starting. It sounds like the job is a good stepping stone to another job, right? Just tell them it sucks hard but is a good path towards advancement. They'll respect your honesty and either they'll amazingly love the job or they'll move on and (yeah right) the management will get a clue.

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