should you advise a job-seeker against your dysfunctional employer?

A reader writes:

I’m wondering about the etiquette around advising someone away from a certain job choice. My current employer is highly unsatisfying; morale is low, turnover is high, etc. I’ve been asked about my job by a graduate school alum who applied for a position here, is very excited about the prospect, and seeks my perspective. I’m struggling to hold my tongue; if it were a friend, I’d be very blunt and would strongly recommend looking elsewhere.

The best approach I can think of is to focus on identifying this person’s goals and address those in the context of the office, rather than describing my negative experiences. (One’s mileage may vary, after all.) Still… It bothers my conscience to let someone else make the same mistakes I made! Is there any way to convey this?

I think your instinct to ask about the person’s goals and frame your answer in that context is the right one. That said, it’s also reasonable to go a bit further and say something like, “Well, every job has positives and negatives, obviously. Let me tell you some of each.” That assumes you can come up with some positives, of course, but I bet there are some. And then you can talk about the negatives too.

I think the key to not coming across like you’re trash-talking your employer is to present your perspective in as objective a manner as you can. Don’t use this as a venting opportunity, and stay as unemotional as possible in how you characterize things. For instance, you shouldn’t say, “The top managers are all crazy,” but you can say, “The leadership hasn’t conveyed clear goals to the employees and changes course a lot; as a result, expectations aren’t always clear and people sometimes feel they’re not sure what they’re being measured against.”

Also, if it’s true, you can say, “Some people are driven crazy by this stuff and have left over it, but other people don’t seem bothered by it.”

That way, you haven’t misled the person asking for advice, you haven’t steered them in one direction or the other, and you also won’t have trashed your employer in an inappropriate way.

I’d be interested to hear if anyone has ever gone in one extreme or the other with this situation (letting loose with a full tirade or putting a shiny, happy face on a bad situation), and if so, how it played out in the end. Did it come back to bite you? Did you later wish you handled it differently?

{ 36 comments… read them below }

  1. clobbered*

    I practise complete honesty in my professional dealings, and situations like this are no exception. Please note, honest does not mean tactless.

    So I would be honest while also bearing in mind that other people see things differently, might be dead grateful to have any job at all and so on. For example, I might say something like “Priorities tend to shift a lot. If you are the kind of person who is frustrated by having to leave projects half-finished when priorities suddenly change, this job may drive you crazy.” Note that I would never say anything that I would not say to my employer directly if asked my opinion, but then I can’t think of much I wouldn’t say if asked directly, short of betraying a confidence. Most other people seem to be more circumspect than that.

    As to whether this can bite you: maybe, but in my experience it means that you end up building working relationships with people who see being straight up as an asset rather than a hindrance, and as these are the people I like to work with anyway, I see this as no bad thing.

    [Your sector may vary]

  2. The Engineer*

    Now wait a minute. Why is this not like references for a potential employee? As hiring managers we work to ferret out the reality a potential new hire, why shouldn’t a new hire ferret out the reality of the potential workplace.

    The response should be along the lines of “I have learned a lot here but I would not take a job again with this employer and am actively looking for another company.”

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I think the difference is that if the comment somehow got back to the employer, it could potentially really cause problems for the person who said it, if they’re still working there. Not saying that’s fair, just usually the reality.

      1. Anonymous*

        Yes, I was just going to say that you don’t know the candidate who is asking you – he or she can be a plant by the employer or someone who is just naturally a blabber mouth!

        1. Anonymous*

          If those are the lengths the company would go to to get my opinion, I wouldn’t want to work there anyway! I don’t think the OP is worried about themselves at all; that’s not the feeling I got from their question.

    2. Natalie*

      Presumably a manager being asked for a reference would *explain* why they wouldn’t hire person X again, so the hiring manager can decide if those problems are dealbreakers. The OP telling her colleague “I would never work here again” doesn’t give the colleague any information she can use to decide if she would like to work here.

      Going through the positives and negatives with some detail allows the OP’s colleague to make her own value judgments.

  3. Call me Al*

    I’ve been in this situation before. Not exactly that situation, but it was the part of the interview where the candidate gets “dropped off” in the engineering dept. so we can check on his skills a bit.

    With the presence of 2 senior engineers (on which a whole book of crazy stories can be written), of course I couldn’t just tell him about the company problems (as he certainly wasn’t told about them by HR in the preceding interview part: bad communication, oversized projects, resulting in unpaid overtime and high turnover).
    I tried to spin it as “skills you need here include a thick skin and a lot of willpower” (if this sounds strange – sorry, English is not my native language, but I assure you I put it well) with a strong ‘do you know what I mean’ look.
    Unfortunately, he was high on interviewee adrenaline and told me that he certainly can cope with that etc.

    Now, 8 months later, he put in his notice. I still wonder if I should have put it any stronger (and risk a reprimand from above).

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I think you probably gave perfectly appropriate cues, but when people want a job, they often have rosy colored glasses on. They think, “Oh, I could put up with that.” And then they get there and realize they hate it.

      1. Talyssa*

        I think this happens in most cases – most people want the job so badly they kind of won’t hear what you’re saying. But at least in 8 months they might remember you tried?

        We were hiring for a position working with a VERY difficult internal group – and my manager has very little tact by the way (near zero) and so when she says she was very up front about the difficulties of the position, I imagine she was very up front about the difficulties of the position. We had one guy take the job and walk out after 2 weeks — the day before he left I had been listening to him on a call and thinking “oh my that is some aggressive and slightly inappropriate language!”

        The 2 week walkout was bad hiring (mentioned him to his former coworkers and they laughed and laughed) but the fact that we had been very up front about the job and he took it anyway shows a distinct lack of either self-understanding (he thought he was the kind of person who could handle it and he wasn’t) or some very rose tinted glasses. I suspect a combination of those 2 things means that no matter WHAT the OP says the person probably won’t listen.

  4. RT*

    I was in a similar situation. I was leaving an organization and had groomed two replacements (my job was being split into two positions), both of whom were friends. I was very clear with them about the craziness of the organization. I wasn’t worried about it getting back to the employer, partly because I was leaving and partly because the main players already knew how I felt (I had said it more tactfully to them, but we had fought enough times at that point that it was no secret that I was unhappy there). And there were no adverse consequences as far as I know — I still have references I can use from that job; one of the employees is still in the job coping realistically with the craziness; and one left, partly because the job wasn’t a good fit and partly because of the craziness, but she had gone in fully knowing that it would probably only be a temporary thing, and would be worth it for the experience.

    My only regret is that I feel that I did not appear professional. These two employees were friends of mine, and so I think they primarily saw me as trying to look out for their best interests, rather than as an unprofessional vengeful venty complainy crazy. However, I do think I was being an unprofessional vengeful venty complainy crazy. And I still think it was appropriate to communicate this stuff, but I should have communicated it in a more straightforward, dispassionate way, and I should have done it much earlier on, when I started grooming these individuals to be interns, then employees, rather than once they were already deep into the transition.

  5. A*

    Does this advice stand if you’re casually in conversation (say by a family friend or other acquaintance — not really a close friend — who’s not applying for a job at your company but is purely curious) and someone asks how you like your job? Or if you replace the grad student in the OP with a close friend?

    Obviously it’s never good to dis your company — you never know who knows whom — so I’m guessing the answer is “yes”, but I have a tendency to be more frank about my feelings while, at the same point, pointing out that mine might be an exception because I’m working in a department that operates differently from most of the rest of my company, the job hasn’t really turned out as I thought it would, etc.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Close friend: Absolutely. Close friends probably already have heard some venting!

      Anyone else: It’s a risk, and you so you need to calculate it accordingly. If it gets back to your company, what are the consequences? Again, it’s one thing to rationally and objectively talk about pros and cons, but it’s entirely different to seem angry, disgusted, overall unhappy, etc.

  6. Cindy Lou Who*

    I’ll tell you this: I wish someone had been brutally honest with ME! I interviewed for a job in another state, and during the interview, toured the facility with employees from the HR dept. They were all really nice, loved working there, etc. It wasn’t until I accepted the position that I realized what a batshit-crazy nightmare the HR Director was! When I asked my co-workers why they didn’t pull me aside during the tour and say, “You DON’T want to work here! Run, don’t walk out the door!!” they replied, “We were afraid to! She’s nuts!” Needless to say, I didn’t last there for long.

    If the situation were reversed, I would do everything I could to convey, in the most tactful/diplomatic way possible (nonverbal cues! Anything!) that you would NOT want to work there.

    1. Anonymous*

      I completely agree! Years ago when I was in a job that was a horrible fit for me corporate-culture-wise (and also had a batshit insane boss), I made it a point in interviews to ask a lot of questions to make sure I wasn’t getting myself into the same situation all over again. I even asked HR if I could talk to people who were already in the role I was up for, before I accepted, so I could get the “real story” of what it was like to work there. Everyone lied their faces off to me, I took the job, and I ended up in the same situation I had left.

      This happened to me again several years later. I really wish that people had been honest with me — it would’ve saved me a lot of stress and future jobhunting when I realized I was yet AGAIN in a bad situation despite my best efforts to assure that didn’t happen.

      I think in my case it’s got something to do with my industry (publishing). People were so overworked and so desperate to hire warm bodies to share the load, they’d tell you anything. (of course, this was before publishing all started getting outsourced to India so I don’t know that this would happen today.

      1. Cindy Lou Who*

        Blink twice if working here sucks! Tap out “RUN NOW” in morse code with your feet! DO SOMETHING! lol.

        1. Anonymous*

          I’ve been in this situation and it can be a catch-22. On one hand you want to warn people to run but, on the other, you’re stuck doing the extra work until a replacement is hired.

  7. class factotum*

    A young woman contacted me via our alumni organization. She had an offer from my company and from Company X. I told her that my company had been laying people off like crazy and that she should look at the stock performance of my company vs Company X. Two co-workers overheard my conversation and jumped in, telling her, “Take the Company X job! It’s a better organization!”

    She did so, and the recruiter from my my company called me because the young woman had told her why she hadn’t taken the job. (Good grief.) I explained to the recruiter what I had told the young woman. Th recruiter sighed and said, “Yeah, she probably made the right decision.”

    I doubt my being laid off six months later had anything to do with it as my boss didn’t talk to people outside our department.

  8. Mike C.*

    I’m a firm believer that bad organizations need to be outed as such in a clear and direct manner. The whole idea of the at-will world is that people will leave bad organizations if they can, and bad employers should be punished until they improve.

    Here we like to employ budding scientists and make them do nothing but work that will do nothing to further their careers and teach them nothing that they can take to other employers. If I knew someone personally that was applying here, I would tell them everything. I would tell them how there is no such thing as a review process, how you will never be given access to useful work and that they will gain few useful skills to take elsewhere. Though they might notice something is amiss when the owner yells at employees in front of prospective employees and clients.

    Look, we all know if we work at a terrible workplace or not. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to someone in person, hit up and write up an anonymous review of your workplace. It’s only fair that people who are researching your firm have all the information they can and it protects you from harm.

    1. Jamie*

      I’m not sure we all do know if we work at a terrible workplace or not.

      Sure – there are extreme organizations which most rational people would find toxic, but there are many more which some people might find horrible and others would find to be a good fit.

      Not everyone is bothered by the same things, to the same degree. I was warned about certain workplace problems when I was hired for a job – and I was warned by the HR who was interviewing me. After I started I saw what he was talking about, and can see why they were issues for him, but I never had a problem with them and they didn’t affect me.

      If it were me I would be honest about my perspective, in a guarded way – because if they do begin work there some comments will have a long shelf life…people tend to have remarkably good memories especially for things you’d rather they forget.

      1. Mike C.*

        Fair enough. I work at an extreme organization, and everyone there generally feels the same way.

        That being said, I still think it appropriate to make the candidate understand working conditions that may turn some folks away, much like your own experience.

        I think it boils down to trusting your gut.

        1. Jamie*

          The HR at one of my former employers used to say in order to be successful there you needed to develop Stockholm Syndrome.

          Everyone who couldn’t drink the Kool-Aid were working on an escape plan.

          She was right. If you’re in one of those places my heart goes out to you – and I hope you find a better situation if you’re looking. It can really be demoralizing spending your day marinating in bad management.

    2. Anonymous J*

      Mike, you are one of my heroes! I completely agree that bad organizations should be outed.

      Things are hard enough for most people right now: They don’t need to be locked into shitty jobs on top of everything else.

  9. anon-2*

    Often, if a young person takes a job thinking “I can handle this” and it doesn’t work out — it DOES become a valuable learning experience, and if he/she leaves after one or two or six months and lands a better fit elsewhere, it does make one stronger.

    And far more aware of what he or she should look out for, individually or otherwise.

    In my entire career, I only made one move into a decidedly bad situation — but stuck with it. because

    a) I needed the money from that new position,
    b) I thought I’d stick it out a year, and re-evaluate my position and
    c) If I were to leave, I’d want some stability to show on my resume — and, that I’m not a quitter.

    That one situation was Bad (note the capital B). But it groomed me for my next position. I knew what to look out for, and knew how to sense red flags and yellow ones, too. Ny next interview cycle landed me three offers, and I received higher offers because of the competitive situation — AND — ended up choosing the lowest-paying of the three, because it was a good fit.

    So don’t feel too badly if someone got into a bad situation and managed to extricate his way out of it. A better job awaited.

    1. Mr. X*

      Agreed – sometimes a bad situation is a great way to learn some skills, like learning to deal with jerks…

  10. Vicki*

    If I knew the person, we’d definitely have a very honest conversation. If I didn’t, we’d still have some sort of general conversation – the other person might be very different from me (e.g. I would NOT stick with a Bad with a capital B job for a year just because I don’t want to look like a quitter.)

    FYI – I’ve always liked this take on the subject:

  11. Joe*

    If the situation were so bad that you think nobody should want to work there, then you wouldn’t be working there either, right? So clearly, there is some benefit to working there, which can, for some people, be sufficient to outweigh the negatives. The question is how to judge for other people.

    To relate to an anecdote from my own life: for the last couple of years, the head of the IT team at my company has been an odious, incompetent troll, hellbent on destroying productivity and imposing ridiculous burdens on many of the people working here. (This person is, thankfully, finally on the way out. Huzzah!) For some people on my team, this made working here unbearable, and they left. For others, their managers were able to shield them from the hardships, and they never even saw the problems. For me, personally, I viewed it as a growth opportunity. How could I continue to be productive in this environment, how could I shield my team and ensure their continued productivity, and how could I work to improve things for others, and try to work against some of the more onerous obstacles the CIO created?

    So if someone asked me what it was like working here, I was honest about it. I presented the positives and the negatives, the things I thought were particularly problematic, and let them make their own judgment.

  12. Joey*

    Yes, be upfront, but tactful. It’s also helpful to ask what they already know, percieve or have heard.

  13. Mr. X*

    I had a situation at a startup company where I worked. We were going to hire a person for our team, who previously worked with our manager at another company.

    At the time, the company was literally down to it’s last million and burning money fast. We had no customers, no sales plan, no clue, and we could’ve shut down at any time.

    We were upfront with him at the interview about our financial situation and where we were. We answered all of his questions. It turned out that he had just bought a house and had a very stable (but boring) job, so it would’ve been a huge risk to join us.

    He thankfully declined our offer, so I felt better that we didn’t bring someone on. I felt a bit bad about bad-mouthing our company, but at least I can sleep at night.

  14. Anonymous*

    I’m the OP, and I’ve gained a lot from reading the back and forth. I do think people will put up with a lot, and ignore a lot of warning signs, to gain opportunities that look good to them. (I know I did. Perhaps I still do.)

    One important distinction is the stage of the process. If you’re inquiring about firms in general, I think frankness is easier especially because you can speak about the culture generally (“This may not be your best choice”, “You may want to try Company X instead”, etc. or even deflecting it with, “So where else are you looking?”). But once someone is a solid candidate, has applied for a position (or has even interviewed for one), and is really excited about it, it’s harder to say “Stop!” This is especially true because there’s a legitimate risk of your comments trickling up, explicitly or implicitly. S/he is engaging on a personal path to the organization, and you may end up becoming colleagues.

    As for my conversation, if anyone’s curious what I did other than focusing on the alum’s goals and interests… I mostly raised smoke signals in generalities: “Ambitious people often move on from here to do other things.” “Oh, you know how this industry is.” And I probably committed a few sins of omission; I figure if someone is truly excited about his/her employer, it will show. Not being totally gung ho, despite a little acting ability, may show too. Maybe that’s not direct enough–or maybe it’s enough to put a little writing on the wall.

  15. Chronic Error On This One!*

    I have an absolute classic here. I needed to hire an assistant. The boss of the company was clinically crazy and unbearable, where he could fundamentally damage your mind, reputation and career. I was planning to leave within two months. I discounted the best candidates who I would have preferred, as the job would have hurt them professionally. I could not have the trials they would have gone through on my conscience, and they would have left the job anyway.
    I chose an acquaintance who I thought could handle the bosses madness, over actual qualifications (!). I took him out to lunch and fully briefed him on the situation, what he would have to handle and potential affects on him. The problems would start on his first day, these were not subtle issues that appeared after a few months. He said he could handle it and was OK with it.
    I set up an interview with the crazy boss.
    I was unfairly dismissed on false charges a month later, and at the tribunal it transpired that the acquaintance had told the crazy boss everything I had said, at his interview, where they then both conspired to get rid of me!
    Bad judgement indeed, but the stress of dealing with the bosses narcissistic rage had me at the edge of reason.
    In the end, I am glad I am out of there and those two deserve each other.
    I would not be so straightforward with a new hire again though.

  16. Anonymous J*

    When people ask me about opportunities at my current company, I state–with all honesty–“I cannot recommend {X} as an employer,” and I leave it at that.

    I know for a fact that I am not the only person here who is mistreated and extremely unhappy. The culture is really toxic.

    (Yes. I’m looking for another job. I have been for a long time.)

  17. Ignisptriprop*

    Hi there!, my name is


    I am new on the forum and just wanted to say hello :)


    BTW: Vps in Spain

  18. sphr-ca*

    I’ve interviewed a lot of people. Some were given an actual job offer and some were not. Some self-selected out, and that is a good thing. While co-horts were “selling” the company to meet recruitment metrics, my offering a more realistic job preview meant turn-over was about 30 percent lower than the next closest location and less than half the second closest location. That also meant my/our training numbers were way ahead and we made bonus.

    Don’t place blame on the culture, boss, or anybody else, but considering the cost of each hire, failure to allow candidates the information to self select out fails to help the company, the candidate or yourself.
    (love the Dilbert Hull Breach!)

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