how can I avoid ending up in another horrible job?

A reader writes:

How do I ensure I don’t end up in a toxic work environment again?

Based on my experiences, some companies are really good at hiding their toxicity during the interview process. My past two jobs have been at incredibly unhealthy organizations with high turnover, and I’m starting to lose faith that there are any workplaces out there that are healthy.

When I was interviewing for my current job, they emphasized during the hiring process that this was a new role. What I didn’t find out until after working there for a few months was that while my title was new, two people before me had done very similar work, but with different titles. Those two people each left after only a few months, without other positions lined up. This is obviously a huge red flag, and I wouldn’t have taken the job had I known this, but it didn’t occur to me to ask why the previous person left because I didn’t think there was a previous person.

The main reason people on this team keep leaving so quickly is the manager, who we’ll call Susan. I ended up connecting with one of the people who left the team before me, and she told me that the director of HR reached out to her after she put in her two weeks’ notice and asked her point-blank, “Are you quitting because of Susan?” The HR director also told her that they’ve gotten a lot of complaints about Susan but can’t do anything about it because people won’t go “on the record” about her.

Susan is incredibly inappropriate and has commented that I’m “lucky to make such a good salary” (I’m on the cusp of qualifying for Section 8 housing, whereas she makes six figures), complained I wasn’t online at midnight when she needed help with something, and has told me, “I’d be crying if I were you” when giving negative feedback. In addition to the high turnover on this team, the turnover rate for our office as a whole was 52% last year. I read rumblings on Glassdoor that there was high turnover, but that amount seems astronomical to me.

How am I supposed to know that an environment is like this if I’m not given the full story during the interview process, and when HR knows about issues but doesn’t address them? I wasn’t given the full picture during the interview process despite asking a lot of questions about culture, and Susan is the type of person who can put on a nice act when meeting someone for the first time. Is there anything I can do on my end to ensure the accuracy of what I’m being told? Is this behavior and turnover like this common/normal? I’d like to avoid it in the future, so any advice on what kind of digging I can do to ensure that what I’m being told in the interview process is true would be really helpful.

Some employers do indeed misrepresent the job and their work culture in remarkable ways.

Some interviewers genuinely believe what they’re telling you but are oblivious to what things are really like. For example, a manager who tells you she gives people a lot of autonomy might really believe that about herself, even though her staff knows her to be an overbearing micromanager.

Other interviewers intentionally shade the truth because to do otherwise would feel like badmouthing their own company, or because they worry no one will take the job if they don’t. Of course, this is a terrible way to hire! Not only is it unfair to mislead candidates, but it’s not even in the interviewer’s own interest. If new hires feel they were lied to, they’re not going to be happy and engaged; they’re going to be bitter and demoralized, and they’re probably not going to stick around for long.

It’s hard to say which of these was the case with your current employer. It’s possible that your job really was a “new role” to them. It sounds like the work you’re doing isn’t identical to that of your predecessors, even aside from the title change, so who knows — maybe they legitimately made changes to the job that they thought would help and that’s why they emphasized “new role” in the hiring process. Or yes, maybe they were deliberately trying to cover up the short tenures of the previous employees.

The key for you as a candidate is not to rely so heavily on what employers tell you about themselves. Interviewers, like anyone else, can have serious blind spots and/or be tempted to bend the truth in flattering ways. Your interviewers are one source of data about what you’re signing up for, but they shouldn’t be your only one. It’s crucial to seek out your own sources of information about the employer.

The best way to do that is to find people outside the formal interview process to talk with. And the easiest way to do that is with LinkedIn, where you can see who in your network is connected to someone who has worked for the company or manager. These don’t need to be direct connections — it could be someone connected to your former co-worker’s friend’s sister, as long as you have a path to them. Ask the closer connection to make the introduction, and you’ll be much more likely to get candid, firsthand info about what it’s really like to work there. (I recently coached someone through doing this, and she ended up turning down an offer she’d been on the verge of accepting after people she found through her network told her horror stories about the toxic management culture there.)

If you can’t find anyone in your network — or your network’s network — who can give you the inside scoop on the job, your nextbest option is to ask the employer if you can talk with some of their current employees. Smart employers will have already set this up for you as part of the interview process, but if they haven’t and you’ve reached the finalist or offer stage, it’s reasonable to ask if they’d be willing to connect you with one or two employees who can help flesh out your understanding of the work culture. (You should wait until you’re at the finalist stage before you make this request, though.) Current employees whose manager asks them to speak with you might not be as candid as the people you find on your own, but if you pay attention to wording and even body language, you should still be able to pick up a lot.

Beyond that, you can often gather a lot of information from what you see during the hiring process: How does your potential manager treat you during the interview? Is she polite, respectful of your time, and actively interested in you, or does she seem distracted, skeptical, or dismissive? Does she answer direct questions head-on or give you vague or evasive responses? Is she genuinely interested in answering your questions, or does she make you feel rushed or like an inconvenience? How up-front is she about the downsides of the job or company culture? Do you feel like you’re having an honest conversation about the work and culture, or like someone is trying to sell you something?

It’s also worth paying some attention to how the manager talks about her management style, although you shouldn’t take it as the final word. You probably won’t get a ton of useful info by directly asking a manager what their management style is; managers can be notoriously bad at self-assessing this. But you can often get useful information by asking questions like, “What type of person works best with you, and what type of person doesn’t do as well?” and, “What differentiates people who are pretty good in this role from the ones who are really great at it?”

None of this is foolproof against a company that’s deliberately misrepresenting itself. But it’ll significantly increase your chances of avoiding unpleasant surprises after you start.

I originally published this at New York Magazine.

{ 193 comments… read them below }

  1. Adlib*

    I’m so sorry to hear that there are so many Susans out there. I used to work with one, and she is literally why I left my last job. (Glad I did – my boss was let go after I left and I’m 100% sure they would have had me reporting directly to her based on our roles.) Fortunately, I went on the record with HR when I left. Won’t do any good though.

    I hope OP can find a better spot.

    1. Artemesia*

      the idea that a company cannot fire someone or demote them when they are like this because ‘no one will go on record’ is laughable. This is a total failure of management; high turnover alone is sufficient to move someone like Susan out of a management role. They KNOW and yet they do nothing.

      1. Sharon*

        I agree with you, but politically speaking it means that person is protected by someone with more power than HR. Also a red flag for toxicity.

      2. Jedi Squirrel*

        Especially as most employment these days is at-will.

        Some people are just too damned conflict-averse for their jobs. They don’t realize that all conflict isn’t people jumping on desks and screaming and throwing chairs. Conflict is part of human experience, and if you’re going to manage, you’re going to have to manage conflict. That means you have to manage the little things (microwave policy) and the big things (Susan).

      3. Marley*

        Actually I have a manager that recently told me that about an employee. I was like, wtf? I even said to her that we are in an at-will state and you can fire anyone for any reason except protections. She is from another country…. but she has lived here long enough to know the laws so I dunno why she is saying this.

    1. Cautionary tail*

      I feel the same way. The job I took with “Toxic Company” had someone in the same role as me but with a different title who was “laid off” because in my view, they were approaching their vesting date which would cost the company more money. After I was “laid off” just before my vesting date, a new person was brought in with yet another title.

      People disappeared for good on a daily basis and our Susan was completely unhinged.

      I wish OP well, you too.

      1. Artemesia*

        I know two different people in two different companies who worked for startups at minimum wage with huge stock options who were fired literally the day before their options vested after doing heroic work to get the company up and running. One set up their entire on line presence for a company that marketed on line. They got his year of work and then dumped him when they had to compensate him.

    2. Pantsuit Eleanor Shellstrop*

      For a moment I actually thought this was a letter I saved in my drafts earlier this year. It’s strikingly similar.

    3. Retired and Happy Now*

      The one time I asked the question about the prior occupant of a job as a supervisor in local government service, I was fed a lie. I found out about two days in that she had been fired. It didn’t take long to understand that management gave lip service to allowing supervisors to manage staff and some of the staff did their best to undermine me as they had my predecessor. Like my predecssor I was fired after a year. Not long after, another employee sued the organization about an unjust management action forcing the citizen governing board to look into practices in the organization. The director was eventually publicly dismissed and the head of my unit departed. The folks who undermined me were called out. Me? It only toook a few weeks to land the best job I evr had.

  2. SJ*

    I’ve been burned like this twice; the first time, in retrospect, the interview had plenty of clues but I was very young and didn’t pick up on them. The second time, everyone I met with during interviews was so brainwashed by the place they thought the behavior was normal and not worth mentioning. It’s tough! The best advice I have is don’t let your judgment get clouded. With that second place, my gut was more suspicious than my brain, because my brain was fixated on the salary increase that I ended up not enjoying at all due to the mental health crisis the job gave me.

  3. Heidi*

    I’m puzzled by what the HR director means when they say no one will go “on the record” about Susan. Aren’t the complaints to HR the same as going “on the record?”

    1. fposte*

      I think it means “No one has complained about Susan in a way that we get in trouble for ignoring.”

    2. Arctic*

      They probably require something in writing and consider verbal complaints unofficial. Which is bad practice.

      1. Amber Rose*

        I don’t know about the US, but technically that’s law in my part of Canada. I’m not allowed to begin an investigation unless I have a complaint in writing.

        1. The Man, Becky Lynch*


          I know the US has a lot of issues with their at-will life choices but when used correctly, it can also protect you from having to deal with this kind of stickiness.

          1. Black Bellamy*

            Isn’t it great when idiots are in charge of making laws? I know it’s an extreme example, but if a dozen people walk in the door and are crying and shaking because they’ve just been bullied by their manager and were specifically told that if they make a written complaint they will be subject to more extreme brutality, as an HR person I just gently shut the door in their non-written-complaint faces.

            1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

              It’s just another example of failing to protect the ones you’re trying to. Instead you protect the ones who are the problem.

              I don’t know that they’re idiots so much as these people never think it through and also in politics they still have to “compromise”, which means they keep loopholes available to those rats determined to get inside into the warmth and security.

        2. Chinookwind*

          The good news, though, is that, atleast in Alberta, the writing can take any format (up to and including the back of a napkin) anď can be done by someone who witnessed the thing being complained about or by the supervisor of someone who shoyld be complaining but won’t.

          Or, you can just call up Alberta Labour and mention “bullying” and they will send someone to the worksite to investigate.

          1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

            This makes it so much easier to wrap my mind around. It’s not just waiting for victims to accept more victimization and making some kind of over the top formal paperwork happen. As long as anyone can report it as a witness, I’m a lot more at east with that kind of rule in place.

        3. Roverandom*

          Is that to have a government body investigate, or to have HR investigate?
          I did some online research and everything about “reports” and “writing” referred to record-keeping, and many stories mentioned HR employees interviewing people in person, and presumably writing things down.

          Do you mean you can’t even begin an investigation as HR in your own company if someone only speaks to you in person? And you keeping your own written record of that complaint doesn’t count?

      2. MeanieNini*

        It also likely means that HR has “heard about” issues 3rd or 4th hand and even if HR has tried to FUP on them all lips related to the incidents have “closed” and ensured HR they didn’t really say that or there isn’t really an issue, because they are too scared to say anything. Most of the time in these situations HR’s hands are tied because there isn’t any cooperation, even when you try to ensure that HR is a safe space and this is what we are here for. This happens to me all the time and it’s caused me to go home crying because I really wanted to stand up for employees but just couldn’t.

    3. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      Some HR departments won’t be bothered with any “reports” if they aren’t detailed, with dates and times. So they can approach Susan and make her explain her side. Otherwise it’s just “Susan is the reason. She’s a real PITA.” and that’s not enough to fire someone in most places.

    4. Chili*

      I imagine they want someone to be willing to attach their name to a complaint and partake in some sort of official process they have, but I bet most employees feel that would be a risk to their working relationship with Susan without much promise of actual action against Susan. But I think an effective HR department and management team could use the existing complaints against Susan (even without names attached) to set up a PIP for Susan or whatever.

      1. Chili*

        So they reached out to the former employee because they knew they’d no longer be scared of Susan and may feel comfortable attaching a name to an official complaint.

      2. Mockingjay*

        You’d think that the high turnover rate would be indicative of bad management, unless that’s the “norm” across the company.

      3. Ro*

        Yes. That happened one time at my company years ago. The only problem was it took almost the entire sales team quitting over the course of several months before anything was done. Too many for there not to be an obvious problem. But unfortunately we lost a lot of great people in the time it took for the company to show this manager the door.

    5. banzo_bean*

      I assume they’re hearing about second hand reports of Susan’s behavior, and that no one has said directly “Susan did X or Y to me” in concrete terms.

      It might be like “oh Susan and Michael really did not get along. She could be really harsh on him.” Which is probably not enough to do something in terms of formally disciplining someone.

      1. MeanieNini*

        Yes!! I just replied with the same thing. As HR Director in my small company I will always go to bat for employees, but if I have only 2nd or 3rd hand stories that come to me and the people involved just brush it off there isn’t much I can do. After several times of hearing these kind of things, I went to executive leadership but on their end, they were like, well if everyone is changing their stories and not confirming, what do you want us to do about it.

    6. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

      HR probably hears gossip from second-hand sources like other managers and coworkers, but when HR tries to ask the direct sources about it, they do what it sounds like the OP’s predecessor did, they refuse to say anything because they are already out the door and it’s not their problem, or they are afraid of a bad reference or other retaliation. Complaints by former employees usually don’t bear a lot of weight either. It’s easy to dismiss it as sour grapes and they’re gone anyway so…

      Sometimes the Susan’s are rainmakers at their position — which may be more skilled and harder to fill — and it’s less expensive to keep her and deal with the turnover of admin staff.

    7. Heidi*

      This makes sense. Thanks for the speedy responses, everyone. I was imagining they were waiting for someone to stand up in the middle of the office and yell, “I DECLARE…TOXICITY!!!”

        1. Just Elle*

          OMG can we set up a GoFundMe to have an improv actor go to OPs workplace and do this?
          Maybe complete with a hear-ye-hear-ye old fashioned scroll of Susan’s transgressions?

            1. valentine*

              Maybe complete with a hear-ye-hear-ye old fashioned scroll of Susan’s transgressions?
              And then nail it to HR’s door.

      1. BRR*

        I might be speculating but I want to say the HR director is so close to doing their job well but isn’t all the way there yet. Decent leadership would see all of the different turnover metrics and go “wow, these are high. We need to figure out what’s going on and try and fix it.” But it sounds like the HR director did the equivalent of “wow, these are high” and then went to get lunch (and maybe the HR director is part of the problem then, who knows?).

    8. Dana B.S.*

      Or HR director has little or no power to fire or discipline and TPTB just don’t believe that Susan is so toxic.

  4. Alex*

    Does anyone else not like the italics they use for the question on that site? I find it distracting and hard to read.

    1. anon4this*

      I think it’s AAM not condensing the questions for length, and the stark white background/tiny black Georgia font Alison insists on using for every single letter.

      1. Senor Montoya*

        You can enlarge the type pretty easily — on a non-apple machine, press control and use the scroll button on your mouse. On apples, go to view and zoom-in. (I’ve got a kid w a visual disability, so I’ve learned the quick tricks!)

        1. NotAnotherManager!*

          On Windows, Ctrl and the + or – sign also work, for those who don’t have a scroll mouse.

      2. fposte*

        It sounds like Alex is talking about NY Mag, which uses its own font, not anything Alison chooses. (It is a pretty curly italic.)

      3. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        I adjust my monitor for contrast due to the white background. That may help if it’s bothering your eyeballs like it bothers mine.

  5. Just Elle*

    I’m just as puzzled as you are, OP. Sometimes I catch myself wondering if its ‘just me’ because how can so many well respected, large, profitable, companies be so full of bees?

    But one thing that has helped me weed out a lot of companies that later turned out to be toxic is to ask much more specific, STAR type questions of the interviewers:
    -What is your leadership philosophy? What do you think a good leader should do for their team? What is your preferred communication style? How often do you have one-on-ones with your employees? (I listen to see if this aligns with how I like to be managed)
    -Can you describe your best employee, what does she do that makes her so successful? (red flag: she works really hard and never calls out, always goes the extra mile for me)
    -What personality traits would make someone NOT do well here? (I’ve literally heard ‘easily offended’ as an answer to this one – RED FLAG)
    -How does the team manage emergencies? (I’m looking for ‘we help each other out’ without verging into ‘like a family’ territory)
    -How many hours a week do you usually work? Does your team usually work? (try to get specifics here)
    -Do employees hang out with each other outside of work? Do you have lots of pot luck type events?
    -What happens when someone makes a mistake?

    1. Ariana Grande's Ponytail*

      These are great questions!

      I’m curious though, what would you hope to hear from the one about hanging out outside of work? I feel like I’ve read plenty of things on this site where that could be a good thing, or a toxic thing.

      1. ranunculously*

        For me, it’s a neutral thing, but it does tell me something about the culture. Not unrelated, my sister generally likes her job, but her colleagues *and* supervisor expect her to regularly eat lunch with them, not on the clock and at her own expense (or bringing her own lunch). She’d rather have that time to herself, and the obligation has been super frustrating.

      2. 1234*

        I’m not the OP but if I asked that, I am hoping to hear “We get together once in awhile to celebrate birthdays and other milestones. Most of these events are during business hours” rather than “One of our perks are our company outings, which everyone participates in. They include weekly happy hours or sometimes we will have a theme party at the office. On Fridays, we make a beer run.”

        I’ve been at both of these companies. I want to avoid another Company #2 and their beer runs.

        1. The Original K.*

          Yeah. I’d be OK with “sometimes people go to happy hour,” but I don’t want to hear that socializing outside of work is constant and “strongly encouraged.” If people like each other organically, that’s great! But I don’t want the expectation to be “your coworkers are your social outlet now.”

        2. The Yikes Committee*

          I worked in a toxic office with lots of regular happy hours and theme parties. Every time I went to my manager with a serious problem about my coworkers (scary physically aggressive behavior, to choose an example at random) my manager would just tell me that everyone would be much friendlier to me if I attended more of their social events and lunch parties. (:

      3. Just Elle*

        Really I’m just trying to figure out in real, specific ways if the culture aligns with what I want out of work. I’ve been at places who think Work is for Working and fun is a four letter word. And I’ve been at places who force you to spend every ounce of not-work time socializing with work people. I’m looking for a ‘normal sane person’ response that falls somewhere in the middle.

        Right now I have a small group of coworkers I go to happy hour with once a month, its nice. But before I’ve had forced expensive meals out for every birthday and forced Friday night happy hours that went for hours, and then on the opposite side of the spectrum, bosses who would get mad at me if they caught me sneaking a bag of chips for lunch.

    2. Some Windex for my Glass Ceiling please*

      Good questions!
      I ask “How do you support your reports?” to someone I might report to.
      Those who take this question seriously give a long paragraph response. And they usually are good managers.
      Those who give some smart-aleck answer or don’t offer up much are managers to avoid.

      1. Kimmy Schmidt*

        To me, it’s not really the answer that matters but the emphasis and excitement level. “Oh we have a potluck once a month or so, but it’s fairly low-key and just for fun” vs. “We have potlucks all the time and we are all SO EXCITED to share each other’s food and friendship. Everybody loves potluck day”. That might tip me off that I would be judged or excluded for choosing not to participate or not doing it to the same level as everyone else.

        1. Just Elle*

          Yes, this. Really I’m just trying to figure out in real, specific ways if the culture aligns with what I want out of work. I’ve been at places who think Work is for Working and fun is a four letter word. And I’ve been at places who force you to spend every ounce of not-work time socializing with work people. I’m looking for a ‘normal sane person’ response that falls somewhere in the middle.

    3. Doug Judy*

      These are great questions and I have asked very similar ones. I also ask “Besides your coworkers what is your favorite thing about Company X (I and that qualifier because the generic response I was always getting was “Oh it’s the people!”. I also ask what is the most challenging thing. The If they can’t give clear and specific answers, or give me something generic, it’s a bad sign, usually. Just as an interviewee gives a vague and generic answer is a bad sign, same goes for the interviewer.

      1. Kes*

        This is what I ask – what’s your favourite thing about working there? and what’s your least favourite part, or what’s one thing you would change if you could?
        Both the responses and how people react and respond can be telling, I think.

    4. NotAnotherManager!*

      Out of curiosity, why are works really hard and goes the extra mile red flags? I get never calls out – that makes it sound like people aren’t able to use their PTO, which is bad – but my best employees are hard workers and do go the extra mile for their teams/clients, particularly as they develop subject-matter expertise and are better able to issue spot and predict next steps of a project.

      1. Tortally HareBrained*

        I think your clarification shows why those two phrases as short answers aren’t ideal. “Works hard” and “goes the extra mile” are hard to quantify and make it seem like you could only want rock stars. But saying “my best reports become subject matter experts and are able to spot problems ahead of time” is a concrete thing a candidate would know they can accomplish.

        1. Parenthetically*

          Agreed! “Goes the extra mile” can mean what NAM! says, or it can mean “works 70 hour weeks” or “is guilt-tripped into taking on more than they can handle on pain of demotion” or any number of unhealthy things as well!

          1. NotAnotherManager!*

            I mean, I work in a law firm, which is not an industry know for it’s amazing work/life balance, but I do tell people in interviews that there will be 70-hour weeks at some point, particularly around trials or major briefs. :)

            It’s pretty intense, but I think hiding that would be a disservice to all involved. My philosophy is that I’d much rather scare people off at the interview stage than have them quit three months in and feel like I was dishonest with them, though. Interviewing is a two-way street, and the candidate is checking us out, too.

            1. Parenthetically*

              I don’t disagree — I just think HareBrained is right that the more specific and thoughtful the response to that question is, the better. “We work hard and play hard” doesn’t give a candidate any real information, but, “Of course there are going to be 60 and 70-hour weeks around trials and major briefs, but we offer six weeks’ paid vacation and flexible schedules around those fixed times” does.

            2. Richard Hershberger*

              As someone who also works in a law firm, the extra hours around trials and major briefs go with the territory. But I also want some idea how often these occur. A guy who specializes in traffic court cases has multiple trials every day. If you are do huge class actions, trial will be rare to never, though the major briefs will be more frequent.

            3. Just Elle*

              Even in this context, I think its better to separate the answer about what makes a good employee and the bluntness about hours. Bluntness about hours is definitely good!
              But if you covered the 70+ hour thing, and then immediately told me your best employees were hard workers… I’d almost be wondering if 70 hours was the bare minimum, but you’d really prefer I worked 80 and your star performers work 100. That’s part of what I hate about the ‘hard worker’ thing. Its this amorphous pressure to work more without ever really understanding at what point your boss considers it ‘more enough’ to be a top performer. Which is how top performers end up burning out (the HBR article on insecure overachievers is a great read on this).

            4. Meredith*

              Setting expectations goes a long way too. I might wonder what I had walked into if, in my first week, everyone was there 70-80 hours. But If you quantify it (“the long weeks usually alternate with regular 40 hours weeks” or “we have to work 70+ hours for a week or two usually once a month/quarter/blue moon”) I’d be much more willing to accept it.

        2. AndersonDarling*

          Yep, with all these questions, you want to hear thoughtful answers. Even if the manager doesn’t have brilliant responses ready, if they discuss the answer and bring up some examples, then you know they care about what they do. If you get “I’ve never thought about that” or generic short answers, then you know you are talking to someone who isn’t serious about managing. They are just taking home a paycheck.

        3. Veronica*

          Like the letter yesterday? or the day before? by the person who was going to work when she was very sick because her bosses were giving her grief about canceling their vacation because she got sick.
          Being the only person who can cover and going to work when they should be in bed can be called “going the extra mile”, but it’s unhealthy martyrdom that could kill a person, and an employer who expects that is one to run from.

      2. NW Mossy*

        I’d call them yellow flags myself, but they’re definitely statements I’d want to ask follow-up questions on to better understand the expectations.

        It’s often possible to work really hard and go the extra mile in ways that are deeply toxic. If that behavior is part of a culture of never saying no (even if the request is totally unreasonable), unclear direction (leadership expecting staff to Do All The Things without guiding priorities), and/or commitment to the organization to the exclusion of everything else, it’s a major red flag.

        And while this isn’t directly your question, I think there’s a lot to unpack about “works hard” as a virtue. In every team I’ve managed, there have always been one or two people who want to be rewarded for putting forth a lot of effort, without any regard to the results associated with that effort. It’s not just about the effort – it’s at least as much about directing that effort towards things that really matter and letting go of things that don’t matter as much. Chronic overinvestment in things that don’t matter can be really crippling to someone’s productivity, and all those extra hours are basically wasted.

        1. Goldenrod*

          This is SO TRUE:
          “It’s not just about the effort – it’s at least as much about directing that effort towards things that really matter and letting go of things that don’t matter as much. Chronic overinvestment in things that don’t matter can be really crippling to someone’s productivity, and all those extra hours are basically wasted.”

          1. Just Elle*

            So much yes! And these people are the ones who end up totally burned out, miserable, and unable to compromise with anyone on anything because they’re so ‘passionate’ about literally everything.

            …ok, so, maybe ‘works hard’ isn’t necessarily a red flag way to describe someone in normal healthy organizations. But I’ve been in a lot of organizations where being in a state of constant crisis showed that you were Super Passionate and On Top Of Things and Willing To Go The Extra Mile… instead of that you were so incapable of basic organization and problem solving that every smoldering ember turned into a giant dumpster fire of your own making… and so maybe I’m hyper sensitive to avoiding that in the future.

            1. Overeducated*

              YES to your second paragraph. I’ve actually taken to being sort of…aggressively calm and organized in the face of that approach. My job is not a life-or-death job, there are people in my organization who literally do fight gigantic wildfires, we don’t need to act like we are those people.

          2. iglwif*

            YES. I had a direct report once who would spend half a day researching something that ultimately turned out not to matter, and I had to talk to them about how “interesting” and “important to your job” are not always the same thing…

        2. Doug Judy*

          So much yes to your last point. I had a coworker that management thought was such a great hard worker because she stayed much later than the rest of the team and was always on top of things. What was really going on that she spent most of her day watching and tracking what everyone else was doing, had a spreadsheet of every typo/mistake people made. She’s track how long to took people to reply to emails. She was horrible. She had to stay late because she spent hardly any time on her actual job during work hours. But our horrible manager just saw her “dedication” and didn’t see the details.

          1. Artemesia*

            A hallmark of bad management is focus on butts in seats rather than productivity. Most of the people I have worked with over the years who are there late all the time, are people who don’t want to go home for some reason or who diddle around socializing or surfing all day and then have to hustle to get a few things done at night.

        3. Parenthetically*

          it’s at least as much about directing that effort towards things that really matter and letting go of things that don’t matter as much

          Frankly, my best students when I taught high school were ones who understood this — they’d willingly bomb a weekly quiz, for instance, because they were working on an essay test worth 10x the number of points — and some of my worst students were ones who didn’t understand this.

      3. Emily K*

        For me they maybe aren’t red flags, but I’d prefer to see a manager highlight an employee on the basis of skills/talents/achievements rather than perceived effort. In the case of achievements, even if you could argue they come because the employee works really hard, but I’d want to see a manager recognize the employee for the achievement itself, rather than the level of work that went into it, because I prefer to be evaluated on my outcomes rather than my process.

        But I’d much rather hear that Jenkins has been extremely successful because he brought a technical background and has really improved the relationship and communication between IT and his department since he started by being able to better understand their perspective and speak their language…or that Zara’s project management skills that she learned at a large global corporation were instrumental in helping the company grow past its wild-west start-up culture days into a more professional company with greater efficiencies and safeguards in place…or that ever since Bev took over marketing there’s been greater coordination between sales and marketing which has had a measurable impact on the sales team’s success in addition to her own team.

        I want to hear that the manager notices people who make smart decisions and solve problems more than the people who are first to arrive and last to leave and answering emails on their phone at all hours of the day and night.

      4. Just Elle*

        I think to me its more about what the manager thinks of FIRST as the best thing about their employee, and the level of enthusiasm with which they brag about it. IME those who value ‘working hard’ most of all can’t distinguish between ‘butts in seats’ and actual quality of work. Basically, they’re using it as a euphemism for ‘picks up the phone when I call at 1am on Saturday’.

        I’m not saying it could never be that a good work ethic is the best thing about the best employee… but I’m hoping if that’s the case, a good manager will give me more specifics that show they understand the nuance, and maybe some concrete examples of other ways in which these employees excel (like, make an effort to develop expertise or having great foresight).

    5. Goldenrod*

      oh, what a great list! I especially love the “what happens when someone makes a mistake?” and “what is your leadership style?” questions.

    6. Your Friendly Neighborhood Enby*

      These are great! I’ve taken to asking every person I speak to at the company how long they’ve worked there. At my current gig, I got five or more years as an answer from everyone except the HR person – and they all still seemed excited about their projects.

      It’s really helpful to have a bunch of flags of all colors to help make a decision if they decide to make an offer.

      1. Media Monkey*

        this is a good question, however in my current job (which is great) we have grown so quickly and hired a huge number of new staff in the past year, that no one has been there any amount of time!

  6. Darla Morgendorffer*

    This could have been me a few years ago with two back to back terrible jobs and terrified that I was going to accept another terrible job. I found that it was easier to see red flags and make better choices when I was in a good headspace (deliberately went to work for a client where the work was undemanding and the people were nice while looked for a new permanent job). If it is possible, look at taking time off to look for a job or take a temp job that brings in money but you can concentrate on the next step. Also, don’t accept jobs where they don’t let you ask or limit questions in the interview.

    1. fposte*

      This is excellent, and it’s also excellent that the post with your username is next to one from That Girl from Quinn’s House.

    2. AndersonDarling*

      This what I was coming here to say. When you are desperate to leave a toxic workplace, you think that anything is better. When friends tell you bad stories about the prospective company, it’s easy to brush them off because New Company must be better than where you are now. Right? The interviewers didn’t have a grasp of the job…They were probably having a bad day. No one made eye contact when you interviewed…They were probably just really busy. HR changed the offer three times…the salary was much lower than expected…less PTO…but it must be better than Current Job? Right?

    3. Artemesia*

      I made my most serious mistakes — in accepting a job and in buying a house (and come to think of it my first marriage) — when selling myself and looking for reasons to say yes rather than dispassionately looking for data with an open mind. You can talk yourself into anything when you really want to say yes and so close yourself off to those yellow flags.

  7. That Girl from Quinn's House*

    I had this happen to me too! I was told it’s a new role, they’d had people in other roles “helping out” with the duties but felt that having an experienced, defined person in the role was going to work out better.

    In fact, they had a dedicated person in that job and he quit after 10 months because the boss was harassing him (not sexually, more like emotional abuse.) And also, surprise, they forgot to mention that they don’t do raises. No merit raises, not even a COLA raise. They had people who had been there 10 years making the same pay the did when they were first hired.

    I did not stay past the probation period.

    1. Anonymouse*

      Did you work at my old job? The description fits to a tee. Org/entitled director drove away every single new employee and abused the crap out of long suffering ones (threats of physical violence, wildly inappropriate/unrealistic performance expectation, flagrant disregard of fed and state wage and labor laws, wage fudging). Also had no COLA raise whatsoever despite being in NYC. My direct supervisor basically made $10000 more than he did 10 years ago as a fellow (still underpaid at $55000). I didn’t walk away, I ran from this job as soon as my contracted position was up.

      1. Anonymouse*

        Clarification: he makes $55000 now. Not as a fellow.

        Biggest red flags during interview (director forced everyone on staff to panel interview every job candidate so I am well-versed in what he did during those inquisitions):
        – indication of family dynamics (“we’re like a family here”)
        – super non concrete answers about conflict res or stress management
        – nondescript duty description or wordy job descriptions that dont really have real meaning
        – emphasis on personality or fit (really means that they’re looking for someone who wont question anything ever)
        – dismissive/deflective behavior or criticism or inability to name challenges
        – lack of diversity in management (again, a workplace with institutionalized confirmation bias won’t be welcoming to any dissenters)

    2. Rebecca*

      The company I work for doesn’t give COLAs or merit increases, and they’re stingy on paid time off. I’m a leftover employee from a company they purchased, so thankfully, my wage level was decent once upon a time. I also have grandfathered vacation time, and great health insurance. BUT. I will NOT recommend this place for employment. We need people. We get people, and surprise, they leave after a short time. Gee, I wonder why. And I have heard those words “you should be thankful you have a job here”. Ugh.

    3. Jules the 3rd*

      Wow. No raises? Sounds like that needs to be added to the list of questions, with something like, ‘What are the review periods, and typical bonuses or raises?’ (would be interested in other people’s scripts for this)

      1. That Girl from Quinn's House*

        They gave a “COLA bonus” but you couldn’t get a raise unless all 30 sites in the regional org met their budget numbers for the year, which statistically never happens.

        A “COLA bonus,” however, is not the same as a raise. 2% of 50K is $1,000 the first year you work there, and the tenth year you work there, and the twentieth year you work there.

        1. Meredith*

          I can’t believe they had anyone who actually stuck around for 10 years unless those people were real underachievers who couldn’t find a better gig.

          1. Marie*

            Chances are, that’s what happened, so in addition to fictitious raises you also have bitter underachievers as colleagues. Incidentally the hiring manager is really looking for someone to “shake things up”.

            I stayed in that job for almost 2 years while taking night classes for my new career. The turnover was intense.

  8. Anon in AZ*

    I just recently left a job after six months. In the interview I specifically told the manager I wanted more contact with them instead of less like at my previous job, and it was based on their assurance that I would be part of a more inclusive team that I went against my gut.

    On Day One and throughout my time there, the manager bragged about how they didn’t micromanage (because not talking to your employee for days on end = not-micromanaging). They gave me vague directions at the start, then spent hours re-doing work to suit their preference (minor changes like re-aligning bullets or slight color changes, and major changes like removing course objectives – I’m a learning professional and they are an engineer, so this one especially stung).
    The moral of the story as Alison stated in her response is that managers often have a skewed sense of their effectiveness and of their working environment. The other diligence I did for this job did not reveal any issues either. I really needed this job, but I should have listened to my gut.

    1. Sleepy*

      Haha…yeah…I’ve heard that from managers before. “I follow a self-actualizing theory of management.” = “I have no idea what’s going on with my employees because I don’t actually manage them.”

    2. Doug Judy*

      Yes I had a manager who’s style was to just not manage. He was proud he wasn’t a micromanager but employees, especially new employees still need to be managed and supported.

  9. relatively recent hire*

    This happened to me- I left the job after 6 months with nothing lined up because I legitimately couldn’t deal with my manager anymore and I knew the work I was doing was suffering because of him, all of our 6 other team members had left, and multiple peers of his were going to HR about him, and even after all that (and me saying I couldn’t work with him) nothing happened. Luckily I have a number of friends who work in the same field (we all used to work together and most have since moved on to various places), and I actually ended up at a job where one of them works because I was extremely worried about not having the right kind of read on the place and it was very important to me to get an inside idea of what it’d be like (the job I left looked, from the outside, like a dream job for me).

  10. NeverEndingSto-oryyyyyahahah*

    Oooh, this is timely. I’m in the final round of the hiring process at a new job and I’m more than a little anxious that it will turn into a kettle -> fire situation. I have had been churned through some truly toxic workplaces, and when it happens repeatedly one can’t help but wonder about the common denominator… I think when abusive behavior is normalized it can be easy to tell yourself, “this isn’t as bad as before,” but fail to address that the situation is STILL bad.

    On the plus side, I’ve learned from each harrowing experience and terrible manager! One of the first questions I asked at my most recent interview was about what happened to the person I was replacing – she got promoted. :)

    1. NeverEndingSto-oryyyyyahahah*

      Ugh, clearly I need more coffee. No idea how I thought “frying pan” but typed “kettle”.

  11. The Man, Becky Lynch*

    This is a normal worry for those who have found themselves in abusive workplaces. Often after being in this situation, your POV is skewed and you don’t see the flags others who have been in a toxic environment would see immediately.

    I’ve only had one really toxic environment and it turned out that the owners were really good at gaslighting, which I had never encountered before. It damaged me as well, even after years of having great work environments previously!

    Sadly I got caught up before their turnover started rolling, so I couldn’t use that against them either. Turnover is critical to me when I’m interviewing to see how long people have been at the company.

    Part of it is finding a new way to trust strangers, which when you’re burned, you think all the burners are hot regardless of checking the stove multiple times to make sure. It’s a lot of mental preparation involved and detoxing involved. Which doesn’t help much, I know. But in reality, I think part of the process can be talking to people who do have healthy, happy work places. Sure, they may not be hiring but their stories and their support can show you that “not all places are toxic waste dumps.”

    1. Jamie*

      Often after being in this situation, your POV is skewed and you don’t see the flags others who have been in a toxic environment would see immediately.

      Yep. Or, conversely, you are so busy screening for the red flags with which you’re familiar you miss loads of others. In work places or personal relationships this is a real thing some of us (ahem) are very bad at.

      I still have knee jerk fear reactions left over from previous toxic workplaces and which I’m slowly unlearning.

          1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

            And they’re not “worth it” for many others. I can count on zero hands how many sites I’ll subscribe to.

            And yet I’ll throw dollars at those stupid in-game purchases =X My vices are my own =X

          2. Jennifer*

            That’s true, but the people who work for them have to pay their bills too. I get not wanting to subscribe to everything but I don’t understand why people seem annoyed by being asked to pay for content.

        1. On a pale mouse*

          I will pay for content that I care about, but the problem is I read a little bit all over the place. I couldn’t possibly afford subscriptions to all of it, even though the total amount I read in a day is probably less than all of one newspaper. 20 years ago they were saying “soon we’ll have micropayments!” but I’m still waiting. That’s what we need, though. I’d be glad to pay and could afford like 5-10 cents per article, which over a day or month would add up to the cost of a couple of traditional subscriptions. (And the publications in question would also receive more, because now when I hit a paywall I just skip it and move on to something else.) But there isn’t a good way to do that. Don’t want to derail the discussion, just saying it’s not as simple as just not wanting to pay for content.

          1. Your Friendly Neighborhood Enby*

            This! I love podcasts and try to support a lot of the ones I listen to, but I listen to a LOT and it adds up fast.

          2. Veronica*

            Micropayments would be good! I don’t have time to read much so when I want to read an article posted here or by a friend, if they put up any kind of barrier I don’t have time to deal with it and move on.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      Good news, it’s just two more days until November ;) And I think Alison only posts from that website once a week-ish. So you shouldn’t miss much content if you don’t want to purchase a subscription.

      I just capped out on my limit too and I have never had that happen before, October just drags the ef on after the rest of this year has sped by. Classic.

    2. Professor Plum*

      Use a different browser. Copy the link when you get the limit message and paste it into chrome/safari/firefox—whichever isn’t your primary browser.

  12. Peaches*

    “[Susan] has told me, “I’d be crying if I were you” when giving negative feedback.”

    What in the actual heck. What a monster. I’m so sorry, OP.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      Susan is a frigging liar. Susan doesn’t even know how to cry, we know she’s heartless and cold inside.

    2. Parenthetically*

      It’s SUCH a weird thing to say?! Like I’m not 100% sure I wouldn’t burst out laughing if someone said that to me — is it meant to be threatening? Or…?

      1. Jamie*

        It would be all I could do not to respond with, “Why? Do you have problems regulating your emotions?”

        Because when people get PA or hostile with me, I become a robot.

    3. Your Friendly Neighborhood Enby*

      I am so curious about the tone of this sentence. Like, was it meant to be a cutting remark somehow? A threat? (like, start crying or else) Was Susan caught off guard by OP’s composure? So many possibilities.

      1. CastIrony*

        I read it as a threat, i.e. “Your mistake is so bad that you’re about to get fired, and you should really worry about it!”

    4. Budgie Buddy*

      A hundred bucks says when Susan actually makes someone cry she mocks them for being hysterical and trying to manipulate her.

  13. tallteapot*

    I think one clue might also be pay–if they offer you pay that is so low that you qualify for Section 8 Housing (and this is work in a professional office-type environment) that is probably a clue that the organization doesn’t value their employees all that much.

    1. That Girl from Quinn's House*

      This was a huge point of hypocrisy at one of the nonprofits I worked. We (roughly) provided resources for low income people. All of the marketing/donor development paperwork we had, was about all of the great resources we provide for people who couldn’t ordinarily afford (service.) And we hire from the community we’re helping, so it’s a jobs program too!

      All of the jobs we had on offer were part-time capped at 29 hours, minimum wage or just above, no health insurance. People who are *poor* need jobs that pay *actual money* because they have *bills to pay.*

      Then of course, said nonprofit managers would be annoyed that no one was applying for their jobs, or that the only people applying for the job were from more affluent communities not low income ones, or that the people from the community who interviewed were turning offers down to work lower responsibility jobs at places like Starbucks or Trader Joe’s that offered things like well above-minimum wage starting pay, health insurance at 20 hours, and tuition reimbursement.

      1. Jules the 3rd*

        IOW, someone was using that non-profit to try to find cheap labor from vulnerable populations, people who might stay in crappy positions longer because of fewer options.

        1. That Girl from Quinn's House*

          That is ultimately what ended up happening. The people who could get better jobs, would leave. And the people who couldn’t, either they were bad employees, or toxic personalities, or had a disability, or were older and likely to struggle to get another job at their age, or they lived nearby and couldn’t afford a commute, or they could get a schedule/hours with us that would be harder to get on the open market, would stay behind.

      2. DCGirl*

        I may have posted this before, but I once interviewed for a fund raising job at an organization that helped formerly homeless people get food service career skills and helped them find jobs after they “graduated” from working at the organization’s cafe in downtown DC. It came out in the interview that, at the time, I didn’t own a car and the guy interviewing was incredibly concerned about how I would handle working fund raising events in the evenings. I said I’d take a bus or a cab depending on the time of evening (this was pre-Uber, etc.). He kept pushing and pushing on this issue and I finally asked him how he expected the agency’s formerly homeless clients to get to and from their food service jobs if they didn’t have cars. He had no answer for that. Totally clueless.

    2. Manders*

      Yes! It’s been my experience that companies that pay less than market rate for their industry usually end up pretty messed up, because that kind of toxic crab bucket mentality is the only effective way managers have to prevent employees from leaving. Extremely low pay also prevents employees from building the kind of F-you fund that they can use to walk away from a bad situation.

      There are some exceptions. For instance: the pay’s bad but the benefits and flexibility are unusually good, there’s some sort of start-up situation where the salary is mediocre but the equity may become extremely valuable, or it’s an unspoken expectation that employees have other sources of wealth and are working for less than everyone knows they’re actually worth. But in general, pay that low is a major red flag.

    3. The Man, Becky Lynch*


      This smacks of how some large retailers actually have literature about how to get on assistant programs available to their staff…because they pay so awfully that their staff is eligible for assistant programs. I just cannot with the audacity of the whole mess.

  14. ranunculously*

    I think it’s likely that me and my colleague will both quit our boss at the same time (we’re trying!) but there was a time where I was really hopeful she’d find another position and I was inclined to stay. The part I dreaded, though, was interviewing a person to fill that role, as my boss is particularly demeaning and demoralizing to whoever is in that role. I have thought a long time about what questions I could ask that might raise awareness that this role and boss are not for the faint of heart: How do you set boundaries? Say no? (And never mind that there will be no mentoring or real professional development of anyone in my department under the current management…)

  15. 1234*

    I am not excusing Susan’s behavior in any way (I think she’s horrible!) but I wonder if some of her actions stems from being in toxic environments herself and that was the way she was communicated to by her boss. I hope to never, ever, come across another Susan!

    There was one place I interviewed at where I really thought “I don’t want to work here.” The woman who interviewed me, let’s call her Annie. Annie looked TIRED and run down, like she hadn’t slept in days. She had her hand on her head like she was propping her head up, rather than “I am interested in what you are saying.” Annie must’ve liked my answers because she passed me along to a higher-up who I had seen in the office when I came in. This woman reminded me of Susan in the OP’s letter and she acted just like Susan did. Turns out my “Susan” came to this job from an industry notorious for a dog-eat-dog environment, where I’m sure she had to be “toxic” to get ahead.

  16. SDMalinoisMama*

    I’m in an industry that historically has more small firms than large ones. I was lied to about every single position (except one) that I was hired for in some pretty major ways, and just began to accept that was part of my industry until I decided to make a major career move (and location change). I’ve discovered now that I won’t ever leave my current company if I can help it, but also that working for smaller organization has that specific risk.

    I was almost always hired for a customer service role that had some sales, but it always turned out to be a primarily sales role. This ended up being a big deal because the sales roles should be paid a higher wage/percentage due the hours/type of work. After being lied to so many times, it’s refreshing to finally be somewhere that truly means what it says, and sticks to specific roles. Heck- they are even honest about salaries/raises/bonuses etc. I cringe when I hear that someone is leaving to go to a smaller firm because I know exactly what sort of lies were told to get them there. And I’ve seen about 60% of those people try to come back to our firm.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      This makes me shiver. It’s often people from that kind of industry who applies to customer service roles I have open. And it works against them so horribly since I’m not looking for heavy sales and up-sell backgrounds, I’m looking for actual people to do customer service/account management.

      I hate that this trap is out there, it spans more than a few industries I’ve learned =(

      1. SDMalinoisMama*

        Yeah- IT’S AWFUL. My last role (before the one I’m in now) started as strictly CSR/Accnt managing- then my sales person went off the deep end. I got “promoted” to both roles, without any raise, any % of the commissions from the sales I now had to do, AND i was given additional tasks that basically made me run that entire department. All under the same CSR salary. When the boss asked why I was leaving and said “I was going to start paying you commission in near future” it really took all of my strength to not laugh out loud. I’d been there 2 years, in the uber-stressful role for 18 months and had asked more than enough times to reevaluate my role/title/pay structure. She knew she was taking advantage of all of her employees, but especially me. She wasn’t a “bad person” necessarily, and was quite likable- which lead to an almost unwaivering loyalty that the other employees had. I never got to that level because- quite frankly- I like myself better and knew my worth.

  17. KatieHR*

    After personally being in 2 toxic work environments, one mild and one really bad, I think you get better at reading the signs. I went to 2 interviews the past year to just see as I am not really looking but they would’ve been a step up career wise. Both interviews I made it to the last stage with the big manager and both times something about them just rubbed me the wrong way. Both seemed to have a different idea of what the job was supposed to be then was posted in the interview and I withdrew my application both times after those interviews. I really think I dodged a bullet both times. AMA has some pretty good info on the sight as well as for things to look for. Sometimes you just have to go with your gut.

  18. selenejmr*

    Is her real name Joan? Because I was told by a Joan where I used to work that I made very good money for what I did. (I worked for an accounting company and did accounting for several clients. I had passed my CPA exam and was finishing up the requirements to become a CPA.) She ended up giving me a $0.25/hour raise. Started working there in 1999 for $12.50/hour and left in 2004 making $13.75/hour. Got a better job in a church making $40K a year.

    1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      Sadly it’s a thing a lot of managers pull. I think a lot of them truly believe it too. It’s up there with “Be happy we gave you a chance! This job is a favor you certainly didn’t earn it or anything like that! Don’t be !~*entitled~*”

      1. AndersonDarling*

        It’s true! Some managers really think that people should earn the wages they remember from 1985. Or they lump all non-management rolls into a “grunt work” category and think that they should all be earning min wage + $1. (That $1 makes it competitive.)

        1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          It’s not always about being viewed as grunt-work even. They just view certain positions as “more replaceable.”

          Funny how they paid a marketing manager, who did zero things on any given day twice what they paid me once…when I was running three different departments and responsible for the entire damn thing in the end. Marketing managers are “harder” to replace than accounting/operations managers in their dipshit minds.

          Only come to find out when I left, they couldn’t find a replacement after all. Sucks to suuuuuuuuck.

  19. Fikly*

    I have worked in a series of jobs that were toxic for a variety of reasons. I ended up going on an enforced job break of about a year due to needing a surgery that had some complications, and when I started job searching again, I had some very deliberate thoughts about what were my hard “must haves” and “must not haves” both in terms of job duties, environment, and culture, I guess, though I hate the word culture in this context. And then I was careful in my search.

    I have found a wonderful company. Places like this do exist! I was looking for a salary and health insurance and somewhere I would feel safe. I found all that, and a job I love. Five months into the job, I had an accident, and wasn’t able to work for 7 weeks. I was expecting to have to go on short-term disability, which I had been paying for, but would only cover 50% salary. Instead my company put me on paid medical leave, which was never a benefit I was entitled to. And my manager pulled me aside to say, do not worry about anything but getting better, you will have a job at the end of this.

    That, incidentally, is how employers get loyalty.

    1. Rooooound 5*

      Sounds absolutely lovely! The new job that is. What’s the job and the company (or type of company if you’d rather not)?

  20. Dysfunctional Deb*

    OP, I could have written this about one of my dysfunctional jobs. It sounds identical to my experience as a public relations rep.

    But then, it sounds a bit like my stint in corporate communications. And my job as a bank marketing director. And my job in…

    It took many years to untangle my complicated and dysfunctional job experiences. Finally, as I was nearing retirement, it dawned on me that I was my own problem. I was raised in a horribly dysfunctional environment, and was given a set of expectations I could not fulfill. My mother wanted me to have a “glamor job,” and I accepted her challenge. I was too shy and awkward for the kind of job she pushed me into, so I opted for a communications career. It never really fit me, and my inability to accurately assess people and situations resulted in a series of ill-fitting positions in toxic environments.

    I’ve been retired for almost eight years, and I think I have finally figured a lot of it out. (Therapy was helpful.)

    Don’t be like me! Ride it out as best you can until you find a better situation. But please keep looking.

    1. Veronica*

      Yes, it’s important to figure out what you’re good at and comfortable with, and look for a job like that. Even if your family and friends don’t agree. :)

  21. Theyvegoneplaid*

    I’ve had great success asking employees at companies I’m interviewing at when they last took a vacation. It’s a question they don’t have a rote answer to so you’ll get some honesty, at least in intonation. One place had me talk to 4 different current employees as part of my final interview and they all had forced and fake seeming answers but when I asked about vacations, one paused and sighed deeply in a way that said it all. Happily turned that place down.

  22. Jennifer*

    I’ve had some success in figuring this out by asking the questions, “What is the favorite part of your day here?” or “What do you enjoy most about your job?” The three people in the meeting looked shocked to get the question and had to grapple for answers. I get they have no idea what a candidate is going to ask, but I didn’t think it would take them that long to come up with something.

  23. Anna*

    Wow, Susan sounds like a real jerk. Are you able to go to HR and make a formal complaint? Are there other co-workers who you know feel the same way? Maybe all going to HR together would also be helpful?

  24. Goldenrod*

    My current boss is like Susan….But I knew going into it exactly what I was getting. I really needed to leave my last place, and it was a big raise for me, and a bunch of other perks (like my own office).
    The working environment is toxic in a lot of ways, but I have to say that the people interviewing me really let me know – in all kinds of subtle and not-so-subtle ways – that I would basically be supporting a crazy/difficult person. So I went in with open eyes. And I actually do like the job, because I have strong boundaries and for me, the good outweighs the bad.

    1. AnotherAlison*

      And sometimes, Susan is a Susan to some staff but not to others. Perhaps Susan gives you the best projects and keeps you on the inner circle while calling others on your team names and talking about managing them out. It just leaves you scratching your head on how Susan got the job and keeps it, and makes it difficult to work with coworkers who don’t get along with Susan, but meanwhile things are okay for you. . .

      1. Goldenrod*

        My “Susan” is a lot nicer to some other people than to me! And I’m definitely not in the inner circle. However, I prefer it that way because the people in her inner circle are the people who manage her emotional needs. And I do not want to do that! I’m fine with keeping her at arm’s length.

        1. Veronica*

          I had a boss with a similar dynamic. She wanted her employees to be her friends, and then she would abuse them. I set firm boundaries and she didn’t like it, but at least didn’t fire me.
          Her favorite was my colleague who had been there a long time. She didn’t abuse this colleague, and this colleague understood her best. I think it was because this colleague had been there since the early days and helped her build the business.

      2. Gazebo Slayer*

        If you are in a Susan’s inner circle, be careful not to let her corrupt you. My experience with awful people is that they’re bad influences on people who are on good terms with them. And even if Susan’s favorites don’t become like Susan, other people end up suspicious of them via association.

    2. Some Windex for my Glass Ceiling please*

      Had a friend who was told he was to be transferred to another department because he was ‘difficult to work with’. He was transferred to the department with the manager no one liked. Everyone said she was mean, exacting, difficult, a task master, snipey, never pleased with one’s work product, etc.

      He was very upset over this transfer. Spent the weekend contemplating whether he should submit his resignation to her on Monday.
      Well, Monday came and went.
      I called him later that week. He was as happy as could be. Turns out, the evil manager and he both have the same exacting work standards. They got along perfectly.

      1. Jedi Squirrel*

        That is not the happy ending I was expecting. I’m glad the two have them worked out well together.

  25. Cobol*

    This is a very intuitive answer, so I think a lot of people won’t like it, but ask questions that are indirect, not direct indicators.
    For example, I’ve decided that companies who have their employees read a lot of books aren’t good companies (not one, but a bunch).

    I’d ask in an interview about that, but in a positive way. An interviewer then might say oh yes, everybody is required to read Book A and b when they start, and we’ve all read Book C this year, and D last. Also, my team is reading Book E.
    Another example maybe is asking how often the whole company gets together. Teams with bad cultures often try to force togetherness.

  26. JustAWafer*

    The most toxic work environment I’ve ever encountered, I simply didn’t know the questions to ask (and wasn’t actually looking for a job at the time – I thought I was meeting with a potential client, so wasn’t prepared with the standard interview questions). In retrospect, the boss’s assertion during the meeting/interview that he becomes a “monster” when clients are unhappy should have been an indication. Hindsight. If something is even vaguely alarming, it’s worth digging into, because if it IS a problem, it’s likely going to be the tip of the iceberg of weird awfulness.

    On a side note, a friend and I have a saying: “F-ing Susan” for people or situations that are especially ludicrous, so I love that this whole thread is about people’s various Susans.

  27. LeSighSoHard*

    I was glad to see this question tackled as it is causing me great anxiety right now as I search for a new position. After two extremely unpleasant experiences (not back-to-back, thank goodness), I feel extremely unconfident about my ability to assess workplace dynamics during the interview phase.

    My two crappy situations shared an element in common: both required me to manage others who had unsuccessfully applied for the job that I ultimately landed. But in each case, the disgruntled direct reports weren’t the only issue. Both offices were full of argumentative, high-strung co-workers from the top to the bottom. During the interview, they covered nicely and spoke about collaboration. In practice, I was working with teams of people who all wanted to get their way on Every!Single!Decision!

    Glassdoor didn’t yield anything.

    In one case, the office was small and I would not have been able to reach out to someone who held the position previously.

    Anyway, I feel sick about this. I try so hard to be pleasant to everyone without being nosy. I am clear about projects and try to set others up for success. I’m flexible and understanding but not a pushover. My supervisors have always been happy with the quality of my work and my ability to meet deadlines.

    I am DREADING my next move because I truly don’t think I can take another office full of bickering/shouting/odd behavior/petty grudges.

  28. Amethystmoon*

    There is always Glassdoor. Sometimes, people are more likely to give honest feedback when it is anonymous. A toxic job I worked at when I was young (small company, privately owned, no HR department except for one person who acted like the boss’s best friend) has a 1 and a half star rating now. Had I known that 15 years ago or so, I wouldn’t have applied. I actually quit that job because I had seen how the boss was a bully to others and realized it was only a matter of time before he would target me.

  29. Linzava*

    Hi OP,

    I’ve been where you are, I was stuck in the toxic job shuffle for three years. This is how I broke out.

    1. I followed this blog every day, by doing so, I internalized the information and it helped form a healthy view of employment. I still read it every day even though I haven’t been job searching for a couple years.

    2. Have a place for you, therapy helps a lot. Make sure you don’t over vent to friends and family or coworkers. Not only does it bring them down and become annoying to them, but it’s not healthy for you to live in the negatively. It also helps to study you boss and find ways of mitigating their toxicity and making yourself a less attractive victim to them.

    3. Take advantage of every opportunity to build your skills. Toxic jobs are full of bad boundries, the only benifit is being given higher level work. Take it and live in the mindset of, if I screw up and they fire me, I’ll get unemployment. They probably won’t fire you though, so don’t hope too hard.

    4. Job hunt every day. Even if it’s just flagging job postings for another day or organizing your notes of jobs you applied to. I used a free CRM program to keep track.

    5. Don’t give in to desparation. During each interview, ask questions that are meaningful to you. Treat it like a first date, not something you’re trying to win. This also helps by causing authoritarian types to self select out of your potential employers list.

    I hope it helps, good luck!

      1. Linzava*

        Thank you! It’s amazing how well it worked for me, my therapist was also a big help in preparing this action plan.

  30. CastIrony*

    I’m not good at social cues, but this article is so important to me. I hope these questions will help me see when I interview next.

  31. Dana B.S.*

    At ExJob, I used to try to hide the disorganized & dysfunctional parts of the company from our candidates. I later realized that it’s better to let them see it right off the bat. I was ghosted by a number of interviewees after that, but preferred that to being ghosted by employees that were hidden from the dysfunction.

  32. Meredith*

    The most toxic job I worked had plenty of red flag in the interview process, but I only saw them in retrospect. C’est la vie.

    You also need to be careful to not go to the other extreme. Toxic workplace implies you need to work at 120%, 70 hours per week to succeed? Your best isn’t good enough? You get screamed at by your boss for things outside your control? Hopping to a workplace that touts great work-life balance might be great, but the downside is that you can have coworkers who are not willing to EVER go above and beyond if it means they have to stay even 5 extra minutes, or that shoddy work is passed up the rungs and churned out, becoming your new normal. It’s a delicate balance to find a place that challenges you and develops skills, but isn’t insanely stressful or causing you to eat dinner at the office all the time.

  33. RS*

    I experienced something similar when I was hired for my current job. The interviewer told me that I would be responsible for all operations for the department. That’s fine and it’s typical in my field and for the company size. What the interviewer left out was that the department used to function with 4 full-time employees.

    Safe to say I’m looking for another job. Companies that do this just aren’t thinking about the long-term.

  34. TheYellowRose*

    I feel this letter very deeply. OP – I am so sorry.

    I wanted to jump in with a “counter point” to high turn over. Low turnover isnt always great either…

    I worked in an office that had very low turn over. It was because leadership held no one accountable and refused to fire anyone. It was a highly dysfunctional group with very entrenched patterns of relating to each other and no one there saw any issues with that. It was a place where you just “worked around people” rather than addressing the underlaying issues.

  35. Kid of Speed*

    I haven’t had a truly toxic job, but I currently have a toxic boss (though he’s mellowed out some)… and boy howdy, did I (and everyone else in our department) mis-appraise him during the interview process. We chose to ignore red flags about his resume, about his demeanor, about his answers to questions — and we were so charmed that we chose to put positive spins on things which, we soon discovered, were actually negative things.

    For instance, when he talked about coming into conflict with his superiors over an employee’s benefits, we said to ourselves, “Wow, he really stands up for his reports.” Soon after he started the job, though, it became apparent that he was actually just a combative, arrogant jerk who loved to start fights and defy the C-suite for the hell of it, and that the employee was just a handy pretext to do battle with authority. He was never quite happy unless he had enemies to move against (not very effectively, as it turned out).

    And his resume? What we chose to see as a quick, steady rise in scope and responsibility across a broad variety of specialties in our industry, later appeared to us as what it really was: a long history of two-year job-hopping stints, including a firing that was plausibly passed off as a layoff. (No one really checked into this, because we knew that the company he was in at the time, had had layoffs during that period… but actually he was asked to resign, or he quit, or some combination of the two, we heard later.)

    We see what we want to see. I would recommend everyone read Gavin de Becker’s The Gift of Fear, and try to apply the lessons he gives about interpersonal violence, to toxic workplaces. Trust your instincts. We had had instinctive questions about this guy which we chose to explain away.

  36. fingers crossed*

    I’ve had two bad (not quite toxic) jobs in a row and totally feel this! I have been so paranoid that I would take another terrible job.

    It helped me to write down what I was looking for in each category
    health insurance
    hours per day/overtime arrangements
    number of team members, etc

    I can be moved by emotion, which is not really a great thing in some of these negotiations. And one of the more heartening parts of interviewing for the role I just accepted (last week!) was that each person I met with was so positive about the company and the work/life balance. Plus the tenure of the employees really spoke to me – I am leaving a place that has had a 50% turnover since I started 2 years ago. This place has employees that stay decades. At this point of my career, that all sounds lovely and is exactly what I am looking for.

  37. Pobody’s Nerfect*

    I completely sympathize. I’d say 5 out of my last 6 jobs had very toxic environments and really bad managers. I’ve almost never left a job because of the actual work or duties, it’s always been because of a toxic manager or horrible coworkers…the people. I also wonder if there are any truly enjoyable, sane workplaces out there that have stellar managers who appreciate good employees. It sure doesn’t feel like it most of the time.

    1. Goldenrod*

      I totally agree. There are a few healthy workplaces – I know of about….3, maybe 4? Unfortunately, there are a LOT of toxic workplaces.
      And you are so right – in my experience, it’s always people who ruin jobs, not the actual work.

  38. Marley*

    My last job was a toxic job that showed a few red flags during the interview, and from what I researched. But I needed a job and considered it my penance for quitting several decent jobs in a row just because I didn’t completely like them.

    Here’s a list of red flags I found pre-interview:

    1. Absolutely miniscule web presence.
    They had a website–but it looked like something from 2001, and even then, designed poorly for 2001. It was not user friendly, unattractive, and had a lot of dead links. (But apparently they still direct people to it.)

    2. I had never heard of them.
    I work in NPO. Within that realm, you tend to know all the local nonprofits and maybe even have a few acquaintances at each. I had never heard of this place in my life. I figured because they were unknown they probably were very small, and I had a good chance of getting a job there (this was a true assumption of mine).

    3. I really didn’t understand what the job was.
    On the local board where all the NPOs post, they had two jobs posted. They sounded the same and I wasn’t even sure of the role. Again, due to my needing to repair my job history, I ignored this.

    4. Even though the job was local, I had to drive an hour away for the interview.
    Just… weird.

    During the interview:

    1. The manager asked a really dumb question of me.
    She asked, “In what situation would you take documentation?” Then named off several. No shit, the answer was every situation. This is a red flag that they hire people who are not fully competent to do this particular type of work.

    2. The old employee was fired a week after I was hired.
    Basically, I was her replacement. I did not know that and neither did she.

    3. I went into the company meeting about a month later and saw their numbers, which were abismal.
    I knew this place was toxic in so many ways–but I had to stay at least a year. I made it 10 months before I quit.

    They immediately ceased contact with me after I quit. Very weird.

    I love my job now, btw. I’ve been in it a year.

  39. MissDisplaced*

    I’m not sure what to do anymore honestly, because even when you are careful and find a good job and company, they unfortunately don’t stay that way!

    At current and last jobs, things were great when I started, good pay, flexible schedule, WFH and decent commutes. But I keep getting hired at places that change so much in two years the company may as well be unrecognizable.

  40. Veronica*

    I had a lot of jobs, and worked for and with toxic people. I reached a point where I was tired of financial instability and decided to get and keep a job. I’m not good at reading between lines/picking up clues, etc., but because of my long history I had learned a little.
    I was unemployed and broke when I interviewed with the owner of a small business. I noticed she seemed self-centered – she said “your skills are interesting to me” in an email. Not just interesting – interesting to her, like no one else matters.
    When I interviewed with her, she turned on the charm. She was very cute and said sometimes she barks, could I handle that? Minimizing her abusive behavior.
    It was clear there was something very wrong there but I was desperate, so I took the job. She was the most toxic and evil person I’ve known. She was always trying to hurt or manipulate people or start fights, in both her professional and personal life. She seemed to have a great need to alienate everyone.
    Luckily I had good colleagues and I managed to hang in there for five years. By then both my colleagues had left and she was trying to make me quit. She finally laid me off and my experience there helped me get my current job, which is much better.

    OP, there are a few bad apples everywhere. You probably won’t find a place where no one is toxic or oblivious. The key is to have a supportive boss who can protect you from the bad ones. My boss at my current job has issues, but he appreciates me and has protected me from bad managers. The colleagues I work with are not perfect, but they are good people and supportive. This is what you need to look for.
    Also it can take a while because people don’t leave jobs with good bosses. Be patient and keep trying!

  41. knitcrazybooknut*

    I would add this: Watch out for bosses who slather you with praise and say you’re the only candidate, or otherwise try to woo you. It can be subtle, but they will turn on you in a heartbeat. Once you’re in, they consider you a captive audience, and you learn who they really are.

  42. AnonyMouse*

    Ugh, being told to put up with toxicity because you’re making “good” (whatever that means based on industry, in this case it sounds like it’s not good at all) money is so incredibly frustrating!

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