If you’ve ever been stuck in a job you hated, chances are the company culture had something to do with it. A bad company culture can turn even the most promising job into a miserable experience, from poor communication to lack of leadership to downright mistreatment of employees.
If you’re currently job searching or are considering it, a positive company culture should be high on the list of things you’re looking for in a new position. We’ll reveal the biggest culture red flags that should make you think twice about a company.
What is company culture?
A company’s culture encapsulates its unique system of beliefs, values, work style, processes, attitudes, and behaviors. A good way to describe a company’s culture is to answer two questions: ‘What is it like to work there?’ and ‘How does work get done?’
Company culture has a major impact on employees, affecting their job satisfaction, engagement, performance, and longevity. So, when you’re looking for a job, it’s important to consider beyond just the job duties, pay and benefits.
Examples of “bad” company culture
While there’s no singular definition of bad company culture, there are a few examples where it’s impossible to miss.
Toxic work environment
A toxic work environment is rife with negative behaviors. Employees throw each other under the bus, take credit for the work of others, fail to take accountability for their actions, and have no sense of loyalty to their employer.
In a company with poor leadership, the people at the top fail to set an example for those below them. Leaders may be aloof, with a stark separation from their employees. Expectations aren’t communicated clearly, and employees feel distrustful toward their higher-ups.
In a cliquey office, certain workers have a tight-knit bond, while others outside the group are made to feel excluded. Cliques are more than just harmless friend groups; damaging behaviors like gossip and unnecessary competitiveness accompany them.
These are just a few of the surefire signs of a poor culture that you’ve likely experienced yourself, but there are many other not-so-obvious red flags that we’ll delve further into in a moment. But first, why does culture matter?
The impact of a poor company culture
A bad culture doesn’t just make work a drag. It has a measurable impact in substantial ways that affect the business.
A strong company culture gives employees something to believe in; it instills a deeper meaning, like accomplishment or enjoyment, into the work. Without such a culture, work feels like nothing more than labor.
Disengaged employees give only the bare minimum and feel no sense of connection to their job. As a result, they miss work more frequently and are more likely to leave their jobs.
This is a big one, especially in a tight labor market like the one we’re currently experiencing. If working at a company is consistently draining and meaningless, good workers will simply leave and find jobs elsewhere. High turnover rates are more than just a reflection of individual employees’ dissatisfaction; they’re symptomatic of a deeper, systemic issue within the organization. When employees constantly come and go, it indicates that the company may not be providing the necessary support, environment, or incentives for long-term commitment.
A company with a strong culture rewards its employees for good performance with praise, recognition, incentives, and satisfactory pay. Without these motivators, employees have no reason to go above and beyond. As a result, performance suffers. Employees often feel disengaged in environments with a lack of appreciation or clear direction, and their commitment to their tasks wanes. Instead of fostering creativity and innovation, a poor culture can stifle these traits, making teams less adaptable, driven, and ineffective in their roles.
20 warning signs of a bad company culture
Some of these red flags are subtle, while others are glaring. Suppose you encounter any of them during your job search. In that case, it’s a good indication that you should dig a little deeper and carefully consider whether the opportunity is as promising as it seems.
1. Vague job description
Before you accept a position, you should have a clear understanding of what the job entails. If a job description leaves out key details, like the core responsibilities, or the role is positioned as “fluid,” it’s a bad sign.
At best, the company’s roles aren’t clearly defined, which can lead to taking on more and more work than you initially signed up for. At worst, it signals that they can’t get people to apply when they share the actual requirements of the job.
2. They’re constantly hiring
If you’ve seen the same job ad posted for months, or if it’s been posted many times in a row, it could be a sign the company struggles with recruitment and retention. Remember–high turnover is a strong predictor of a negative culture. Continuous hiring might indicate that employees don’t stay long because they choose to leave or are let go frequently. This kind of instability can be disruptive to team dynamics, project continuity, and overall company productivity.
3. Red flag phrases
Some phrases should give you pause if you see them in a job description. The first one is “like a family,” indicating a lack of professional boundaries. While it may be intended to convey a close-knit and supportive team, it can sometimes mask an environment where personal and professional lines are blurred, potentially leading to favoritism or uneven expectations.
The phrase “work hard, play hard” is another potential warning sign. While on the surface, it might sound like a fun, dynamic workplace, it’s often a hallmark of companies where there’s no such thing as work/life balance. It could indicate long hours, high stress, and then a forced sense of camaraderie during off-hours.
It’s essential to gauge what these phrases genuinely mean for the company in question by asking probing questions during the interview.
4. Job requirements don’t align with pay
If the job calls for a college diploma but offers minimum wage, something is seriously out of whack. Discrepancies between qualifications and compensation can be a major warning sign of bad company culture. This shows a company’s value system and its respect for employees. Such mismatches demonstrate a possible undervaluation of skills and experience and hint at potential financial instability or a lack of proper budgeting within the organization.
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5. Negative gossip
Employees talk, especially when they’re fed up with their jobs. It doesn’t bode well if you’ve heard whispers about long hours or crazy bosses before you even start working there. When negative gossip becomes the predominant mode of communication among team members, it signifies a lack of open and effective channels to address grievances. These environments can be detrimental, as they prevent issues from being resolved constructively, allowing them to fester and further undermine morale.
6. Poor Glassdoor reviews
Glassdoor is a godsend for job seekers looking to uncover cultural pitfalls. Pay close attention to the ‘review highlights’ section, telling you how many reviewers had similar sentiments. If you see that 50 people called the company out for poor leadership, it’s a red flag you don’t want to ignore. A recurring theme in reviews, especially from different individuals over varying periods, suggests a consistent problem that the company hasn’t addressed. While no organization is immune to occasional negative feedback, consistent and widespread criticism should raise eyebrows.
7. Communication breakdowns
If communication is clunky during the hiring process, it probably won’t get much better after you’re hired. This could include long periods without communication, impersonal messages, or logistical complications like repeatedly rescheduling your interview. Inefficient communication during the recruitment phase may be a precursor to a lack of transparency, cohesion, and respect in daily operations. If a company cannot streamline its interactions with potential hires—a direct reflection of its public image—it may suggest deeper internal communication issues affecting its current staff.
8. Awkward interview
An interview is meant, in part, to help you get a feel for what a company is like to work for. If the experience is awkward or strange, it could be a clue you need to reconsider this prospective employer.
First, there’s the interviewer. If you’re interviewing with someone who seems random (like a manager from a different department) or who doesn’t have a firm grasp on the job, it might be a sign of poor internal organization.
Then there’s the interview itself. Does it seem like the interviewer has reviewed your resume ahead of time? Are they asking relevant questions? Are they committing any cardinal sins, like speaking over you when you’re answering a question? All of these things can be hints at how work gets done (or doesn’t) in the company.
9. Rundown office
Outdated decor is less than ideal, but aesthetic lapses are forgivable. If the office shows signs of outright neglect, like peeling paint or piled up garbage, it’s a strong indicator that people don’t take pride in the company. An unkempt office environment can be symptomatic of a lack of organizational attention to detail and a disregard for the well-being of its employees. Suppose a company cannot maintain the basic cleanliness and upkeep of its workspace. In that case, it may raise concerns about its commitment to other critical areas, such as employee safety, health, and overall well-being.
10. Employees’ facial expressions
When you show up for your interview, have a look around at the people who fill the space. If it’s totally devoid of chit-chat and everyone looks like they’ve just received bad news, low morale is probably an issue. Employees’ facial expressions and body language can offer a candid glimpse into the day-to-day atmosphere of a company. While it’s unrealistic to expect perpetual smiles and constant cheerfulness, a prevailing sense of stress, tension, or indifference can be a major warning sign, indicating underlying problems within the company’s culture.
11. Family members in leadership
Not all family businesses are bad places to work. However, when most or all of a company’s leaders are also relatives, it can often spell dysfunction.
It’s not cause to rule out an employer completely, but it’s definitely worth asking further questions about leadership and accountability within the organization.
12. No opportunity to meet potential teammates
Many companies have candidates spend time with their prospective peers as part of a formal or informal interview. This is a good chance to get a feel for the team vibe and ask questions you might not have wanted to direct toward your hiring manager.
If you don’t get this opportunity at all, ask for it. If the employer balks, you’ll know they’ve got something to hide.
13. Only meeting new employees
If everyone you meet during the hiring process has been employed for less than a year, you might want to stop and ask why. While it’s not uncommon for big companies to have lots of newbies on staff at any given time, a good team should have at least a few members with some seniority. When a workplace is predominantly filled with newer hires, it can suggest high turnover rates. A balance of tenured and new employees typically ensures a mix of fresh perspectives and deep-seated knowledge, contributing to a robust and dynamic team. If that balance seems skewed towards the new, it’s wise to dig deeper and understand the reasons behind such a trend.
14. “Perks” in lieu of competitive salary
Weekly happy hours are fun, but they don’t pay the bills. If you find yourself interviewing with a company offering lots of shiny perks instead of competitive wages, it’s a bad sign for earning potential. Low wages can also indicate that a company doesn’t adequately value its workers. A sustainable and meaningful career is built on financial security and growth opportunities, not just fleeting fun activities.
15. Lack of basic benefits
Competitive employers offer health insurance and retirement benefits–full stop. Not having these basics signals a lack of investment in employees’ well-being. Benefits like health insurance and retirement plans are not just perks but necessities that significantly influence an individual’s quality of life. By neglecting these essentials, a company could indirectly push potential financial and health burdens onto their employees, expecting them to bear the brunt.
16. Distant leadership
A great interview process allows you to meet with one or more company leadership team members. If you don’t get this opportunity and don’t see these people or hear their names mentioned during the hiring process, it could indicate that company leaders are removed from the organization’s day-to-day workings. A detached leadership team can cause many larger organizational problems and is usually cause for alarm.
17. Staff don’t take lunch breaks
It might seem minor, but if you interview during the lunch hour and see everyone gobbling down sandwiches at their desks, run! A positive culture prioritizes adequate breaks, which are necessary for optimal performance. The sight of employees constantly working through their lunch breaks may indicate an excessively demanding workload, unrealistic expectations, or a culture of presenteeism where employees feel pressured always to be “on” and visible.
18. Your hiring manager leaves before you start
We’ve seen this one play out enough times to know it doesn’t end well. The person who hired you is usually the most invested in your success. If that person leaves the company before your first day on the job without informing you of their departure plans, it’s a big red flag that it won’t be smooth sailing. Their sudden exit may suggest they were not entirely transparent or honest about the realities of working for the company. After all, they might have painted a rosier picture of the environment to secure your commitment, only to then depart from the potential challenges themselves.
19. You’re hired on the spot
You might be the best of the best. Still, suppose a company doesn’t bother to contact your references, conduct a background check, or even complete a formal interview with you. In that case, it’s likely because they’re desperate to hire–never a good sign of what the culture will be like. Hiring on the spot, without due diligence, can suggest a high turnover rate, indicating that employees frequently leave, are fired, or that the company is expanding rapidly without adequate planning. Such hasty decisions can reflect a lack of structure and strategic foresight, raising concerns about job security and long-term prospects.
20. Something smells fishy
The bottom line is, if a job or company seems too good to be true, it probably is. Employers with a positive culture don’t need to over-promise, misinform or trick people into working for them.
A company with a strong culture should easily be able to communicate its values and the benefits of working there, and its employees should have no problem explaining why they choose to be part of the organization.