The Interview Questions You Should Be Asking To Uncover A Toxic Workplace

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It’s easy to overlook a potentially toxic opportunity especially if you don’t know what you’re looking for. Traditionally, employers dominated the interviews using interrogative tactics. They held the power because jobs were scarce and they were able to control the process. Today, it’s a candidate-driven market with 7 million job openings and only 6.3 million job seekers.

However, many job seekers don’t know what interview questions to ask and ultimately end up in less than ideal, and sometimes toxic, situations. As a job seeker, it’s important to remember an interview is just as much about you interviewing an employer as it is about an employer interviewing you.

The biggest mistake most job seekers make is not utilizing the interview to ask questions or not asking the right questions. Consequently, they end up in a position that’s not a good fit, culturally. This leads to them feeling stuck because it’s too late to back out since they have nothing else lined up.

You might have experienced this yourself where you’ve felt regret for leaving a job where things weren’t necessarily bad, but you were no longer being challenged or you hit the ceiling to advance. You interviewed with a new company and everything seemed great, but when you joined, it was the opposite. As a result, you grew resentful towards your new employer and hated yourself for not knowing any better. We’ve all been there. You’re not alone.

In an effort to dismantle toxic cultures and instill confidence back into job seekers, this blog post walks you through some interview questions to help you uncover potentially toxic workplace cultures.

Take Positive Reviews With A Grain Of Salt

First things first, do your research before the interview to get a feel for the culture of the company and what the people are like. You can do this by reading online reviews such as Glassdoor, Indeed or Kununu to name a few. Don’t overlook negative reviews and assume it was just a disgruntled employee.

I’ve witnessed companies who bribe, pressure and encourage their employees to write positive Glassdoor reviews. I’ve also seen companies hire third parties to write positive reviews to drown out negative ones. Is it ethical? No, but companies understand the weight negative reviews have on a candidate’s decision.

If there’s a pattern of similar things being said in negative reviews, make sure to ask questions around it. For example, “I noticed a few online reviews mentioned a gossip culture from the top and a toxic work environment. Can you tell me more about that and how you’re working to fix that?

There are a few red flags to look for in their answer

  • Do they trash talk the negative reviewers?
  • Do they dodge the question completely and try to avoid answering?
  • Do they talk in circles, give excuses and never answer?

This shows, they’ve done nothing to fix it and they don’t acknowledge it as a problem. A company striving to be better will acknowledge they’ve messed up, explain what happened and walk you through what they’ve been doing or how they plan to fix it. Most importantly, observe their body language. It’s true, 93% of communication is non-verbal while only 7% is verbal. If they’re rolling their eyes, look annoyed, seem uncomfortable, mentally note that.

Make Sure They Practice What They Preach

Understand what your values are and research the company’s values. Companies should have them listed on their website. While most company’s claim to live by their values, many don’t. It’s your job to determine if that’s true or not during the interview so you don’t find yourself working for an employer where your values are misaligned.

For example, I once interviewed with a company that bragged about their transparent practices and how open and honest they are. During our phone screen, they asked for my salary requirements. I gave them my range, just as I had done on the application. It should also be noted that I always research and verify my requirements are in line with the market, and they were.

The interviewer responded that my range didn’t meet theirs and I needed to provide another. I asked them to disclose their salary range so I could see how big the gap was between my requirements and their budget. They refused and the interviewer pushed me again to change my salary range. If a company is preaching transparency, why are they unable to provide a salary range when their competitors are doing the same?

At this point, I knew I wasn’t going to move forward with the interview. You might think this is silly, but I want you to think about what else they say they do but don’t live up to? What else are they hiding and being secretive about? How can you trust someone who isn’t transparent about their salary range during an interview?

I declined to move forward with the interview and interestingly enough they’ve reached back out twice trying to get me to reconsider. Despite their attempts and how nice the opportunity would’ve looked on my resume, I declined. Stick to your values and don’t let the excitement of the position cloud your judgment.

Uncover The Need For the Role

Some of the biggest signs of a toxic culture come from learning how the role became available. You can find this out by asking them if this is a new or replacement role. If it’s a replacement role, ask them what happened to the previous person in this role and why they left?

If they resort to trash-talking the previous person, this is indicative of a toxic culture. Employers are turned off when candidates talk negatively or blame their previous employer, why shouldn’t candidates be turned off when interviewers do the same? If they are quick to blame the previous employee, how quick will they be to blame you or others?

Learn What Type Of Leader They Are

There are a few ways to do this. If your interview involves a hiring manager and another employee or the team together in the same room, observe the team or employee in the presence of the manager. Does the manager come off authoritarian and the team seems reserved and afraid to speak up? Does the manager fail to incorporate them into the conversation or invite them to answer and ask questions? These are red flags. Your relationship with the manager won’t be any different.

Here are a few more questions you can ask to learn what type of leader they are:

  • How do you deliver feedback?
  • How would you describe your leadership style?
  • How do you invest back into your employees?
  • Do you have a career journey for this position?
  • Now that you’ve gotten to know me, what would you say is the biggest challenge I would face in this role/the company?

Some Additional Questions To Ask Are:

  • How would you describe the culture? (make sure this isn’t a generic answer and they explain it. If not, press further by asking them “can you explain what you mean by…” or “can you explain that further?
  • What does onboarding look like?
  • What do the next steps look like?
  • How soon do you need to fill this role?

I encourage you to dig deeper into their responses. An interview should be a mutual two-way conversation. You should walk away feeling confident in whether or not they’re a good fit for you. Don’t accept an offer if you have any doubts. Utilize this time to ask interview questions and learn what you’re getting yourself into. I’ve worked in a toxic culture with a manager that bullied me because I ignored all the red flags during the interview, and there were many. I don’t want that for you.

Heidi Lynne Kurter is a Leadership Coach and Workplace Culture Consultant at Heidi Lynne Consulting, LLC where she's passionate about developing individuals and teams into more impactful leaders. As a consultant, she delivers and implements strategies to create more engaging people experiences and repair toxic workplaces. Heidi also enjoys writing and is a paid Forbes contributor. She's gained a breadth of knowledge working internationally in Europe, America and Asia. As a black belt Six Sigma and a former Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) president, she loves giving back through volunteer leadership coaching at Babson College. Learn more at

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