How can I spot a dysfunctional work environment?

First and foremost, trust your instincts. Every interaction with your potential future employer from point of contact will provide a fairly clear indication of whether or not the work environment in question is going to be a healthy one for you. Organizational dysfunction is generally all too obvious to the observant and prepared.

A few things to look for:

  • Review the company website-very carefully. What is the organizational mission statement? Is there an Annual Report or Strategic Plan? These documents are indicative of an organized organization with a clear sense of where they want to go and how they are going to get there. Does the organization appear to genuinely value the needs of both customers and employees or does the copy seem like lip service? Pay careful attention to the use of language and pictures. Does the website have an authoritarian tone? Are pictures and bios limited to management only? If you don’t already know, speak to colleagues and look at blogs to learn the reputation of the organization. It is fairly easy to get the scoop from various credible official and non-official sources. Knowing what you know, would you be proud to be associated with the organization?
  • Prior to your interview, ask for an agenda. The organization should be happy and willing to tell you exactly with whom you will be speaking, their job titles as well the expected duration of your visit. Make sure you will be meeting or at least speaking to the person to whom you would be directly reporting. It is critical that you have an opportunity to get acquainted with your potential immediate supervisor before accepting an offer of employment.
  • Come to the interview with a mental checklist. Make sure you have a mental list of questions you would like to ask the employer. You may not ask every question, but if you are observant, all of your questions will be answered. Be wary if the interviewer who is not open to answering your questions.
  • Read between the lines. Pay close attention to how the interview is conducted, the tone and style of the questioning. Behavior to look for in organization leaders and employees: rude or patronizing behavior, emotional outbursts, withholding information/insufficient communication, public criticism or ridicule and failure to give credit to others. Is the interviewer pleasant and respectful or heavy-handed? Are the interview questions organized and pertinent? Is the interviewer dismissive of your responses, questions or even of another colleague present-even in the most subtle way? Do you get a sense that the employees work as a team or is there tension? Does the interviewer talk about the goals of the organization and how your position fits in to the big picture….or does the interviewer talk only about the division in which you might be working?
  • Ask for a tour of the workplace. The answer is always telling. People who work in a healthy organization will be proud to show it off. A happy employer will be excited for you to see where you might be working, however humble the space. Also, given the opportunity, those toiling in obscurity in a dysfunctional organization will invariably offer potential newcomers a smirk, sigh or grimace that says, “Beware!”
  • Ask the interviewer how the organization handles workplace challenges. A healthy organization recognizes that challenges do arise and will address your question frankly. Reticence to discuss how the organization makes improvements might demonstrate that it is politically incorrect to discuss problems in the organization and that employees are disempowered to take make independent decisions, take risks and be creative.
  • Recommended reading. The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t by Robert I. Sutton.