At present, there is a sizable economic disruption going on, particularly in the US. Many call it a labor shortage, while others insist that labor is available and what we’re seeing is caused by a wage shortage.
Seemingly across the board, employers are scrambling for good workers to fill out their organizations. As a result, some are offering higher wages or new benefits to beat out their competition.
In a culture that has normalized putting applicants through 5-6 rounds of interviews (or more!!) for a job, it takes a moment like this one to remind us all that workers have power in the conversation, too (soviet anthem intensifies). It’s not just the job interviewing you. You should also interview the job to see if it’s worth all you can offer.
Fun fact: when I wrote that sentence just now, my autocorrect tried to change the phrase “interviewing the job” to “interviewing for the job.” THAT’S how ingrained this is.
You have the power (always, but now more than ever) to be selective in where you commit your time and energy. When you do, here are some red flags that potentially problematic employers will try to sneak past you that you can watch out for when making your decisions.
10 Major Employer Red Flags to Watch Out For
1. “Work Hard, Play Hard”
Whenever I hear this phrase in an orientation session or from a new manager taking over the team, I want to throw my complimentary paper plate of wholesale club pastries across the room.
This phrase is a lie. If “work hard, play hard” is your personal mantra, that’s cool. But suppose someone at WORK tells you that everyone who WORKs there should “WORK hard and play hard.” Which of those two things do you think they’re paying more attention to?
“Work hard, play hard” is a trojan horse. Employers often use it to disguise their habit of overworking people behind an imaginary reward of getting to “play hard” later.
2. Default Resting Animosity
There are many employers out there who act with what I call Default Resting Animosity. You may also see this type of behavior from landlords, law enforcement, babysitters, and authority figures of all sorts.
DRA is a bit tough to quantify. But when it’s there, you know it. You can feel it. These employers don’t set out in good faith to work with you in a way that benefits everyone. Instead, they start from a place of assuming you will be a problem, a necessary discomfort for them to mitigate. If you’re unsure if your employer has DRA, try asking yourself this question:
Are they trying to succeed because of you or despite you?
It may seem like a slight difference, but it can seep into every aspect of a job. From compensation to quality of life, growth opportunities, and how strictly they try to monitor and control your day-to-day work. Look for an organization that will treat you as a team member rather than an unfortunate cost.
3. Cosmetic Perks
If there’s one thing terrible employers love, it’s cheap half-measures to make you feel you’re receiving better compensation than you actually are.
For example, one-time signing bonuses are a popular way to disguise a refusal to pay people better. In addition, certain fast food restaurants have recently started offering cell phones for new employees after their first six months. And when you break it down, all that amounts to is a (temporary) raise of just pennies per hour.
The same applies to ice cream Fridays, gift cards for coffee, weekly happy hours, and about a million others.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with perks like these. They can be sweet icing on the cake of a good job. But too often, an employer will try to give you an elaborate display of icing, hoping you won’t notice the complete lack of cake underneath.
4. High Turnover
The people around you, generally, are rational. Therefore, if you see numerous coworkers quitting and many positions staying vacant, there’s probably a good reason for it. Where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire.
There are some rare cases where high employee turnover makes sense. But usually, it’s a big whopping red flag. What is causing people to quit or making it hard to fill open positions? Why are people in a similar role to you leaving, and where are they going instead?
High turnover typically presents you with two problems:
- The grievance(s) which caused so many people to leave in the first place.
- You are now working in an understaffed workplace, putting a higher burden on those who stay.
Attrition is normal, and the exchange of old staff for new spells growth for companies and people. But if it seems like everyone around you is running for the hills, there are probably good reasons, and it’s only a matter of time before you see them for yourself.
5. Bait and Switching
You can usually spot bait and switch tactics right away, and it rarely gets better after a first impression. Bait and switching is a trait of toxic organizations that like to offer you one thing and then hope you won’t complain when they give you something else. It may seem accidental, but it rarely is. A few examples:
- Trying to persuade you into a contract for lower pay than you initially accepted
- Asking you to “fill in” for another role “temporarily” soon after starting
- “Moving the goalposts” – deadlines, targets, and promises – on critical issues
If you find yourself on the receiving end of a bait and switch while applying or shortly after starting a job, it likely will not be the last one. It is more often a cultural trait than a fluke.
6. Discouraging Self-Advocacy
Every employer will (presumably) say yes to some requests from its employees and no to others. But on those occasions when they do say no, the way they do it matters a lot.
Imagine asking for a raise. You ask, and the employer turns it down. So how do they do it? If they tell you that you haven’t made a convincing enough case, then you can have a conversation about the next steps. They also might agree that you have earned it, but the company can’t afford it right now.
The company is saying no in both cases, but they are not punishing you for asking for the raise.
Too often, when you make a request, employers will try to bully you, make you feel guilty, or use other tactics to discourage you from advocating for yourself in the future. This treatment is not a good sign. You should always be allowed to ask and get a straight answer, even if it’s a no.
7. Budget Priorities
When negotiating for more money, almost every employer will want you to feel like you’re taking away their last dollar.
It makes sense. A business’ job is to make a profit. And that can be difficult, especially for a small or young business. But paying your employees less than they’re worth is not a reasonable solution.
If you’re not allowed to ask for a raise because you’re struggling financially at home, then an employer shouldn’t be allowed to deny one because they’re struggling financially in the back office. Either it is an exchange based on empathy, or it isn’t. A job is not a personal relationship. It’s business, and that goes both ways.
A good employer who values you and sees your worth will always fight to be sure they can pay you something close to that value.
8. Passing the Buck
Unlike some of the other red flags on this list, this is one that you’ll probably first see at a bit of a distance before you experience it directly.
Watch out when multiple people are dodging responsibility for difficult things or pointing fingers when things go wrong. While these can be shady character traits of an individual, they are also highly infectious when they become part of the company culture. You want leaders and team members who are ready to take responsibility for their work.
Personal responsibility is everything when it comes to teamwork at any scale.
9. Sneaky Contracts
I’m not a lawyer, but I do know this: employment contracts, by and large, should be short, simple, and easy to follow.
Contracts will vary significantly by industry, job function, liability, compensation structure, and a thousand other things. But if a company is asking you to sign some sprawling contract full of confusing language, you owe it to yourself to consider why that is and whether it makes sense for it to be that way.
Most jobs can be described in a way that legally protects both parties in just a few pages of human-readable language. So if you find yourself staring down an 80-page desk tome written in ancient legalese, you ought to ask why. Are there specifics of this job that make additional legal caution necessary, or are they trying to fill it with sneaky, shady stuff?
As a general rule in life, it’s always good to know what you’re signing. However, if a potential employer is going out of their way to make that difficult for you, you may want to keep a watchful eye on them.
10. Office Traps
There was this company. I was considering applying for an internship there, so I went on a tour with several other students. Unfortunately, I don’t even remember the name of the place. What I do remember is something the founder said to us during the tour:
“You will not see a foosball table in this office. You will not see nerf guns, beer taps, or any of those things that you expect to see at a fun startup office. Those things are meant to keep you in the office longer. They put those things there to keep you away from your family longer, thinking you’re having fun, while really just keeping you at work, thinking about work. We don’t want to do that to you. We want you to come here, work, and go home.”
At the time, I thought the guy seemed super uptight. He probably was. But he had a point, didn’t he?
If 15 minutes of ping pong with your coworker Mike is a refreshing break that helps you recharge, that’s great. But watch out because fun and games like these are a sneaky cosmetic perk that can keep you at work longer, feeling like you’re having a good time when you could be finishing up and getting back to the rest of your life much sooner.