How to Avoid a Bad Company Culture

A few years ago, I walked into the sprawling offices of a major advocacy organization in downtown DC. I was there to interview for a digital organizer position that would enable me to fight on behalf of the issues I cared about using the latest digital communication strategies. It was a well-paid position with great benefits, so I was hoping to learn that this job was as great in real life as it seemed on paper.

I walked through the fishbowl-style offices that were filled with folks slumped over their computer screens or standing at adjustable standing desks, earbuds in, typing away. At first glance, this office looked like any other. But then I realized that speaking at a normal “inside voice” volume echoed through the uncomfortably silent halls of what was essentially a cubicle farm.

I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but the energy in that office gave me some weird vibes. I felt like I was walking on eggshells. But I made it to the corner office, where my interview was to take place and sat down with two folks who would be my boss, and my boss’s boss, who were conducting the interview.

Right away, I could sense that the communication between the two of them wasn’t entirely in sync. In fact, it seemed the senior director didn’t care much for her subordinate, who would be my boss. But, they both asked great questions, allowed me plenty of time to make my case, and seemed sincerely interested in bringing me on. They explained the role’s objectives clearly, but admitted that the environment was fast-paced, and with multiple stakeholders, those objectives tended to change week-to-week, month-to-month. That felt like the second red flag, because this information was conveyed with almost a resigned sigh, a sign of frustration that the supervisor had for the very nature of the work at hand.

Nevertheless, I left feeling confident in my interview performance and thrilled that they seemed so interested. Like any job-seeker would, I felt flattered and excited that they seemed to like me. A few days later, I received a formal offer. It was $8,000 higher than another offer I’d just received for a similar position in a smaller firm.

Don’t get me wrong, the extra money was super tempting, but I worried about the weird vibes I was sensing in their office and decided to call around and ask others in the industry what they knew. I spoke with an internal staff member at the organization and a handful of professionals who were external, but associated with the folks who would be my colleagues. As I was having these conversations, I made sure to be very delicate in asking about the company culture without coming across as gossip-y. I explained the situation I found myself in, and people sympathized. In fact – many confirmed my suspicions and told me candidly that the organization seemed to be having trouble holding onto talent and experienced a lot of turnover.

So, I ended up turning down that better-paying job because I knew in my gut I wasn’t going to be sustainably happy there. And I didn’t want to enter a toxic workplace, even though I needed a job soon. With another offer on the table, I felt confident in my ability to be choosy, and I was looking for a place I could thrive long-term.

As hard as it was to turn down an offer that paid $8,000 more a year, I’m glad I did, because just a few weeks later, both of the people who interviewed me ended up leaving that organization – and one didn’t even leave on his own accord, but was fired!

I felt like I’d dodged a bullet and was so grateful I’d listened to my gut instincts and done the extra legwork to confirm my suspicions.

Do you have other strategies for interviewing the company that’s interviewing you?

I want hear ‘em! Share your experience in the comments below, or in the Bossed Up Courage Community on Facebook. I’d love to hear how these boss tips work for you!


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