How to detect a toxic work environment during the recruitment process | Lifestyle

When Moisés Blanco’s boss calls him at midnight, the main character in Carlos Padial’s novel Contenido [Content], which deals with the digital media bubble, locks himself in the bathroom out of shame, feeling incapable of saying “no.” Adding to the strain of the off-hour conversations are the need for approval and his superior’s attempt to squeeze every last drop of creative capacity from his employees. Moisés’ partner is convinced that he works for a digital sect.

In an excerpt from the book, Moisés’ boss warns him: “I want you to talk about Zenfire. We are a team. Individuals no longer matter. I don’t want little stars. Without us you are nothing, you would be working in a photocopy shop.” Moisés is not the only character who works in a toxic environment. Andrea Sachs, Miranda Priestly’s famous assistant in The Devil Wears Prada, illustrated how fiction managed to give a veneer of glamour to a job that would make anyone pull their hair out.

According to the American Psychological Association’s 2023 Work in America Survey, 19% of respondents rated their workplace as toxic and one in five people said their work environment had harmed their mental health. Although the results were collected in the United States, they are not very different from those of any other country where work functions as a backbone and shapes identity.

If Moisés Blanco or Andrea Sachs had been able to see the warning signs during the selection process, it is likely that they would have reconsidered working at the startup Zenfire or at Runway magazine, no matter how financially desperate they might have been. But what are the signs or strategies to detect red flags from the moment of hiring?

The signs that reveal a toxic work environment

In a changing social context, the notion that one must simply endure a draining position has not aged too well. With the access to the job market of younger generations, concepts such as unpaid overtime and precarious contracts have lost traction in favor of others that facilitate work-life balance and free time. The data shows it: according to the Work Relationship Index published by HP, for almost 60% of respondents, expectations of how they are treated in the workplace are higher.

Mireia Olivan, 34, has been working in the marketing industry for more than a decade and uses social networks to warn about potential red flags in job offers and interviews: “When they tell you ‘We are a family,’ they may expect you to work after regular business hours or they may take things too personally,” she notes.

To this first warning, Mireia adds a few more: “A requirement for immediate availability may suggest that the previous employee left abruptly or that there will not be an adequate adaptation process for the new recruit.” This specialist also states that not being able to ask questions during the interview, or having the interview date/time changed more than three times, are also worrying signs.

Detect a toxic boss during the selection process

According to a study by Computrabajo, a leading job site in Latin America, up to 43% of professionals who left their jobs did so because of their bosses’ leadership style. “Bad leadership not only affects performance, but also the work environment,” says Álvaro Tejedor, coordinator of the psychoeducation area at Affor Health, the first Spanish consulting firm specialized in psychosocial prevention management.

How can you recognize a toxic boss during the selection process? For Bruno A. Luca, talent manager at the free tours platform GuruWalk, the first step would be to carry out research on websites dedicated to company reviews, such as Glassdoor, a website where current and former employees can give their opinion anonymously about their work environment and salaries. “These sites can be valuable allies for obtaining information and context,” he explains. Even so, he recommends not making decisions based solely on one opinion, but rather looking at the general trend.

GuruWalk’s talent manager also suggests observing the interviewer’s attitude: “An interviewer who is distracted, unprofessional, or who does not pay attention to your answers could be a first sign about the company culture.” Ultimately, if the employer does not show an interest in the candidate during the process, it is likely that they will not do so once they are hired. On the other hand, Bruno A. Luca urges candidates to ask all the necessary questions to get to know the company better — if the questions make the interviewer uncomfortable, it is a warning sign — and to observe the behavior of the employees with whom you interact during the process: if they seem stressed or nervous, it is another indication of what the company’s day-to-day life is like.

On the other side of the coin, there are positive signs that help recognize a good workplace. A Refinery29 article covers the case of Allison Peck, a woman from California who shared on TikTok how her boss, during the recruitment process, offered to give her references from previous employees who had worked under him. “He told me, ‘Here’s three women who have worked for me before and they’ll serve as my references and they’ve said you can call them and ask what it was like as a woman working for me.’ I called them and they said he was the best boss they’d ever had. I worked there for years,” Peck said.

The role of companies in the work environment

“Today, work and personal life are interconnected,” says Helena Herrero, President of HP for Southern Europe, the Middle East and Africa. The executive emphasizes that it is important to continue making progress to increase the physical and psychological wellbeing of employees and incorporate measures that guarantee work-life balance, such as flexible working hours. In short, putting certain work mechanisms or strategies into practice so that “they become something tangible for all employees.”

Ultimately, when it comes to recruitment processes, it is important to remember that they are a two-way street. “You are also choosing the place where you are going to spend many hours of your life,” says Álvaro Tejedor. Therefore, it will always be better not to ignore red flags in the workplace. Only in this way will we ensure that we do not end up under the yoke of an unempathetic leader or, in other words, locked in the bathroom to talk to our boss at dawn.

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