Avoiding a bad work situation

Most of us who’ve had any amount of work experience had gone through at least one bad boss or hopelessly dysfunctional organization.  You know what I’m talking about: the job where your actual responsibilities bear no resemblance to the job you actually applied for; the job where the hair on your arms stands up whenever your boss comes by; the job where every Monday morning you wish you’d never been born.  How do you prevent such a situation?

There is no surefire way to avoid a bad work situation, but there are a few things you can do that will go some distance in preventing one.  The key is to do as much research as possible before your interview, and to develop a sixth sense during the interview itself.

While there are a few new sites where people describe their experience working at different organizations (such as www.glassdoor.com, www.vault.com, www.internshipratings.com), most research before the interview will consist of networking (details about networking will be coming up in a future post).  Start by looking through your connections.  Who do you know who might have worked at the organization before, or done business with them?  Ideally, find someone who actually currently works there and ask them some questions… phrasing them in such a way that you don’t come right out and say “So, does it suck working there?”   Ask some pointed, but polite questions: What is XYZ Organization’s reputation in the field?  What do people think of XYZ?  Are they known to accomplish great results?  What do people say about their culture?  What is the best and worst thing about working at XYZ?  Listen carefully for vocal tone– you can soon tell the difference between a really glowing recommendation of a place and a fake one by listening to the level of enthusiasm coming from the speaker.  Learn to read between the lines, and listen to that little inner voice that tells you there’s a red flag.

Secondly, keep your ears perked up and your eyes open when on the interview itself.  How respectful is the organization of your time when scheduling the interview?  Are they disorganized, rescheduling the interview five times?  Are the interviewers actually ready to meet you when you arrive, or do they keep you waiting for more than 20 minutes?  (Sometimes you can’t read too much in to a long wait for an interview– things happen, people get sidetracked at work and emergencies come up– but do they at least apologize for keeping you waiting?).  Arrive at least 10 minutes early to your interview, and use that waiting time to glance (surreptitiously) around the office.  Is it clean and organized?  Or are the furnishings shabby, with huge stacks of unfiled papers everywhere?  If possible, during your interview, see if you can get a quick tour of the place, or at least a view of where your desk would be.  (I interviewed for a position once where I asked to see my future office space, and they said it was being “renovated.”  It turned out that my cubicle was made of ancient filing cabinets– I eventually moved up in the ranks so my office was moved to a space behind the supply closet!  It was actually a good job regardless…but the work space reflected their resource shortages).  Look at the non-verbal signals of people in the office.  Do they seem relaxed, friendly, and happy, or do they seem rushed, tired, anxious, or angry? 

Most importantly, in the actual interview, look for any little red flags you can.  Who is actually interviewing you?  Is it your future boss, or do your future co-workers also get a say (if future co-workers are included, this is a great sign that their opinions are at least sometimes listened to)?  Do the interviewer seem to be using a stress-based interview to test your cool?  Do they ask questions you can read something into (like “how do you manage in uncertain situations?” or “How do you deal with difficult people?”)  Does your interviewer talk the whole time, or do they at least ask you some questions?  (I had an interview once where the interviewer never really asked me anything– she probably just didn’t care to know much about me– and she actually muttered under her breath “I’m just looking for someone I can push around.”  Being 24 and a recent Master’s graduate, I took the position mainly because it paid $1,000 more than the other offer I got.  You can only imagine how it worked out…)

Lastly but most importantly, try to ask some questions in the interview.  You can ask how the position became available, and listen closely for the answer.  You can also ask what resources will be available to you in the position.  A great question to ask is what the interviewer’s favorite thing is about the organization, and what the greatest challenge is.  You can ask what they are looking for in an ideal candidate for the position (in one of my prior jobs, one of the interviewers actually said, in response to this question, “We need someone who can work really hard”– and she said effectively the same thing at least one other time in the interview.  It turned out that the job entailed 50-60 hour weeks on many occassions.  It was a job I loved, but we often joked about that part of the interview years later.).  You can even ask to speak with whomever was the last person to have the position if possible (something I was able to do in my last two jobs, which was tremendously valuable).  Hopefully, by carefully noting any red flags along the way, you will go some distance in preventing a bad work situation.

Keep in mind that you have to do all this “noticing” at the same time that you are trying to get the job–so try to focus 95%of your efforts on proving to the employer how you would be a great fit for their organization and 5% of your efforts on noticing (you can always reflect carefully on what you’ve observed after the interview). 

I think most of us learn these things through the school of hard knocks– and no matter what you do, sometimes a less than perfect work situation is unavoidable.  I’d love to hear other people’s stories and reflections on ways you might have prevented a bad work situation (or things you wish you’d noticed before you accepted a job–just don’t name any names here!).

My next post will get into what to do if you find yourself in a bad work situation; how to try to re-negotiate things; and how to leave gracefully if all else fails.  For more tips on this topic, please visit my post at http://www.internshipratings.com/take_note/?p=22

One thought on “Avoiding a bad work situation

  1. Nice work, Heather! I think in most of the bad job situations I’ve had, there was no way I could have foreseen the problems to come. I’m thinking in particular of one job where I had a horrendous boss. Because she was not one of the people who interviewed me for the position, I don’t think I could have possibly known what I was headed for with her (unless I would have found some negative reviews of her on one of the websites you list in this column, but at that time those websites may not have existed). Nonetheless, I enjoyed and learned from your column, and I will read the previous installments, and look forward to the future ones.

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