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Warning Signs of Companies with Cultures You Don’t Want to Join

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Checking for warning signs during your job hunt may be your only opportunity to avoid a toxic work culture. Business writer Thursday Bram tells you what to keep your eye out for during the application and interview process.
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I barely lasted a week at the first job I landed out of college. The pay wasn't the best and the commute was long, but what really drove me to turn in a resignation quickly was the company culture: It was toxic. I couldn't stand to work in that office any longer.

There might have been some warning signs that I should have picked up on during the interview process, but I didn't know to look for them. These days, I pay more attention to the cues that every company gives off, in an effort to avoid toxic cultures—and there are plenty of warning signs at the worst companies, making it fairly easy.

Your Vision of Work Culture

It's hard to say whether tech companies have more cultural problems than their counterparts in other industries. Certainly, we talk more about the question of culture in this industry—and we have more tools to talk publicly about these sorts of issues than those in more traditional industries.

But many of the cultural norms we see every day in tech are problematic—they may not be strong enough to turn an applicant away from a job she needs, but they call for improvement. Startup culture, in particular, pushes unreasonable expectations for employees:

  • The normal work week at some companies can be 60 hours or more.
  • Hierarchy is seen as evil and often eliminated entirely.
  • Technical work is prioritized over everything else (including human resources issues).

In mild doses, many of these characteristics aren't a problem: Young companies often need time to sort out just what kind of company culture they hope to have.

But tech companies often take things to extremes. In dealing with hierarchy, for instance, many startups have adopted holacracy, a decision-making process that entirely eliminates managers. A few companies have found success with that approach, but others have found that not having someone to make decisions means that work doesn't get done, employees get frustrated, and people aren't entirely sure how to define holacracy.

In order to spot signs of toxic culture, at least in the tech industry, you need to decide what is actually toxic to you. You may prefer a flatter hierarchy or be willing to work more hours if you get equity. You've got low odds of finding a company with a culture that is perfect in every single way, so you need to prioritize. No matter your preferences, you need to sort through them ahead of time to be sure you're watching for warning signs of the problems you really want to avoid.

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