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Company culture red flags to spot at every stage in your job search

July 3, 2024
Lukas Vanterpool

Looking for a new challenge or perhaps a slight change of role? Maybe you are after something bigger and better, perhaps you’re chasing a role that is more personally rewarding or gives you a better all important work life balance?

From scouring job boards, deciphering job ads and submitting your application and CV, to navigating the sometimes lengthy interview process – it’s not easy. Then there’s the waiting to hear if you have progressed to the next stage, and understanding the ins and outs of any offer you might receive. During this entire process you’ll be weighing up whether the culture and values of the company you’re hoping to work for match your own. How can you tell if the company and team you’ll be a part of will be constructively challenging and nurturing enough to allow you and your career to flourish?

Understanding some key red flags will help you navigate your search and application process like a pro, and help you hone in on companies and roles that suit you and your values the best. Everyone has different preferences when it comes to culture, so company red flags may vary by person, but our extensive experience in the recruitment industry across the UK and US, has allowed us to pull together a list of red flags that you might not have previously considered. Let’s take a look.

The job ad

Unfortunately, lack of transparency over salary is a widespread issue across many industries. Many companies use the fall back description of a ‘competitive salary’, but often this just isn’t good enough. There’s few things more frustrating during a job search than applying for a role, being invited to an interview and only then finding out that the top salary benchmark is well below what you are expecting. Being up front about salaries in the job ad saves everyone a lot of time and ensures companies are attracting the right level of candidate in the first place. If a role you are interested in doesn’t outline the salary level or band, ask the recruitment team to at least give you a ballpark figure so you can manage your expectations and decide if you want to progress with your application. If they refuse to give you any salary information, it might be worth looking for alternative role ads that do.

On the flip side, money isn’t everything. Big, exciting looking salaries could be compensating for a poor work experience once you’re in a role. The Guardian explores the results of a study that showed UK jobseekers were willing to trade a 10.5% pay cut to work for a company with an above average happiness score of 75 out of 100, rather than the average of 65. It’s worth weighing up whether there is tangible evidence that companies are actively taking measures to improve and maintain the happiness of their employees. Things like work life balance, team and social relationships and a sense of purpose all contribute to this sense of happiness and might factor further up your priority list than that slightly higher salary.

Many job ads are littered with buzz words. ‘Rockstar’, ‘self-starter’ and ‘fast-paced’ are just some that are now all too commonplace. Terms like ‘rockstar’ are perhaps cringeworthy at worst, but other vague buzz words could be indicators of more serious issues. Does “fast-paced” actually mean “you’re likely to be incredibly stressed and feel completely overworked”? This vagueness of detail can misrepresent employers’ expectations, set candidates up for failure and give a false impression of a company’s culture. Try to focus on job descriptions that communicate the specific reality of a role and company.

After reading a job ad, if you can’t describe to someone else the basic duties of the job, or if the ad defines the duties of the job so broadly that it sounds like two or three jobs in one, this might be an indicator of larger structural issues within the company.

Don’t be afraid to ask for further information about anything that isn’t clear in a job ad, before applying for a role.

The company values

From the initial application process to final interview stages, you’ll be exposed to a lot of information about a company and will be able to get a good feel for its values and culture.

Something that should ring alarm bells is if the company mission and values aren’t clear. If you’re receiving mixed messages or even noticing contradictions between the values stated and attitudes and actions of the hiring/interview committee then can they really be considered true values? It’s easy to reel off an impressive list of values or a company culture description and pop it in a job description, but unless the company truly invests in supporting its employees to demonstrate these values, they don’t mean a thing.

Forbes argues that culture is deep-rooted and hard to change, so ask yourself if you want to spend time doing your best work, or using your energy to fight the system. Before applying for a role, be clear on what values are important to you, and ask specific questions about these if you are invited to interview. See how the company’s responses align with your thoughts and priorities about them to really explore if the company is a good match for you.

Something that often comes hand in hand with company culture is the ‘fun perks’ and benefits for employees which are often shouted about by employers. In a recent article for The Huffington Post, Faima Bakar argues that we should be wary of these so-called perks. She argues that, crucially, companies offer these amenities in an effort to keep us working longer. If you have a gym at work, you might come into work earlier, or if you have an on-site creche or can bring your dog in, you don’t need to rush home to take care of them. Other extras also mean you increase the time you spend at work or working.

A slightly cynical view? Perhaps.The same article cites a US survey from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) that found that 92% of employees said benefits are important to their job satisfaction. Meanwhile, nearly a third said reward packages among other companies would make them jump ship.

So perhaps not a red flag as such, but something to be aware of. Perks are, more often than not, enjoyed by employees but it is perhaps worth considering whether these perks truly benefit you and your situation and do not come at some other cost.

Professor Teena Clouston, who works in occupational therapy and wellbeing, from Cardiff University advised The Huffington Post, that people should be wary of perks, and ‘before you swallow them hook, line and sinker, watch out for the stick that might just be lurking behind the carrot.’

The interview

The interview process itself can also reveal a lot of company red flags. Here are some to watch out for.

Forbes explains that you should pay attention to how you’re treated during the hiring process because this likely reflects the values of the organisation and can hint at how you’ll be treated as an employee.

If your interviewer turns up late, or is unprepared it shows a lack of respect for you and your time. You will have spent hours preparing for the interview and the company you are hoping to work for should demonstrate acknowledgement and respect for candidates. This goes for rescheduling too. Of course, sometimes urgent things will come up and your interview might get rearranged. This should be a rare occurrence though and if it happens more than once with the same company, it might be time to look elsewhere.

If your interview team lets slip negative or potentially inappropriate comments about the company, teams or even specific team members during the interview (and it does happen!!) you might want to reconsider the opportunity. This behaviour indicates an unprofessional and potentially toxic work environment. If you have an interview panel of two or more people, it is useful to assess their working relationship. Do they demonstrate professionalism, respect and collaboration? Or do they talk over each other, contradict each other and demonstrate micro expressions of dissatisfaction?

It’s quite common now for interview processes to include some kind of assessed work (either in the interview environment or pre interview) – especially for more senior roles. However, if you get the impression that you’re just doing free work for the company, rather than being given a fair and controlled opportunity to demonstrate your skills, it might be time to move on to another application!

Remember, in an interview situation you should be asking lots of questions too. Ideally, your interview should be a two way conversation that leaves both parties enthusiastic and excited about potentially working together. Your questions could include queries about the interview process, what stage you are currently at, next steps and timelines. Vague responses to these types of questions are not a good sign. A long drawn out interview process, or if a company takes a long time to respond, schedule interviews or make decisions about offering a role, might mean the role you are applying for just isn’t a priority to them, and that doesn’t bode well for the future.

Post interview

The ‘exploding offer’. So, you’ve finished the interview process (hurray!) and been offered the role – but the offer comes with strings attached. We’ve heard of companies offering limited time offers, whereby they offer a candidate a role, but give them an often very short timeline to consider and accept, or the offer becomes null and void. Accepting a role is a huge decision that you need to be confident is right for you, so don’t be bullied by these pressure filled deadlines. The Harvard Business Review explains that companies that issue exploding offers are not likely to respect your wants and needs once you’re on the job, and are likely to be inflexible, bullying and autocratic.

It’s so important to remember that any role you are applying for should suit you as much as you suit the company it sits within. According to a CareerBuilder survey, cited in the Harvard Business Review, two-thirds of workers said they have previously accepted a job only to realise it wasn’t a good fit, with half of them quitting in the first six months.

Taking time to truly find a role that aligns with your goals, values and priorities is much more likely to give you longevity and opportunities for personal and professional growth within a company. Afterall, you don’t just want any job, you want the right job. Give us a call or drop us an email today and let’s see how we can make that a reality.



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About The Author

Lukas Vanterpool

I started The Sterling Choice with Gareth Whyatt back in August 2013. We’ve always remained true to ourselves and what it is we’re trying to achieve – A great company with great people and great results! This journey never stops, we are always finding ways to support our colleagues and make sure they leave every day feeling fulfilled.

Over the years I’ve always been asked “what’s your USP??, what makes you different from all the other agencies??”. That’s an easy one for me to answer – “Our culture makes our business and our people make our culture”

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