5 Warning Signs of a Toxic Culture to Watch Out For During an Interview

Interviewing for a new job opportunity is hard, stressful, and can be discouraging. When you are unemployed you might be tempted to take any job offer that comes around. However, it is crucial to have a healthy work environment where you can thrive and grow as a professional. Finding a new job where you are happy to go to work every day and happy to work around your co-workers is possible if you look for warning signs of a toxic culture during the interview.

Once the newness of a new job wears off, you don’t want to find yourself in an unhealthy toxic office. You don’t want to find your new co-workers are disgruntled, unhappy, or worse, bullies. Don’t find yourself in a Cinderella situation with bosses who behaves like the cruel stepmother. During the interview, look for these warning signs of a toxic culture, toxic co-workers, and toxic bosses.

1. The temperament of the front desk person is a warning sign of a toxic culture.

My first interview at a previous employer went well. The role I was applying for seemed exciting. The company was a small .com with big plans. They were interested in the skills I developed in a previous role at another .com start-up. The hiring manager was engaging and enthusiastic about what he was doing. The COO gave a similar impression. The founder, the CEO, demonstrated a passion for what he was building. One thing bothered me, and that was the demeanor of the front desk person. Even to this day, I can recall how she looked, spoke to others, and the way she made me feel just sitting next to her. All of which are warning signs of a toxic culture. How she answered the phone and spoke to customers and vendors was appalling! However, I still accepted the job.


I quickly learned why she behaved the way she did. How the front desk person greets and comforts you as you wait speaks volumes about the rest of the organization. Therefore, if the front desk person’s demeanor is anything but friendly, energized, and welcoming, you should think long and hard before accepting the job offer. Their demeanor is a warning sign of a toxic culture.

2. Are they genuinely purpose-driven?

When I applied at Televerde, their purpose was clear. Every single person I met spoke to it. Their interview process was extensive, and I had to meet many people. There were several visits to multiple sites. Their process indicated they were guarded on who they let into the organization. Each person, team, and leader was consistent in their mood and words.

Furthermore, those I was able to observe acted the same way. It was a little eerie. How could so many people be so happy at work?

What was most impressive, each person spoke about how the role contributed to the purpose. They continuously connected the deliverables the position was responsible for to the organization’s “why.” Therefore, when the interviewers aren’t relating the role to the organization’s purpose in a way that demonstrates a commitment, you should reconsider accepting the job offer. When the purpose is nothing more than words to make people feel good, it is a warning sign of a toxic culture.


3. The observable level of engagement in people is a warning sign of a toxic culture.

I took a process improvement class that included a site visit to speak with a team who implemented the techniques offered in the training class. We first met in their conference room, and they went through their presentation. The presenter was quite passionate about his company. He spoke highly about the level of engagement his staff had and how hard he had worked to build that kind of culture. He was very proud, so I quickly became excited to see it myself. However, what we found while touring the office told another story altogether.

As we walked around, it was apparent there wasn’t a lot of cohesion between the staff. There were multiple groups of people in different areas whose whispers quickly became silent as we approached. The body language was tense, but their expressions were scowls rather than smiles. If they demonstrated these traits for a tour of visitors, the culture must be terrible. There were warning signs of a toxic culture all around. Typically when a company has visitors, people are on their best behavior. You need to reconsider accepting the job offer if you observe small groups whispering and scowling instead of smiling. How the employees you aren’t meeting with are acting is a warning sign of a toxic culture.

4. The reason for hiring could be a warning sign of a toxic culture.

The trainer was proud of her role at one company I worked for. She started in an entry-level position and soon became a trainer. She proceeded to brag about how she does back-to-back training for new hires. Not long after I moved from new hire training to the floor, I realized it wasn’t impressive at all. They hired anyone and everyone, and then performance managed people out when they couldn’t meet the goals. The management team had no formal training or previous management experience. They were managers because they were top performers. Because of that, they weren’t developing and training their team. Back-to-back new hires to fill roles because of negative attrition is a warning sign of a toxic culture.


Some companies churn talent at alarming rates, stuck in a perpetual cycle of interviewing, hiring, training, and repeating. Understanding why they are hiring to fill the position shows how healthy the culture is — hiring for growth vs. hiring because they can’t retain talent. If they can’t keep the talent, they may not be training properly or providing proper support to develop their new hires. The reason the company is hiring is a warning sign of a toxic culture.

5. Is there a culture of feedback?

During an interview, I was asked to listen to a call and coach the hiring manager as if they were the agent who made the call. I thought this activity was great because it would give me a chance to conduct a real-world situation had I been given the job. While I was nervous, I did my best. I took notes on the call to provide specific feedback on the areas for improvement. But then, when delivering the feedback, the hiring manager played the most difficult, obnoxious, and belligerent agent. As much as I wanted the job, I left the interview feeling that was their typical agent. It appeared to me that behavior was acceptable. There wasn’t a culture of feedback, which was a warning sign of a toxic culture.

Feedback is critical to your growth. As a result, you want to work for a company with a feedback culture. Feedback from managers and fellow employees helps you master the role. Without feedback, you end up banging your head against a wall, trying to get the job right. Not valuing feedback is a warning sign of a toxic culture.


Avoid accepting a job with a company that has a toxic culture. Pay attention to what happens in and around the interview. Pay attention to how the employees interact. Read their moods based on body language and facial expressions. Go beyond the people that you meet with to see warning signs of a toxic culture before accepting the job offer.

Last updated on August 27th, 2022 at 08:07 am

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Jason Cortel is currently the Director of Global Workforce Management for a leading technology company. He has been in customer service, marketing, and sales services for over 20 years. In addition, he has extensive experience in offshore and nearshore outsourcing. Jason is an avid Star Trek fan and is on a mission to change the universe by helping people develop professionally. He is driven to help managers and leaders lead their teams better. Jason is also a veteran in creating talent and office cultures.

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