The job description tell-all: How to spot a toxic workplace before you apply

Jan 23, 2023 - updated Aug 10, 2023

7 mins

The job description tell-all: How to spot a toxic workplace before you apply
Kaila Caldwell

Freelance writer and translator

A job description is the first insight you gain into a company, and it’s more telling than you might think. A good job description will help a job hunter decide if they’re well-suited for the position, and could be the deciding factor in whether or not they apply to the role. With that in mind, knowing how to decode a job description is key, right? Because believe it or not, behind the shiny tasks and responsibilities listed on what may seem like your dream job, trouble could be brewing.

So how can job hunters avoid this trouble? The first step is being able to identify red flags in a job description, by fervently scanning job ads and reading between the lines. To teach you just that, Clément Lemainque, People Experience Manager at SaaS scale-up Partoo, unpacks all the potential red flags in a job description and what they might mean.

Do they even know what they’re looking for?

Having too much or too little information in the job description can be a red flag showing confusion or just plain ignorance within the company.

Imprecise wording and vagueness of qualifications

Lemainque remarks that the responsibilities and scope are unclear when the job ad is too vague. “Either they’re lazy or have no idea what they’re looking for in an employee and don’t know how the role can be successful,” he states. But both are red flags, according to Lemainque, “Who wants to work with a lazy person or someone who has no idea what they’re doing?”

Another possibility is that the job post is a scam. According to the Federal Trade Commission, Americans were scammed out of $78 million due to fake business and job opportunities in the third quarter of 2022. So if there is very little detail, verify the job post’s authenticity before applying.

Overly precise wording and a laundry list of requirements

Over-complicated job posts with loads of information, including a laundry list of skills required and tasks to be accomplished, will only deter job hunters from applying and shows confusion within the company. But this red flag not only affects HR departments but also indicates that the company needs more DEI in its culture.

To make this connection, Lemainque refers to a LinkedIn behavioral data report that says women tend to be more hesitant when job searching and end up applying to 20% fewer jobs than men. “Roles with very long job descriptions, endless lists of requirements, and strict seniority demands can deter women from applying, and this isn’t very inclusive,” asserts Lemainque.

Too old school for the new school generation

Sometimes companies are stuck in the past and can’t seem to break into the 2020s. Here are some red flags to look out for if a traditional work environment is a no-go for you.

Strict college requirements

Job ads that read, ‘must have a master’s degree,’ even if you have ten years of relevant experience, or ‘MUST have a degree in this very random and particular subject,’ are simply saying they care more about your pedigree than your actual worth. In-state public college tuition has increased by 175% in the past 20 years, and when the average cost of a master’s degree is $62,650, many Americans are priced out of that option or are forced to go into excruciating debt just to achieve their educational goals.

Lemainque says this attitude should be left in the past. “Nowadays, what we learn in college will not last a whole career. So what’s more important is the candidate’s ability to learn and adapt rather than the knowledge that they got in school,” he posits. Companies focusing on pedigree rather than open to soft skills, relevant experience, or adaptability are a red flag.

No remote work option

These past few years have seen the rise of remote work. A 2021 Upwork report predicts 36.2 million workers, 22% of Americans, will be working remotely by 2025—an 87% increase from pre-pandemic levels. The new generations aren’t asking for fully remote necessarily, but rather a balance and the option to be flexible.

Lemainque agrees that flexible remote work is here to stay and will be a part of the future of work. “The benefits of flexible WFH have now been proven. In my opinion, companies not offering to find a balance between in-office and WFH is pretty old school,” he says.

Wait, where did all the money go?

A financially stable company is essential if you want guaranteed stability in your job. If you’re one to take little risks, watch out for these red flags to spot a spendthrift company.

Excessive experience for an entry-level position

Recent grads stumble upon this one regularly, and Lemainque is familiar with this issue. “You often see job posts asking for five years of experience for an entry-level position,” he states. So why such strict requirements with stringent pay? Lemainque blames the budget. “Either the company needs someone with five years experience but only has the budget for an entry-level position, or a manager is pushing for an opening on their team but doesn’t have the funding for a new hire.” Either way, this is a red flag.

Lemainque notes that this also shows a lack of trust for young professionals. “Hiring someone just starting is uncertain, but companies must trust them and give opportunities to prove themselves in their first job,” he states. This can show that the company needs more confidence in its employees.

No salary transparency

Phrases like ‘competitive salary range’ or ‘salary commensurate with experience’ have been haphazardly plastered across job boards since their existence. Lemainque says, “This, unfortunately, might mean they have salaries below market value.” Not to mention it’s a waste of time for the applicant if insufficient compensation is divulged later in the interviewing process.

However, the tides are slowly turning with pay transparency laws. Seven states and six counties or cities, including New York City, have pay transparency laws on the books as of January 2023. Salary transparency is also a strong indicator of a positive DEI workplace.

We need to get Marie Kondo in here ASAP!

Sometimes even the queen of organizing can’t fix the chaotic disorganization of certain companies. Lack of communication between departments and managers, heavy workloads, and inexperienced colleagues are possible outcomes of these red flags.

Inconsistent interviewing

Some job posts are transparent and tell you about their recruiting process, which is a positive! However, having too little or too many interviews is not. “Having just one interview might show that they need someone fast, showing some disorganization within the team,” explains Lemainque. Another possible effect Lemainque mentions is that this type of hiring habit shows that your colleagues were recruited quickly and might not have the appropriate competencies, leading to a heavy workload.

On the other hand, having too many interviews or excruciatingly long pre-employment work assignments or tests shows the company is disjointed. “Suppose you have many interviews with different people asking you the same questions. In that case, it means the recruiters are not even communicating with each other, or they have issues with making decisions,” says Lemainque. Furthermore, this can lead to unclear job responsibilities split across multiple departments adding to the lack of organization.

A whole department’s worth of work under one job title

Some job posts list everything from administrative work to operational tasks or even managerial requirements, yet the position’s title does not mention manager. They just don’t seem to know what they want from the applicant, or they expect them to be superhuman.

Lemainque mentions that this is especially important for managers to watch out for in a job post. “There are a lot of companies that give management positions without providing the employee time or training to be good managers,” he states. This can mean the employee won’t have time to be a manager as they will be doing other tasks instead, creating even more disorganization.

This job will lead me straight to burnout!

Work-life balance is a key priority for job hunters since the pandemic caused people to reconsider how they approach work. According to a 2022 Microsoft report, research shows that 53% of workers are more likely to prioritize health and well-being, and 47% are now more likely to prioritize their family and personal life ahead of work. Here are some red flags to watch out for if you fall into this category.

No time for family because we ARE your family!

‘Come work for us because we are a big, happy family!’ reads a lot of job descriptions. But it all depends on where you are in your personal life. The family vibe might be a welcoming statement for some, especially young professionals who want work friends, but this can be complicated for others, especially workers with their own families.

It’s common in the startup sphere to have this type of language in a job post, describing the weekly hangouts after work or the yearly team building trip. “Workers might feel isolated or conflicted,” Lemainque states, “because they’ll have to choose between their company or their own families.” However, if you’re looking for a job and to build personal connections, it could be something positive.

Lack of personal benefits

Job descriptions have skill requirement lists for the applicant, but not all of them highlight what the company can do for the applicant. This is an important aspect, says Lemainque. The applicant needs to know if their current and future plans match with those of the company.

“I can’t say it’s a red flag if they don’t have this information because companies rarely do this, but I would say it’s a green flag if the company takes the time to explain how they benefit their employees,” states Lemainque. This shows the company cares about its employees.

“Fast-paced environment” is a code word

Phrases like ‘high energy,’ ‘high motivation,’ ‘self-starter,’ and ‘able to work in a fast-paced environment’ are just guises for overworked staff and stressful environments. This means late nights in the office or weekend work leaving the employee with little or no personal time.

Lemainque explains, “this can indicate toxic management or a company that puts KPIs, markets, and financial returns over its employees, making them an afterthought.” But there is another hidden malintent: ageism. “Phrases like these marginalize older workers or workers with families,” he says.

Decoding the job description

While it’s easy to read an exciting job description and apply right away, taking the time to analyze what the company has presented to you can save you from disaster in the form of a toxic work environment. A job description is a window into a company’s culture and management, and job hunters should be aware of the red flags that may indicate a toxic work environment. These red flags include confusion or ignorance within the company, vague or long lists of qualifications, a lack of diversity and inclusion, an outdated focus on pedigree rather than skills, and a lack of flexibility in terms of remote work.

Being aware of these warning signs can help job hunters make informed decisions about whether or not to pursue job opportunities with a specific company. It’s essential for job seekers to take the time to read through job descriptions carefully, and to pay attention to the details that may indicate a toxic work culture. By being mindful of these red flags, job hunters can ensure that they find a workplace that is a good fit for them, and that aligns with their values and goals.

Check out more content related to Mental Health Awareness Month 2023 here.

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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