Proceed with Caution: Identifying a Dysfunctional Employer in an Interview

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By Cheryl Hyatt

A job search is not only about finding your next position, it’s about choosing the next institution which will shape your career and future opportunities. In each role, you hone your skills, expand your network, and develop your leadership approach. A holistic perspective enables you to make a strategic choice for your career.

We often reduce an interview to a candidate trying to get a job from an employer. A more accurate—and healthy—understanding is that it is a mutual conversation. Candidate and employer are getting to know one another in order to ascertain if it would be a good fit for everyone involved. As an applicant, you should be evaluating a potential employer as much as they are assessing you. 

There is an increased emphasis on cultural fit in hiring decisions. Employers understand that specific skills can be taught, but alignment on priorities and values is much harder–if not impossible–to cultivate. You are not only interviewing for a job, you are interviewing with a company. The organization you join has a profound and long-term effect on your career and quality of life. A supportive employer can position you for success and propel your growth. A dysfunctional employer can make your life miserable, drain your drive, and sabotage your opportunities.

An interview provides you valuable insights into the daily realities of life at a company. While you don’t want to be suspicious and defensive, you should be clear-eyed and attentive to the information you can glean throughout your dealings with a potential employer. Here are three red flags that should give you pause in an interview process.  


Beginning with your call back, notice your interactions with an organization. If you receive conflicting information or have to jump through unnecessary hoops, it might be a sign that an organization is mired in cumbersome systems. That can translate to headaches when trying to accomplish the most basic tasks as an employee. You want an employer who values outcomes and is constantly evaluating and improving their process. Your ability to successfully complete projects or lead a team will be thwarted if the workplace is wedded to poor practices.

Work-life imbalance

Some employers view employees as a resource to be exploited, not as partners in their work. Is this a company who invests in their employees or uses and discards them? It is appropriate to ask what it takes to excel in a role. If an institution’s top performers are expected to work 100 hour work weeks or be available around the clock, you may want to consider if that is a lifestyle you are prepared to adopt. There will be times at any institution when you will have to come together and buckle down to get a project over the finish line. A willingness to work hard is not the same as an expectation to never stop working. A cut-throat culture of competition and grueling schedules will not be sustainable. 

Power struggles

A healthy work environment energizes employees to support one another and work together. Productive organizations are founded on collaboration, not competition. As you interview, evaluate how the different departments interact? What is the relationship like between the administration and the board of trustees? Is the workplace typified by backbiting and suffused with tension or a place of mutual respect? Nothing will sap your job satisfaction faster than office politics. 

Solicit feedback

An interview always closes with a chance for you to ask questions. Among your other questions, ask the interviewer how they like working for the organization. Listen to what they say—and don’t say—and pay attention to their nonverbals. Are they offering perfunctory lip service or are they warm and enthusiastic? Are the positive aspects of the job that they identify things that are priorities to you in a workplace? 

Careful consideration of an employer is vital for finding a position where your career can grow. If you identify problems throughout the course of an interview process, do not be afraid to probe, using the appropriate nuance and diplomacy. If you are unsatisfied with their responses, you should proceed with great caution if you are extended an offer. While walking away from a job offer is a difficult decision, working for a toxic employer is a choice you will regret for years to come.

About the author: With executive search consulting experience spanning decades, Cheryl Hyatt has been responsible for successfully recruiting senior-administrative professionals for educational and non-profit organizations. A partner of Hyatt-Fennell Executive Search, Cheryl brings over 30 years of management and organizational leadership experience to her role with clients. Her breadth of experience, knowledge, and contacts makes her sought after professionally in her field. Ms. Hyatt frequently writes articles and presents to various non-profit groups and sits on a number of local non-profit boards.

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