Red Flags to Look For Before Taking a Job

ChecklistRecently I wrote about the what I look for when I’m considering a job or a contract, things like interesting problems and fun people. There is, however, a dark side. For some things I’ll stop even considering a job or contract. Just like a job’s qualities, these are different for everyone. My red flags might be something you don’t care about one way or another.

Before I share my list, I want to include one caveat: Earning enough to pay the mortgage and the bills is the first consideration. Personally, I’ve never had a problem getting a job, I understand that you may have to take what you can get. So, assuming that I’m not worried about finding any job but instead finding the right job for me, these are the red flags I watch out for.

  • Micromanagers. Places where someone — technical or not — engages in constant oversight aren’t for me. A good management structure is great, and technical feedback is always welcome. I even enjoy pair programming. Just please don’t turn every meeting into a “status update for the one person who gets to make all the decisions.”
  • Can’t administer my own machine. If I can’t be an administrator on my own machine, I’m slowed down. It also says you don’t trust me. How about we agree that you’ll trust me and I won’t do anything stupid?
  • All my potential coworkers are short-timers. When the entire team lasts six months or less, that means something’s wrong. Of course sometimes a person doesn’t work out but if that’s rampant, something more systemic going on. If this is a brand new venture, or the company’s coming off an event they can explain, this doesn’t apply.

Those are what I look out for. How about you?

20 Responses to “Red Flags to Look For Before Taking a Job”

  1. ConfusedCountry

    Actually, I’d like to add one more. I like to ask “What will I doing my first day, first week, and first month?”. The expected answer for first day is “setup”, first week, probably learning, but by first month I should “be engaged working on project X”. If they have no idea what I will be working on in one month, then they have no idea why they are hiring me. I never take jobs that are “just do whatever comes up”. It means that the place is likely very mismanaged.

    I already have a career and I know the kind of things I want to do. My career is NOT whatever some manager decides it is each new day. I decide my career, not you! I do Java and ActionScript programming. I’ve been hired as a Java programmer, and then handed a Lotus Notes development project just because I have past experience. Sorry, I already made a career decision to give that up, and I won’t allow you to override that decision for me and pick my career.

    Always make sure you ask, EXACTLY, what you will be working on. It gives you ammunition to use when you quit 3 months later. “You said when you hired me that I’d be doing Java and TIBCO, but instead you gave me a Lotus Notes development project. You lied to me–I quit!”

    • Just a side note…whatever you put on your resume is fair game for a company to ask you to help. If Lotus Notes appears on your resume, it’s reasonable to assume that if they have a need for that, they will ask for your expertise. If you don’t want to offer that (ever) then take it off your resume (if needed, just indicate that you worked on “other development”. If you feel that makes your resume look thin, then you’ll probably want to flesh out more Java work. If you don’t have enough Java experience, then you shouldn’t be complaining that you got hired with such little overall experience.

      • ConfusedCountry

        I have 35 years experience programming and 15 years of Java programming. Lotus Notes work I did in the 90’s. I had every reason to put it on my reason, and every reason to leave it behind. This has nothing to do with experience

        • Perfect…my point was that if you want to leave it behind, leave it off and nobody needs to know about it. Speaking of that, I should probably remove Pick from mine since I have no plans to work on it ever again, but the experience I got while using it will remain.

          • ConfusedCountry

            Believe me, I have thought long and hard about taking things off my resume, but I am 56 years old and I must have done something in the 90’s. I also worked for Lotus so I had very in depth knowledge of the product, and felt that my prior knowledge is relevant to who I am today although my the interview was very clear as to what I was hired to do. The fact that “somebody critical” left, which only leaves me is not part of the agreement.

            They have a right to ask me to do anything they want while they are paying me, but I also have the right to leave.

            …and as far as Pick, I’d leave it on your resume. I’ve never met anybody who ever worked with it, and that alone would be a great conversation piece at least for anybody who remembers what it is, but for those that don’t know what it is, it still makes a great conversation piece. — it worked for me, if I were interviewing you right now, I’d have a million questions for you about Pick. I remember reading so many cool things about it back in the day. I’d wonder if some of the ideas are still relevant today.

            My Vote, keep it on your resume. (Do I have a vote ?)

          • You make a good point about the “contract”. If Notes was not relevant to why you were hired, it’s really unreasonable to “demand” that you work on it under their duress. And I guess if you worked FOR Lotus, it’s hard to take things related to that off the resume.

            And Pick was so much fun to work with, having the DB built into the file structure…but it really wasn’t as scalable as things we have today. Of course, your right that that statement alone probably shows my understanding of the industry that may not come up otherwise. I respect your vote and will probably keep it on, but maybe hide it from my skillset and leave it in the company task description. 🙂

            Are we off-topic? I suppose that a potential red flag is when the company starts drilling you about things on your resume that are not part of the job description!

      • ConfusedCountry

        Well I’ll close with one more off topic comment. If Pick was a powerful enough keyword to throw us both off topic, then that is one more piece of proof to keep it on your resume.
        …I wish I had that experience!

    • Catherine Powell

      Feumar, I use this awesome technique called “asking.” I ask to talk with a team member before I take the job or contract, and in that conversation, I’ll ask, “hey, how long have you been here? How about your coworkers?” It comes up in conversation pretty naturally. I’ll also say, “so, do you have admin on your machine?” Most of the time, I get funny looks followed by a response, “Of course!” When I get, “uhhh, no, IT won’t let us do that”, then I know there’s a red flag waving.

      The hardest one is micromanagement, in part because you can’t just ask directly, and in part because everyone has a slightly different idea of what constitutes micromanagement. In the end, I ask about projects and how people come up with solutions, and even ask if I can look at their task list, or who runs their scrums. The answers to that all add up to a – highly unscientific, granted – gut feeling. Over time, though, my gut has gotten pretty accurate.

  2. The article assumes that the interviewers will provide truthful responses and a nominal level of transparency. How naive! My experience, dating back to 1970, is that many companies, large and small, lie to employment applicants. Expose their “dirty laundry” to an applicant in the interviewing process? Absolultely absurd.

      • ConfusedCountry

        I still don’t agree with that. What if I sold Real Estate 10 years ago and got a job as a programmer for Century 21. If their top realtor is out sick today can they ask me to drive their clients out to see a home? I don’t think so. What I did in my past, really has no bearing on what I am willing to do.

        I think it should be agreed up front, that I am now a Programmer and not a Realtor.
        (I’ve never worked in Real Estate, but you get my point)

  3. WaitingForTheFlip

    As a hiring manager in IT, I always try to be very open, transparent and direct in my interview process. No sense of creating a basis of lies to start of a relationship with a new potential employee. It speaks to integrity, trust, honesty.

    However, sometimes you cannot be as open as you like. Every company has its warts and dirty laundry. EVERYONE. Just as we do as employees. No company or employee is perfect. far from it. They are trying to weigh your positives and negatives, just as you should do the same about them.

    You should do more than ask what projects you’ll be working on or whether you can be a local administrator of your computer. What’s the team like? How do they support each other? What are your objectives that you have to hit, as the hiring manager? How do you see having me help you hit those objectives? How will you manage me? How will the company reward me for going above in beyond? Describe exceptional performance? Tell me about one of your team who’s exceptional? How is he rewarded for that exceptional performance?

    And look around the office. Are people smiling, concentrating at work, having fun? Are there pictures up in their cubicles of their pets/family? Or is it stark gunmetal grey and looks of fear?

    I totally agree and think that it’s very easy to ask the right questions and observe whether a company is a good one or not. But the issue more than anything is many people need jobs, employers know this, and in today’s market many choose work regardless of the bad vibes.

    When the market turns around and starts shifting towards an employee market, it’ll get better. For those of us in IT, we’re a bit luckier because the IT unemployment rate is very low.

    But that still doesn’t mean that there aren’t bad companies or employers out there. Quite the contrary. Employees are still living in fear in many regions and pockets, waiting for the sunlight to come back that shows them better horizons.

    Ask the right questions. Observe.

    As a hiring manager, I’d rather be open with my potential employees about the challenges and let them decide if they can deal with both the good and the not so good. No company’s perfect. They all have warts.

    Even as a hiring manager, I have to decide that for myself (I am an employee after all, too). And I have CHOSEN (made an informed decision) to work for less than stellar companies because of regional economics where employers have more than there share of the power. We all make those risk/reward/balance decisions.

    It’s very easy to find a less than stellar employer. It is good to ask questions and observe to get a clearer picture up front. But we may still end up chosing to work there, regardless, because there’s something they have that we want and value: Good projects, good income. A paycheck. Benefits. Access to good technology. Challenging work.

    Ask the right questions and make an informed decision. but, again, there are few companies that make the best places to work list, and even those aren’t perfect. But by asking and observing, at least you’ll have a good sense up front.

    And if in your region there’s better choices for you, pursue them if your calculations make you think a particular employer has too many red flags.

    In my book, honesty, integrity, openness, trust are important values. Match your values as close as you can with a potential employer.

    Make the best decision you can for yourself. Good luck.

  4. Honestly, my last job should have been a HUGE red flag when I was told that my entire department all walked out at the same time and quit at once. You would think that would have been a hint that the owners were nuts (especially the owners daughter, who runs the place like she thinks she’s a god and doesn’t have a clue what she’s doing) and it would be hell to work there.

    But no, my brain was so excited to have a job that I didn’t listen.

    I won’t do it again.

    • So maybe, if you’re “desperate” for a job, you should take those jobs with red flags and immediate press harder for another job; I hate to have that attitude, but companies rarely promote loyalty these days, so why should the employees act loyally?

  5. Interface

    What will my computer setup be? More specifically, how powerful a computer and number/size of monitors? It always amazes me when a company spends 150K+ yearly (salary, benefits, recruiting costs etc.) on an engineer, and then equips him/her with substandard equipment for budgetary reasons or because it’s “standard issue” for all employees. It’s usually indicative of more widespread issues with counter-productivity.