Tips for spotting cultural red flags in interviews

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Changing jobs can be a scary proposition in this economy. If the move doesn’t work out, you can quickly find yourself on the outside of the workforce looking in. It’s also harder than ever to find a Wall Street firm with a great culture. A recent study found that nearly 40% of sell-side employees report a pervasive morale problem in their office.

So how do you avoid walking into such a situation? Networking and online research can be a big help, but then you’ll only be eyeing the company culture through someone else’s lens. The best way to identify cultural problems at a potential employer is by using your own judgment. Look for these red flags during the interview and hiring process.

A Bad Vibe: Office atmosphere is an underrated tell when it comes to judging the culture of a firm, said Hallie Crawford, an Atlanta-based career coach. “When you enter the office and everyone seems hurried, unhappy or you get some other vibe that something's not right, listen to your instincts,” she said. The faces in the office often tell the real story.

Turnover: Always ask why the position is available. If it is a backfill for someone who has departed, ask why it didn’t work out, said Roy Cohen, career coach and author of The Wall Street Professional’s Survival Guide. The reason – and the hiring manager’s reaction to the question – will give you a better window into what it’s like to work at the firm. If they don’t have a good answer or the question trips them up, that’s another red flag.

One easy to find out if employee turnover is pervasive is by asking everyone you speak with how long they have been at the firm, Cohen said. If they aren’t growing and no one has been there for more than a year, that’s a red flag.

Lack of Graduates: Look for a history of staff development within the group, said Phil Gaddis, president of the finance & accounting executive search division at Addison Group. “Have employees historically had successful careers in the firm who have started in this particular group?” he said. “If there are no ‘graduates’ promoted out of this group seeing success internally, that's a red flag.”

Comp Pressure: If they press you immediately for compensation information right out of the gate, they’re looking at you only as a commodity, not a unique individual worth investing time in, Cohen said. Also, if compensation is a monumental priority for them, know you have very little room to negotiate down the road.

They Move Too Quickly: This is a tough one – as it always feels good to be wanted – but getting pressed with an offer before you can do your due diligence and get a feel of the team is a major red flag, said Cohen. “It’s like dating,” he said. “One date and they are talking about marriage? As a candidate, I’d be scared.”

Dovetailing on that idea, if they don’t ask you engaging questions about yourself, or seem put-off by the questions you ask, they may not care about making sure it's a good fit on both ends, Crawford said. If they don’t care enough to know you as a person, they likely won’t treat you like one. No one gives away good jobs that easy.


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Varied Responses: Throughout your interviews, ask each member of the team about the firm culture and what type of person would be successful on the team, Gaddis said. “One can usually tell by the way these questions are answered if there's a fit or not,” he said. Also, if you receive widely varying answers to the same question, this may be indicative of a group without direction.

They’re Hiding: Being invited to interview at a restaurant or somewhere else outside of the firm can be a red flag, said Cohen. “What are they hiding? he said. Maybe it’s a sweatshop. Maybe there are unhappy people there."

They’re Unorganized: They show up late, they don’t have your resume, they haven’t read your resume. All of these are signs that your prospective boss is unorganized and, likely, they won’t fully appreciate your time. If they act that way during an interview, imagine what there managerial style would look like.

They’re Unaccommodating: If the interview process involves violating boundaries, recognize that that may be the case on the job, Cohen said.

One of his clients was forced by a hiring manager to interview over the phone while on vacation, on the way to the airport with his children. “She had no respect for boundaries,” Cohen said of the hiring manager. He eventually got the offer and accepted it. “What happened is that’s the way she treated him at work,” Cohen said. “He didn’t pay attention to a very important piece of information being communicated to him during the interview.”

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