How to Choose a Good Employer
and weed out toxic workplaces
There are an estimated 333.34 million companies in the world. With the increase in globalized and remote work, we have more choices than ever. The recent massive wave of resignations means a lot of people are interviewing for what’s next.
We choose our work place for a variety of reasons: our future goals, lifestyle, personal interests and to some extent our values. However, as all humans do, we make associations and links between things which are meaningful to us. When someone is chivalrous, we’ll assume they’re kind. When someone was a boy scout we assume they’re ethical. Or from personal experience, make the leap in thinking that an environmental NGO has strong ethics around taking care of employees.
Sadly, these false assumptions lead us into toxic workplaces.
Typical organizational job postings and career pages will include perks, maybe some standard DEIB statement, and most likely some employer branding language like: fun, family, values, growth, generous time off. But what do they really mean?
All of these above do not necessarily translate into a healthy workplace. It’s important to get an insightful view into how things really work. Take the time to read their employer reviews, search the web for articles about them and most importantly, ask many questions in the interview stage. To help you know what to look for, here is an outline of some key indicators of a good employer.
Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging
Even if you think it’s not relevant to you, DEIB is a strong indicator of how an organization cares for its people. It doesn’t matter the size; an early stage organization with 5 people can copy paste some best practices and guidelines. Such as a Zero-tolerance harassment policy, or KPIs for diversity hires. Here are a few signs that an organization takes DEIB (and employee wellness) seriously:
- Promoted employee resource groups or committees
- Proactive accommodations for employee belonging
- Active and enforced policies, protocols and guidelines
- New initiatives and iterations at least quarterly
Employee retention, where employees choose to stay with their current company and not take other job prospects, is an important indicator of the health of an organization. The top reason people quit their job is a toxic work culture. Second to low pay. In any case, employee exploitation is a common theme amongst organizations with high churn rates. Some things to look for:
- A churn healthy rate is about 10–15% (are they transparent about it?)
- Look at who’s quitting, is it an organization-wide issue?
- Do they have demonstrated internal promotions and growth opportunities for junior & mid level staff?
Strategy and Goals
Effective leaders know that in order to achieve their vision, there needs to be alignment within the organization. At minimum there should be a clear strategy set to a timeline with direct indications for each team’s goals. Many organizations have values or a mission in lieu of a quantifiable way forward. Here are some questions for clarity:
- How does the organizational mission translate into the strategy?
- What are the team / department goals for the next month, quarter, two years?
- What KPIs are you using to measure success?
Roadmap or Prioritization
A major role of leadership is to set a roadmap or a prioritization of projects and work responsibilities. Too often, managers lean on “rapidly changing” or “urgency” as reasons for not setting priorities or changing the roadmap mid project. This leads to unhealthy working styles which create environments of toxic stress and shifting expectations. Even a startup which is innovating and developing should focus on proactive vs reactive work. Ask your potential manager how they approach their team’s goals:
- Putting out fires vs developing and implementing strategy
- Managing unexpected complexity or failure in goals
- Communicating and mitigating board/funders/leadership changing expectations
Accountability in the workplace means that all employees are responsible for their actions, behaviors, performance and decisions. Unfortunately, every workplace has some folks who shift this responsibility to others. One main source of toxic stress comes from expectations to over perform, and having to bear the weight of other’s ineffective decisions or inappropriate behaviors. Accountability is more than written protocols and KPIs, look for the following:
- Biannual 2 way performance reviews; managers should be receiving your feedback too
- Job descriptions for the entire team and map of how it all fits together
- Ask for an example of how the organization managed the last instance of lack of accountability
Even in the home, project management is an important tool we use to manage our time and resources. To stay healthy and balanced at work, we need to understand constraints, stakeholders, inter-dependencies and trackers to know how our projects are going and how to get them done. Just like roadmaps and goals, leaders and managers need to have robust project management plans and tools in place for themselves and their teams. Some things to examine are:
- Are there specific objectives, fixed timelines and success indications for each project?
- How does the organization do project management? Tools? Is it widely adapted?
- How is communication around the project process done? Meetings, emails etc?
- Does the organization have reviews or retrospectives at the end of each project?
This may feel like a lot to ask, but the right organization will take the time to answer your questions with transparency and honesty.
In addition to asking the right questions, pay attention to how they interview you and what questions they ask. Some example of red flags are:
- A rushed interview process
- Questions about how you handle stress, prioritization or work life balance
- Questions about how you adapt to company values or culture
Every person deserves a safe and healthy workplace where they can function well without toxic stress. If you have the privilege to do so, I encourage you to resist the doom and gloom talks of recession and take this opportunity to screen your potential employer well. I wish you all the best in making a choice which supports your personal and professional well-being.