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Sign of a Toxic Work Environment

business woman waving a red flag at toxic workplace
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by Leticia Garay
Workplace Red Flags

We’ve all heard of relationship red flags but workplace red flags? Unlike Six Flags, red flags are not a good thing. Toxic work environments can contribute to workplace burnout, which is something we all want to avoid. Toxic work environments can also stunt our career growth and be a frustrating experience. If you’re going to spend about a third of your life working, you might as well make it worthwhile or at least less stressful.


If you’re a job seeker, it’s easier to look out for the red flags before accepting a new job. This is why it’s super important to do your company research and be specific about your end of interview questions. However, you can also look out for these five toxic workplace red flag phrases.


  1. “We’re like a family.” My Millennials and Gen Z job seekers might be more aware of this interview joke but the statement points to a more fundamental problem: a lack of boundaries. Lack of boundaries can include having to work all the time, supervisors contacting you at all hours of the day, passive aggressive behavior, unrealistic expectations/timelines, and inequitable job distribution amongst your team. There might even be guilt-tripping when you decline to work extra without additional compensation and an expectation to constantly “step up” to the plate when the department is understaffed, under-resourced, or just because you complete your work faster than others.

    • TIP: When you hear this, be ready to follow up with more specific questions about the workplace culture. Remember, you’re interviewing the company as much as they are interviewing you.


  1. “Fast-paced environment.” These workplace environments put you on the fast-track to burnout. Similarly to “we’re like a family,” time boundaries are not respected. It also indicates that there may be issues with the organizational structure or that management doesn’t do a good job of addressing potential process issues before they happen. In other words, poor planning, undecided management, or unclear structure often leads to inefficient processes and large workloads.


  1. “Wear many hats.” Aka we expect you to take over multiple jobs without extra pay or recognition. You’ll be stuck doing repetitive tasks, limiting you from exploring more challenging, creative tasks that expand your skill sets. You’ll definitely want to clarify what type of extra tasks or “opportunities” this includes. 

    • TIP: A smart follow-up question to this qualification includes asking about department partners and how much overlap in job descriptions there are. For example, if you’re applying to an inbound marketing job, ask about their sales department. You’ll want to know that the sales department is there to support you in your role when needed, that you’ll be working in that department as well.


  1. “Works well under pressure.” This usually indicates this workplace has a ton of stress. While some jobs require people to keep their cool in tough situations, most jobs do not require your cortisol levels to constantly be spiked up.


  1. “Fast learner.” Usually, this means there’s little to no training or onboarding in your new role. You hit the ground running and it’s overwhelming. Some job responsibilities may even be out of scope for your position as you start to be asked to “wear other hats.” While you should be looking for jobs that give you a nice learning curve, beware of the jobs that throw you off the ledge to get you to fly.

    • TIP: If you are changing industries or starting a completely new type of role, having an onboarding window will be essential. You may have the transferable skills necessary but it will take time to learn the industry standard or even company jargon. 


No matter the red flag phrase(s) being used, it’s important to understand your boundaries. Having these established before starting a new job or even defining them while in your current role, can help you avoid burnout and properly navigate toxic workplace environments. Informational interviews are also extremely helpful in getting more information about a company’s culture or a job’s responsibilities. If you’re new to an industry or role, this is an especially helpful tool to maximize your time so you don’t go through an entire job interview with red flags flying in your face. Don’t have time for an informational interview? You can also check out these websites to learn more about a company.


Make sure you keep in mind a list of what you can live with and a list of deal breakers when you are on the job hunt. No matter what type of company, industry, or role you’re looking for, workplace burnout is never worth it. 


Article written by Leticia Garay