Red Flags for the Candidate
by Bill Wednieski
Great news: they want to interview you!
The job market ebbs and flows from a candidate’s market to an employer’s market, and sometimes it is a huge accomplishment just to be asked to interview. Congratulations on getting this far if you have been asked to interview. Now, consider taking a step back from your exuberance and look at things from a higher perspective. Yes, the employer is interviewing you, but you must be interviewing them at the same time and doing your own due diligence.
How to spot a less-than-ideal opportunity
Interviewing is tricky business. You may be very excited for the opportunity. You may really really need this job. You may be trying to pivot away from a dying industry or company or seeking something with tremendous upside like a start-up. What questions do you need to satisfy and what should you look out for? Uncomfortable feelings may not really be a flag, but do need actual answers to questions you have in your head. How many times have you said, “I should have asked . . .” or thought, “if I knew X I would not have done Y”?
If you order a pizza on Friday and it shows up Tuesday, do you still want it?
On-time delivery is not simply a suggestion in business. I sometimes ask this question in team meetings, advising candidates and employers alike (the question is great at sparking more hustle). Is the hiring process being conducted timely? It is a sure red flag, and begs a bunch of questions, if you apply in January and they ask you to interview in April. Did they really need somebody in January? Did they hire people that have already quit or been fired? Perhaps the employer was just fishing, or was not that serious in the first place, or is disorganized. Time kills all deals, and if an employer can’t timely get through an interview process then you are prudent to wonder what else may be wrong.
Technology. Do they use it?
During 2020, Covid-19 forced work-from-home and pushed technology into a quantum leap. Now it seems everybody is using some form of video conferencing today, but at some point I expect most of us to physically be back in the office. (Personally, there are distractions for me at home and I miss seeing people in person). It is a flag if the employer requires you to fill out actual paper applications, or God forbid fax something to them, or use some antiquated software to apply for a role. From a start like that, it probably gets worse once you get the role and show up for your first day of work.
- Fact: in 2020 there are some publicly traded companies still using accounting systems that cannot readily export data to Microsoft Excel.
- True story: I once drove three hours to interview with a C-level executive, only to sit in a conference room with a very expensive video conferencing setup. Conversationally, I complimented him on how nice the video equipment was and suggested how productive we could potentially be working together using it. He replied he had no idea how to use it nor did anybody else on his staff.
Why is the role open?
There are answers you want to hear like exponential growth, promotion, relocation, retirement, etc. Then, there are some answers that throw up a red flag requiring some digging on your part – like involuntary terminations or firings, restructuring, remediation efforts or government mandates (i.e. Department of Justice, Environmental Protection Agency, etc.). If the previous person quit, then why did they quit? Ideally you know the answer on why the employee turnover happened in the first place heading into the interview, but ask if you don’t. If the interviewer squirms in their seat or looks awkwardly at a co-interviewer to suggest, “do you want to handle this one or should I?,” then it might be a sign to head for the hills!
What does the place look like? And, can you show me where I will be working?
True story: a real estate company with a portfolio valued at over one billion dollars had some of the worst office furniture and layout I had ever seen. The cubicles and furniture were nearly 30 years old, the conference room was cluttered with boxes of accounting records from a decade ago, and the fabric wallpaper was threadbare in multiple high traffic areas. This instant visual and initial impression was a red flag and spot-on precursor for how that company cared for its properties – long-deferred maintenance, improper asbestos remediation records, buckets catching rainwater from holes in the roof, and cheap fixes when they did fix up their properties. Not to jump to conclusions, but those boxes of old records may mean a nasty IRS examination or litigation. If it matters to you, ask if you will be in an office or a cubicle. At a minimum, ask for a tour or look around if possible.
Do people smile?
Seems trivial, I know. If the receptionist is grumpy and the interviewer is disinterested, what might that say? Everybody is entitled to a bad day but if you are running into unhappy people with questionable attitudes, it is a red flag. It should be reciprocal – what company would hire an unhappy candidate with a bad attitude or disheveled appearance? Gossip and speaking ill of co-workers, other candidates, or former employers is a red flag for all parties. Likewise, if you proceed then you may be surrounding yourself with a bunch of unhappy Debbie downers and malcontents. Employers need to “sell” their companies to you just as much as you need to sell yourself to them.
Does the interviewer know why you are here?
I get it people are busy. It is always a flag when the interviewer has not read your resume, does not know which position you are interviewing for, is late, is unfocused, plays with their phone, or would be your manager but can’t explain the role and responsibilities. A huge pet peeve of mine is an interviewer who is sloppy with a bunch of resumes in front of them with the names of other candidates visible to you. Confidentiality, respect and good manners are a requirement and not a suggestion for all parties.
Employment opportunities don’t work out for a host of reasons. An unscrupulous employer can lie or tell you what you need to hear, which is shame on the employer. Candidates not asking a few questions that could have prevented a less than optimal role is shame on the candidate. Super shame if it has happened more than once. Get your answers to the red flags that get raised and go in there with your eyes wide open.