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How to recognise a toxic work culture from a job advert

Maskot via Getty Images

From disrespecting employees to unethical behaviour, toxic work cultures are surprisingly common.

And if you’re looking for a new job, it can be tricky to tell what a company is like until it is too late — and you’ve already accepted and started the position.

However, it is possible to spot a toxic environment by the language an organisation includes on their job adverts.

Recently, workforce analytics firm Revelio Labs combed through job ads for phrases like "must handle stress" and "be able to work under pressure" — and found that the use of such language is becoming more prevalent.

By the end of last year, over a quarter of job postings contained at least one phrase that applicants would consider a red flag. Often, these phrases indicate a demanding job with no work-life balance — which are the key drivers of the "great resignation".

Read more: Sensehacking: The latest workplace wellbeing trend

Around 30% of job ads in the finance sector and 29% in the sales industry contained at least one red-flag phrase.

There are some instances when the use of such language is important. For example, if it is a high-stress role. However, research shows that job applicants are less likely to apply for jobs that contain these words.

So what words and phrases are red flags in a job listing — and what might they mean?

‘High-performance culture’

Leah Tillyer, a confidence and career coach and founder of the Confidence Club, says conversations often arise with clients around the toxic environments they find themselves in.

If a job advert mentions a "high-performance culture", it may mean employees are at risk of burnout, she says.

Read more: How to make sure you're not working full-time hours on part-time pay

“Most people would jump at the chance to be a part of a high-performing team but the reality is, it takes a strong leader to get this right,” says Tillyer. “The underlying expectations of this phrase are ‘we do what it takes to get the job done, at any cost’.”

‘We are like a family’

It’s important to get along with your colleagues and having friends at work can boost job satisfaction and happiness.

However, if a listing claims that coworkers are like family, it may indicate that the company expects unconditional loyalty and out-of-hours work.

“Being a tight-knit team who collaborate and trust each other is one thing, but when an employer uses phrases such as ‘we're like family here’ — it usually means boundaries are lacking,” says Tillyer.

‘We empower you’

“Employee empowerment is a hot phrase at the moment, but if you're having to give someone the power, it means they never had it in the first place,” she explains. “I often see, it's usually a power shift that never comes to fruition.”

Read more: What is a 'permacrisis' and how to navigate it at work

Additionally, empowerment is a word that is often overused without meaning. To really empower employees, they need to be able to voice concerns without fear of retribution and have a say in the way they work.

‘Be part of a busy, hard-working team’

Most workers are busy and if they’re happy, they’ll put effort into what they do. However, when the word "busy" is used in a job advert, it usually isn’t a good sign.

“It usually means the team is under-resourced and overworked, or that their workload is poorly-managed,” says Tillyer.

The phrase "must handle stress" is a red flag too. With employee burnout and poor mental health a serious problem across industries, stress is something organisations should be working to reduce.

No salary mentioned

Another potential red flag is a lack of information regarding pay.

“If there's no salary in the job adverts this can mean there isn't an open and fair culture around pay,” says Tillyer. “And, if it's office-based work with no flexibility this is usually an environment lacking in trust.”

Read more: Can emotional transparency at work reduce burnout?

So, should you still apply for a role if the job description contains any red flag phrases?

Ultimately, it’s up to you. If you spot one but everything else seems promising, it may still be worth applying to find out more about the company.

“It all comes down to the interview process,” Tillyer adds. “It's a two-way street, the interview is an opportunity to ask questions and to find out more about the true culture. If there's more than one of the above phrases in an advert, I'd err on the side of caution.”

Watch: The 5 attributes of a toxic work culture, according to a Wharton organisational psychologist

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