7 signs during recruitment that your potential employer is a dud

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Healthy scepticism as a potential employee is never a bad thing.
Healthy scepticism as a potential employee is never a bad thing.

As a young man starting out my career, I constantly felt inferior applying for jobs. Considering I was up against a huge swathe of potential candidates, the recruiter could have their pick of the lot. After starting a non-profit organisation from scratch, OIC Cambodia, I was involved in almost every hiring decision from day one.

Bit by bit, I started to reassess this power dynamic and realise that I’d been wrong. It is extraordinarily hard to hire good staff, especially in resource-poor environments.

Since handing over the leadership of OIC Cambodia to a local, Cambodian team this year, I’ve moved back to my hometown of Sydney, and am looking at the next opportunities. Concurrently, I’ve been invited to a few universities to talk about career advice for students.

There’s a lot of career advice out there on how to get a job. Experts talking about how to fix your CV, even paid services that will do it for you. Tips and tricks on effective networking or how to get your LinkedIn profile just right.

But almost all this advice is on the basis of that false power dynamic: the employer has more power than the potential employee. But as an employee, why would you apply for a position where you’re going to be miserable?

During the recruitment process, how can you spot a potentially poor workplace? Here’s 7 tips I’ve come up with.

I’d be interested to know what giveaways you look for!


1. They ask you to write your own position description

We work in an era where many organisations require adaptability, have flat hierarchies, and are seeking more engaged staff. At first glance, getting a potential staff member to write their own position description seems progressive.

There’s only one problem. The only people who can tell what an organisation needs are those within the organisation. Therefore, someone outside the organisation cannot conceptualise their own job.

Think about it for second. If you’re the coach of a soccer team, but you’re lacking a star striker, you’ll actively recruit a new striker. You wouldn’t ask a defender to tell you how he’d plan to score goals.


2. They overload you with buzzwords

It doesn’t matter how technical or complicated a role is. If the organisation can’t explain, in plain English, what the purpose of the position is and what success looks like, it could mean a number of potential things.

They may not know what the role looks like. There might be disagreement over the purpose of the position. Or, they might just be poor communicators.

Any of the above reasons are potentially reasons to take a step back and rethink.

3. They stick too closely to the script

There are many interesting and different ways to recruit people. Some of these go overboard – I was once asked explain in an interview why I enjoyed running marathons. Focussing on learning, problem solving and planning are all really good places to start.

More conservative workplaces will recruit very closely to a script. You might know this scenario.

You’re sitting in the interview room with three staff members. They have a list of predictable interview questions in front of them. Someone will ask one, they’ll all nod and take notes, then pass the piece of paper to the next person to ask the next question.

No probing questions, no clarification, no discussion.

I’ve often wondered what the point of this is. If they’re simply going to read from the script, why do different people need to read out the questions? Why have an interview (an opportunity for a dialogue), instead of just recording the candidate via video?


4. They focus too much on experience

Recently, I spoke to the CEO of a company in Asia who had over ten thousand employees. He mentioned to me that in a fast-paced world, skills, degrees and experience were becoming less relevant. What was more relevant, he said, was being able to assess the situation in front of you, sum it up quickly, and adapt.

If this is the case, why is there still such a huge focus on experience during hiring?

Employers in developing countries are particularly guilty of this. The mindset is that they want someone who has done the work in country A to reproduce it in country B. And we wonder why there’s so little innovation in the traditional non profit sector.

5. They don’t demonstrate flexibility

Most employers appear more flexible with work arrangements than they really are, despite the evidence that, for example, working from home occasionally has massive benefits.

To really get a sense of how flexible an employer is, it’s always a great idea to ask someone actually working in the organisation how they perceive this aspect. Some roles really do require bums on seats, so it’s hard to be too general.

Others don’t and might become tiresome or just a nuisance. A friend of mine used to work for a firm where she had to write a leave form for even one hour away from the office.


6. They focus on cultural fit, not cultural contribution

From years of hiring, this is probably my number one lesson learnt. I had initially thought that you need to hire people who fit in with the team well, to increase cohesion and desire to work together.

The reality is however, focussing on fit results in a very bland workplace. You end up getting a lot of the same types of people, and that results in one of the most dangerous of organisational habits: groupthink.

Focussing more on cultural contribution means advocating for a diverse workplace, and specifically recruiting where there are gaps.

Is the employer asking you questions or getting you to come in, to see if you’d gel with others? Do the other staff seem to be slight variations of the same person? Warning bells should be ringing.

7. They’re slow

I once submitted an application for a job in November, received a request for my first interview in December, and had a second interview in April. By the time it got to July, they asked me for a third interview.

The HR manager seemed genuinely puzzled when I told them that I had already gotten a job within this 8 to 9 month window.

It’s true that an HR department does not represent an entire organisation, but this one is clearly cause for concern.

A good employer will leave every interaction with a person, no matter who they are, feeling good about themselves. And yes, this includes providing feedback to unsuccessful candidates on why they haven’t progressed.


What about you? What signs do you look for during recruitment to tell you would enjoy working with your prospective employer?

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