Don't Get Duped: How to Spot a Bad Employer

Did you always get warned to avoid bad company when you were a kid? Well the same thing goes now you're all grown up and going to job interviews, champ. We've already taught you how to spot poor management, and now we're going to show you how to give second-rate companies a wide berth like a boss. Hop to it.

We'd refer to the job interview process as a lion's den, but actually it's more like a shark tank, and lions don't like water. Many of us have been there before - arriving at a firm's HQ only to discover that it's more Grim-o-plex than Googleplex, and that the only thing more offputting than the MD's impending sexual harassment lawsuit is the smell of rotting wildebeest coming from the air conditioning unit. But there's an easy way to avoid all of that, and take a one-way trip to happiness. Read on, and let us help you find your dream job...

Remain confident during the interview process and realise that it's a two-way street

As we've said before, the recruitment process is a lot like dating - and just as with dating, it's important not to get so hung up on the other party that you lose sight of the context. No matter how much you might want that job, remember that you need to be on the lookout for red flags here. Just like ending up with the wrong partner can be a painful realisation, ending up in the wrong job can really put a dent in your day (or year).

Do employees seem happy, or fed up? Engaged or downtrodden? Look for subtle clues. Hint: probably don't start with the MD.

A lot of the time, keeping things in perspective (whether you're dating or job-hunting) is all a matter of self-esteem. Ever known an otherwise level-headed person who's going out with a complete joker that treats them like crap? That's the equivalent of a well-qualified, experienced person working for a dead end firm that takes liberties with its staff. 

Working for a bad employer can feel like a constant uphill struggle

Keep your guard up, and don't let it down until you're sure that this firm is good enough for you. Ask the tough questions, and come to a conclusion with some perspective. You can do this. Don't settle for less than you're worth.

How to assess a firm's reputation and culture before an interview

Thankfully, in this day and age, there are a number of ways you can investigate what a firm is like without donning a disguise and sneaking into their inner sanctum, and none of them involve drones

Use Glassdoor to spot a bad employer

If you're applying for a job at a larger firm, then Glassdoor is your friend. Here, employees and ex-employees of a company can leave reviews (anonymously, if they like), telling the world what it's like to work there. 

While it's an open secret that unscrupulous company management sometimes leave fraudulent positive reviews on here in order to counterbalance negative feedback, you can still get the gist of what the majority of people think about working there. If it's evident that management have been trying to mislead people in this way, then it goes without saying that you should avoid their toxic firm like the plague!

Assess a company through LinkedIn

LinkedIn is great - if you know how to use it effectively. One cunning technique to spot a rotten firm is to use its 'search by employer' feature. This will bring up a long list of people that you can either follow or add to your contacts list (read, 'try to befriend') in order to find out what it's like to work at a firm from the ground floor. 

Any manager who believes their position entitles them to act like the dictator of a banana republic has completely missed the point, and should be given a wide berth.

Many employees will be more than willing to help you out if you say that you'd love to work for a firm and wanted to know what it's like to be a member of the team. If you don't feel like doing that though, you can always just follow people and see what sort of things employees post on a day-to-day basis. Do they seem happy, or fed up? Engaged or downtrodden? Look for subtle clues. Hint: probably don't start with the MD.

Are the firm's products decent? Check out the reviews and find out

If the firm you're investigating produces or sells a product to customers, then you could do a lot worse than to check out their online reviews. Sources like Google, Amazon, Yelp, and TripAdvisor will allow you to find out not just whether customers are pleased with what they receive, but also if a firm's customer service is any good. 

While it's widely acknowledged that poor service is more likely to be shared by a customer than good service is, by checking out the scores of a few different firms, you'll be able to get a benchmark. Poor customer service is often the hallmark of a badly managed company, so unless you're being hired specifically to clean it up, we'd recommend avoiding such firms. In the words of one recent commentator: "negative reviews don't write themselves".

Don't forget to check out the company's responses to any feedback either - and remember that the only thing worse than no response is an abusive one!

Likewise, a poor product or service is generally not a good sign in this context. If a firm can't even get this right, how do you imagine they treat their staff?

Bad employers often see personal opinions as resistance - and resistance will be crushed

Ring the company and speak to some employees - or even the MD!

This idea actually stems from personal experience. We're aware of at least one person who turned down the offer of an interview after calling a firm to arrange a date, and inadvertently having a conversation with the MD. This director's phone manner was so arrogant and rude that our hero refused to take any more calls from the firm or attend an interview. So much for the MD being a figurehead and leading by example!

Like unwanted garden slugs, we can find them and extricate ourselves from their presence.

While you won't always manage to get through to the MD (hint: small firms are best for this, and check the corporate website / LinkedIn to get a list of staff names), you can still get a pretty good idea of the company culture just by ringing up and posing as a customer or potential client. Just be careful if you know you have a distinctive accent or dialect, because you don't want to get recognised!

As with all things, just remember that you don't actually know why someone might act a little off on the phone. While it could be down to draconian company policy and unsuitable working hours, equally, they could just be having a bad day. You need to take a holistic approach to your research at this stage - investigating every avenue available to you.

Find out what a company's working hours are before you get a job there

If you want any sort of work / life balance in your new job, you're going to be interested in what the company's hours of business are. And by 'hours of business' we mean the actual hours you are expected to work - rather than the ones that are written down in the recruitment material to make the company look good.

There are a number of ways you can find this out - with Glassdoor being many people's first port of call. More extreme examples include asking the question to current and past employees through LinkedIn, or even actually visiting the company's offices in person, staking them out, and watching to see what time people leave. This can be difficult though, as you don't know how much work people do from home, and offices may be shared with other businesses. You also don't want to get caught in the act.

How to spot the signs of a bad employer at your interview

If your initial investigations go well, and you're invited for an interview, then well done. But this is no time to let your guard down. A job interview will present you with a plethora of information about how a company operates and treats their staff - if only you know how to read it.

Trust your instincts and allow yourself to see an employer's true nature

The first thing to look out for at your interview is to see how members of staff interact with the more senior members of management that you're likely to meet at your interview. Do they seem to genuinely get on with them? Is there an element of flattery in operation, or do they actually seem scared - unable to articulate their views for fear of putting a foot wrong?

You really are going to have to trust your instincts for this one, but it is something that gets easier, given a bit of practice. One idea at this point is to learn a few tricks for reading body language - as this can give you a really good pointer as to what someone is thinking.

Find out what your interviewers are like from their actions

One thing you should definitely keep in mind is how the concrete actions of your interviewers stack up. Read up on the things that interviewers are categorically not allowed to ask you in the UK, and commit them to memory. Any attempt to ask you a question concerning your marital status or whether you have children, for instance, is an instant red flag - not to mention illegal.

In addition to this, pay attention to the attitudes displayed by your interviewers in terms of things like their punctuality. Barring a major crisis, there's no reason for someone to be late to a pre-scheduled interview - and such behaviour doesn't speak very well about the way you'd be treated in any future employment. Imagine trying to schedule a meeting with a director who can't even be bothered to show up to interviews on time... 

Ever feel like your interviewer might be a bit... eager?

At the opposite end of the spectrum, you have interviewers who seem more than a little bit desperate for you to work for them. Such an interview would probably be short - and you'd be asked few questions of any substance. Ask yourself why the firm might be so eager for you to start yesterday - could it be that someone else recently left in a hurry? Once again, as with dating, desperation is seldom a good sign. Not a deal breaker by any means, but certainly cause for you to think.

Look for signs of a bad employer around the building

You should have your eyes well and truly open before you ever even step foot in a company's corporate HQ. And if the interview isn't being held on their own premises, ask yourself why not. What is it that the interviewer doesn't want you to see? 

One big red flag is the inclusion of copious 'polite notices' around the workplace. These passive-aggressive pieces of communication point to a severe lack of dialogue at best - and the most dire forms of management at their worst. 

While there really are some sharks out there, there are also plenty of great employers, who will enrich your life rather than doing their best to destroy it.

Whether employees are being commanded to wash their coffee cups, informed of the official management-approved route for walking across the staff car park, or reminded that UNIFORMS ARE TO BE WORN AT ALL TIMES, it is never a good sign. Pun intended. Any manager who believes their position entitles them to act like the dictator of a banana republic has completely missed the point, and should be given a wide berth.

Seldom a good sign

If you can get a look at the offices where you'd be working, then it's also worth having a good sniff about for clues, as they will be an absolute goldmine. One thing to look at is whether or not your potential colleagues are allowed to plant their personality on their desk in the form of photo frames, books, or, well... plants. 

If not, then you have to wonder why not. While some firms like to cultivate a minimalist aesthetic in their offices, others wouldn't know aesthetics if they fell over them, and the only thing that's being cultivated is a culture of fear. This is another sign of a banana republic boss - and there's more of them about than you'd think... 

Remember to look at the way employees are dressed, too. Are people in non-customer-facing roles required to follow a severe dress code or even wear a uniform? While this does still happen in 21st century Britain (again, we speak from experience), it's something that progressive firms have left back with Mr. Dickens; where it belongs.

The best questions to ask at a job interview to help spot a bad employer

That's right: the 'any questions' portion of your interview shouldn't just be an excuse for you to inquire about growth trajectories and KPIs - because it's also an excellent opportunity to trick a toxic employer into coming out from under their stone. Like unwanted garden slugs, we can find them and extricate ourselves from their presence.

Here we have a selection of questions you should be asking:

Question: "Is this a newly-created position, or has someone held it before?"

What you're really asking: "How long did the previous person in my position last, and when did they leave / get the axe?"


Question: "What problems do you see me having to overcome in this role?"

What you're really asking: "Where do you see the business falling down, and who do you blame for it?"


Question: "What is the culture like here? Do staff often meet up outside of work?"

What you're really asking: Pretty clear cut really, this one - another calling card of banana republic bosses tends to be a dislike of employees meeting up outside the workplace (where they can organise themselves against upper echelon bullies more easily).


Question: "If there was one thing you could change about the company, what would it be?"

What you're really asking: "How much are you prepared to tell me about the negatives of working here?" Note that an honest boss will probably come out with some real negatives here. Someone trying to obfuscate the truth is likely to throw you only minor annoyances.

How to assess a contract of employment to spot a bad company

Once the interview is over, you may be lucky enough to actually get offered a job! In order to ascertain just how lucky this is though, you should take a good gander at the contract of employment you're offered. Other than obvious things like looking for a decent salary and holiday / benefits package, there are a few red flags you should be looking out for... 

Harking back to what we said about working hours previously, you may wish to check that your contract doesn't include any clauses that could be used to force you to work unpaid overtime. While many contracts will include something along the lines of being required to be available 'outside of normal working hours on an ad-hoc basis, given appropriate notice', more unscrupulous employers might add something in demanding that employees work a set number of hours outside of their basic working hours, on a regular basis. 

Life is short - do you really want to spend it taking orders from a tyrant?

Likewise, you should check to see if there are any clauses in your contract that might preclude you from setting up your own freelance business, or taking on a second job in your spare time. As long as it doesn't affect your job or their business in any way, then what you do in your spare time is really none of your employer's business.

In a similar vein, a noncompete clause (also often called a restraint of trade clause) is included in many contracts. While these are not always the easiest things to enforce, many employers do include them in contracts - with two years being a fairly standard expiration period. Beware of extremely long-term or restrictive covenants, however, and as always, be aware of what you're signing.

Finally, if you've applied for a creative role, be aware of the level of control your employer expects to exercise over any intellectual property (IP) you create while working for them. While most employers will expect to have some degree of ownership of this (they are paying you for it after all), you need to ensure that you're totally happy with whatever terms are laid out.

Final thoughts - keep your eyes open

Well, first off, we'd like to apologise for the somewhat negative tone of this article - which isn't Agency Central's usual style. While there really are some sharks out there, there are also plenty of great employers, who will enrich your life rather than doing their best to destroy it, and with whom you're bound to go far. All we're trying to do is to ensure that our readers can find the latter, rather than the former!

With stress and other mental health issues being just one example of the way in which toxic companies can affect you, it really does pay to stay away from them - no matter how much money you're offered. It's an unfortunate fact of life that many people in business do so by stepping on others, and there's really no reason to associate your career with that kind of tomfoolery. 

Hopefully you now feel better armed in the war against bad employers - and you should be confident that you can spot one at 1,000 paces. Remember to keep your self-esteem high whenever you're applying for a job, and that your time is an important commodity. Do you really just want to flog it to the highest bidder?

Written by Matt Atkinson