4 Red Flags in the Interviewing, Hiring Process That Job Will Be Worse

Estimated read time 5 min read

In every game, part of the challenge is knowing the other side. Whether it’s poker, football, or the hiring game, understanding tells — unspoken signals — from the opponent can help you hone your strategy to win.

As the former VP of HR for Microsoft, I helped define job candidates’ experiences. We worked hard to treat candidates well and land the most outstanding talent.

At the same time, I’ve seen countless red flags in the hiring process for other companies that serve as tells for their culture.

The company at its best

Hiring is one of the few external faces of a company, the others being sales and media or investor relations.

But hiring is unique: The company is trying to get you to be part of the team. Recruiters and hiring managers want you not just to believe them, but to join them. They should, therefore, be on their very best behavior.

But some tells can expose company problems and should be red flags for job seekers.

Here are the most common tells I’ve seen in hiring.

1. Chaos

The most frequent issue in hiring is chaos: unclear processes, missed appointments, confusion in scheduling, or erratic communication.

Perhaps the candidate sees long periods of silence followed by a frantic need for instant turnaround. Maybe there is confusion about who will conduct the interview or when it will take place.

Often, details are missing or change constantly.

This kind of chaos can result from many factors: Maybe the company is in turmoil, maybe the recruiting team doesn’t have the highest priority, maybe they are all contract employees, or maybe they’re just disorganized people.

Whatever the cause, this chaos is a tell. If the face of the company to potential hires can’t even schedule an interview, imagine what working there could be like.

2. Bureaucracy

Another important tell is the extent of red tape, such as applications that require uploading information to multiple systems, or multiple hoops to jump through before even a screening phone call.

Hiring processes that involve seven rounds of interviews or extensive prework, such as completing sample projects, are often relics of a bygone era — leftovers from processes that once might have made sense.

They are a sign of a company that doesn’t work efficiently and doesn’t constantly iterate to improve.

If they can’t streamline their hiring process to make it work for the company and the candidates, one can only imagine the bureaucracy in the everyday work there.

3. Secrecy

Some companies are overly vague about the role, the group, and even the company. They talk of a great mission but won’t answer direct questions about everything from compensation to organization.

Even the most mundane things, such as who you’ll work for or how they’ll judge your work, are left as strictly “need to know.” They present fronts that would make national-security organizations wince.

They often treat this level of secrecy as a badge of honor, as if it’s a sign of the importance of their great work.

Often, it’s just conceit or bravado. Worse, it might be hiding terrible working conditions behind closed doors. The company keeps managers and employees alike in the dark yet asks them to work tirelessly for vague goals.

You want me to uproot my life and dedicate my career to a job I don’t fully understand? No, thank you.

4. Conceit

This tell of organizational conceit is common in the tech world but is also found in some high-level consulting and other “elite” firms.

They profess to hire only the best and want you to believe you’re lucky even to be considered for their role.

This conceit leads to many problematic issues with hiring. These companies often have abusive interviews where a panel virtually hazes candidates. They pile endless prework that they then judge in a harsh, derisive manner. They never allow the candidate to ask similarly challenging questions of the firm, or they instantly reject those who do.

What’s worse about these firms is that this conceit can hide a dirty secret of the reality behind the curtain. Many entry-level employees are treated to years of abuse and drudgery, itself a form of hazing — and the firms expect them to be happy to be there.

It often is best to reflect on your own feelings when interviewing. If the interviewer doesn’t treat you as a peer or at least like you’re of value in the interview, imagine what working there as a new hire could be like.

Read the Tells

When you’re walking away or hanging up from that job interview, spend a few minutes thinking about the tells you identified. Ask yourself what the hiring experience might tell you about working there.

Even if you do end up taking a job at a place with one or more red flags, reading the tells can help prevent you from being surprised when you get there.

Chris Williams is the former VP of HR at Microsoft. He’s an executive-level advisor and consultant with more than 40 years of experience leading and building teams.