We’ve all heard it: “A job interview isn’t just an opportunity for the company to get to know you. It’s also an opportunity for you to get to know them.” The conversations you’ll have in an interview are the best way to figure out if the role is really what you’re looking for.
But anyone who’s ever been through an interview knows that can be tricky. Sometimes you can be too focused on how you’re going to respond to the dreaded “what’s your biggest weakness?” question — not to mention whether you have food in your teeth — to also keep your eyes peeled for potential red flags or remember which culture-related questions you wanted to ask.
But the last thing you want to do is start a shiny new job only to find out that the culture isn’t inclusive — so we made you this list of red flags and questions to help.
Company-level red flags
There’s no diversity on the leadership team
The people highest up in a company are the ultimate decision makers, policy setters, and culture creators. A commitment to diversity and inclusion starts there — and it’s the ultimate version of “walking the walk.” So if the company’s leadership team is stacked with just cisgender white men, take note.
If the team is all cisgender white women, or diverse with no Black women, that’s a red flag, too. At Ellevest, we’ve made a commitment to racial justice, including at the leadership table; you can read about it here.
A lot of companies have a “Team” page on their site where they highlight upper management, so that’s a good place to start looking. If you can’t find a list anywhere, you can ask about the leadership team in the interview.
Be on the lookout for a “token woman” or “token minority.” If you see one woman and / or one person of color, they might feel like they’re done checking the diversity box.
Company-wide or team diversity is really low
Look for diversity beyond the leadership team, too — and more than just a fairly equal gender representation. What about the breakdown by ethnicity? Are all their support personnel women, and all their engineers men? Take a look at the company’s LinkedIn page and scroll through their employees. Do any of them reflect you?
The HR person who’s managing your interview should be able to tell you the approximate gender and racial breakdown of the broader team, and hopefully the percentage of employees who identify as LGBTQIA+ too. Because here’s the thing: Companies measure the things that matter to them. If that manager has no idea about these stats, that’s a red flag.
They require confidential arbitration
In the US, more than 55% of employees in the US — approximately 30 million women — have confidential arbitration clauses in their employment contracts. That means if someone were to report sexual harassment, they’d be forced to seek damages privately, behind closed doors, instead of taking the case to court. That’s bad for them, and good for their employer and the person they accused.
Ask your HR contact about this directly: “Does your company sexual harassment policy require disputes to be settled via confidential arbitration?”
They focus on the wrong culture things
When your HR contact or the hiring manager talks about company culture, do they mention diversity, inclusion, employee resource groups, and that sort of thing? Or is it all snacks, ping-pong tables, and happy hours?
There’s nothing wrong with offering that fun stuff (we love snacks and happy hours just as much as you do). Fun stuff can help employees feel valued and cared for. But not on their own. Fun stuff only helps when employees’ other needs are already being met — needs like feeling safe and valued, and understanding how their work fits in with the company’s priorities.
Focusing exclusively on the shallow things could mean the company doesn’t understand what’s most important.
There’s no flexibility to work remotely
Not every job can be done from home — we see and appreciate you, teachers, healthcare workers, emergency responders, and everyone else doing important in-person work out there. But if it’s possible for your job to be performed remotely, would you have that option normally? Or does the company avoid the idea of working from home, except during a pandemic?
Companies that don’t offer any flexibility put women at a disadvantage. Full stop. Women do over two and a half times as much unpaid and emotional labor as men — think things like caring for sick family members or schlepping kids to daycare and / or extracurricular activities. In an ideal world, men and women would share these responsibilities equally, but in our current reality, many women feel the pressure to take time off, work part-time, or even leave the workforce in order to manage this unpaid labor. For those who belong to other economically disadvantaged demographics, like people of color and LGBTQIA+ people, this effect can be even worse.
Flexible work policies are also critical for companies that want to support their employees who have disabilities and those who struggle with mental or physical health.
Their parental leave policy is lacking
In the US, companies are only required to offer eligible parents 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave (and spouses who work for the same employer usually have to split that). But offering robust parental leave policies is not only the right thing to do; it’s also the smart thing to do. Paid parental leave decreases employee turnover, which saves companies money because they’re less likely to have to recruit and train people to replace them.
A bare-bones parental and family leave policy is a red flag that the company may not care about retaining and supporting its employees.
Manager-level red flags
They have personal opinions on working from home
It’s not just the company that should be comfortable with the idea of employees working from home — it’s also your potential manager. The company’s policy may green-light remote work, but your manager may frown upon it — which, culturally and politically, will make the company’s policy irrelevant.
They are looking for someone who thinks exactly like the rest of their team
Pay attention to the way your potential manager describes what they’re looking for in a team member. Do they seem to want someone who’s similar to everyone else on the team? Are they actively seeking diversity — in identity, in experience, and in working styles?
Diverse and inclusive teams don’t just help a company perform better — they allow employees to feel safer and more supported. In fact, when employees feel like they belong at work, they’re more productive, more engaged, and three and a half times more likely to contribute fully.
They seem surprised you’re there
“We don’t get many [your demographic] interviewing for [this type of position]. What made you interested in this line of work?” That’s a huge red flag. Questions like this might make it seem like the manager is just trying to make conversation or show interest in you and your experiences, but in reality, it just highlights their implicit biases.
Questions to ask during your interview
To really get a feel for the company’s culture and inclusiveness, you can’t rely on potential red flags to just reveal themselves. Ask intentional questions, too. Here are a few to get you started — and FYI, these questions should be a green flag to a really inclusive employer that you’ll be a fully participatory, company-minded employee.
How do you create an inclusive environment?
What are your core values?
How do you address pay equity?
Do people at this company ever include their pronouns when they introduce themselves? How might they react if I included mine?
Do you have any employee resource groups? What are they doing to make a difference here?
Do you conduct anti-racism and anti-bias trainings?
How do you make people feel included in meetings? What happens when someone gets interrupted?
More than any single answer, though, the most important thing to listen to is your gut. If something feels off, even if you can’t put your finger on exactly what or why, trust your instincts.
And then crush it in that new job.
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