Sad woman leaning against a wall

Warning signs that the job will suck even more than being unemployed

Peter Harris|

It may seem counter-intuitive to advise someone to turn down a job – especially when the market in much of the country remains soft and positions can be hard to come by – but there are times when it’s really better just to walk away.

I once took a job in a call centre. There is nothing wrong with call centre jobs, it’s just that this was doing telephone sales. So it meant having to call up strangers at home – and you know no one likes receiving those calls.

Still, I was in university at the time; I had rent and tuition to pay. It didn’t look like anybody else was hiring at the time, so I signed on. I didn’t make it through a shift. I didn’t actually get to start the first shift. On my first day, the floor manager insisted that everyone stand up and sing the ‘motivation song’. (Complete with a routine of arm gestures, apparently.)

So, I walked out. It’s one thing to take a crumby job because you need the money, it’s quite another to have to participate in a degrading ritual for the privilege of getting started. Sure we need a paycheque, but that’s not the only thing that we need.

With that in mind, here are some red flags you can watch out for that you might not want to take the terrible job in the first place.

Signs that the potential job is going to suck:

    The job posting lists earning potential rather than actual earning. Read the job description carefully. Sometimes positions listed as ‘events’ or ‘marketing’ are actually sales roles. The worst of these are the ones that ask you to purchase products upfront yourself in order to resell them to others before you see any profit. In this case, sure you’ll make more money if you sell more, but the risk is all on you. The company made its income the minute they offloaded the goods to you.

    Beware of long periods of unpaid training. Especially for relatively uncomplicated jobs. This can be a technique to simply get you to work for free. It can also mean that the company has a poor working environment with a high turnover rate, so they want to see if you’ll stick around and what you’ll put up with before they actually start paying you.

    You realize that your potential new boss is a jerk. Bad managers are the number one reason that people leave their jobs. You can save yourself the hassle of resigning and starting the job search over again with a short stint on your resume if you can recognize right in the interview that you’re talking to a dork. Watch out for:

      He or she is late for the interview and unapologetic. This can indicate that they value their time more than yours and may have a tendency to look down on other people.

      They check their phone or scan through emails while you’re talking. That’s just rude behaviour, and again, it hints at a negative attitude towards others. Especially at a time when they should be making an effort to make a good first impression.

      They speak badly of your predecessor. Just like you should never bad mouth a former employer, it’s very unprofessional for employers to air their frustrations about a former employee with a potential new one. (But many do.) And if you’re in the gossip loop before you’ve even been hired, it’s a safe bet that talking behind people’s backs is a part of the culture.

      Other indicators to watch out for: Making off colour or inappropriate jokes could be a sign that your interviewer is unsavvy or at least unprofessional. Similarly, asking personal or illegal questions can be an indicator that they are clueless to how people should behave, or think that the rules don’t apply to them. Either way, run.

    Look out for a negative work environment. If you can scope out the office during the interview phase pay close attention to the details. Do people generally seem content? Is there the sound of conversations and workplace banter in the air, or is there a silence broken only by the distant tapping of keys and an occasional throat clearing? Does the way people are dressed fit with your personal level of professionalism? If you take the job, you’re going to be spending a lot of time there – and the work environment goes a long way to determining your quality of life.

    Hint: Get a look a people’s work stations if you can. Have they decorated them with photos and personal items? Do they look ‘lived in’ or austere. The difference being that people are much more likely to personalize a workplace where they are happy and feel secure. If they are looking to jump ship or suspect they may be let go with little notice, they’ll clear the clutter so that they’re able to exit on short notice.

    Either that or the company could have strict policies about workstation décor, which can also give you insights into the company culture.

    A clear sign of a toxic work environment is having a high turnover rate. Does everyone seem to be new? Ask your interviewer how long they have worked for the company. If your position is not a newly created one, ask how long your predecessor held the role. Bad workplaces can’t keep good people, so if people are fleeing in a tight job market, there has to be a reason. Try to avoid finding out what it is the hard way.

I’ve been in the wrong job a couple of times, and while the experiences weren’t always pleasant, they did serve as stepping stones towards the jobs I’ve held that I have loved.

Sometimes you have to take a bad gig in order to obtain the skills, experience, or connections you need to get to a good one. At least if you know the signs to watch for of an incompetent manager or a poisonous environment, you can calculate at the outset whether or not it’s worth the time and torment to take a job that sucks.

Peter Harris
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  • David Gay

    This is a great article! It stresses the importance of balancing what you want for work versus the need for money.

    I was in a similar situation where I was hired at a company that offered in-house training to boot. I quit because the presentation of the training was absolutely abysmal and I was suffering neck-aches and headaches because of the ergonomics of the training area.

    My full story can be read at

    There’s no shame in not staying at a job you do not like, or is causing you physiological or psychological pain. You spend two-thirds of your waking life working, so why not make sure the job is a fit for you?

  • t hopps

    I recognize most of the warning signs of a lousy job in the article all too well. If you can speak with a clutch of smokers hanging out back of the building that may give some hint as to the general feel of the job or at least the workplace.

  • Armadillo Quesadilla Smith

    Thank you for this. A nice counter to the “you should do anything to work” message we so often receive. We don’t deserve degradation simply because we really need a job.

  • Outtaworktoolong

    I really don’t like being a consultant, but I have not found a decent full-time job in over 10 years. Since the Great Recession, things have only become worse, MUCH worse.

    I tried a job that a management consultant friend of mine had recommended. In hindsight, the xtian owner of that small business obviously lied to him, and to me.

    Most of the “warning signs” were there. For example, after my first interview, on the way out the door the receptionist whispered “are you sure you want to work here? This place is awful!”.


    The second interview, just with the owner and his wife, launched into a religious discussion. They also very nastily knocked down previous employees – how xtian of them!

    When I took the offer, for about $20,00 less than I thought the position should pay, the very first day, indeed the very first 10 minutes, the weird owner took me aside and said “you’re not here to make any changes”.

    The job then totally changed to a position – bookkeeping – I hadn’t even remotely been hired for. It went downhill from there to the point the owner felt he couldn’t “trust” me anymore and had his new COO (A recently hired church buddy) get rid of my entire department and let me go.

    Yes, in hindsight, I should have walked out the door and said “go f*** yourself” after the second interview. Or at least after the first 10 minutes on the job. But I was far too stubborn and had far too much pride to admit I had made a serious mistake.

    Summary: listen to your gut instincts! If it feels WRONG, it IS wrong!

    • Dave S

      After the second interview? The receptionist’s warning would’ve been enough for me.

      • Outtaworktoolong

        Agreed. But as I pointed out, in hindsight I made a huge mistake by not trusting my gut instincts. I was far too stubborn and proud to admit I had made a mistake.

  • Tamara Buhr Dahling

    It is very difficult to turn down a job when you have none, but this article does make some great points. I have taken several jobs where I had that visceral gut feeling that something was off, but just put it down to new job jitters. In almost every case, my instincts were correct. But, every time, I also needed a job, so I forged ahead and chalked it up to experience with the upside that I now have the ability to trump almost everybody’s bad workplace stories!

  • E. W.

    This is indeed one of the best articles I’ve ever read. However, if they do dismiss you from your job, then you have the rights to file a claim with the Tribunal or sue them. Those type of companies, most of the time, they are sugar coated scams.

  • BuckDSystem

    Here’s a tip for sales job. Try to find the parking area for the sales staff. Is it filled with rusted out Chevrolet Cavaliers or nice Cadillacs and BMWs? This actually worked for me when finding a new life insurance company to work for.