toxic / finding a safe place to work

toxic / finding a safe place to work

2019, Sep 01    

There are a LOT of tech companies & startups that are mostly comprised of white men.

This makes it hard for folks who are underrepresented or marginalised in tech to choose where to interview and where to work in order to succeed and feel comfortable.

Sometimes the overwhelming majority of employees being white men signals that it’s a toxic culture for anyone who doesn’t fit into that demographic; sometimes it’s a result of a team that hasn’t prioritised good diverse hiring early enough but could still be a great place for underrepresented folks to work.

It’s critically important to be able to figure out early how likely it is that a company you’re interviewing with is toxic or not.

Nothing screws your confidence and your mental health like lots of short stints of bad luck where you end up in a toxic work environment and need to decide whether to (a) run away and save yourself or (b) ride it out for 12-18 months so that it looks respectable on your CV later.

I have a tendency to join early stage startups and have frequently been the second woman, the first parent, and the first senior woman. Here is my cheat sheet for working out if a company I’m considering working with is toxic.

Important Caveat: I’m a white woman with no visible disabilities, I’m not obviously queer or a parent, so this is based on my personal experience only. I’m also fortunate to have always been in a position where I can pull out of an interview process if I don’t like the culture, whereas I know many don’t have the same level of choice, and often it’s a case of the lesser of two evils.

Before you meet them

I’d recommend doing these before you apply for a role or confirm that you’d like to interview. Understand roughly what the company’s culture is like, and where you’ll need to focus your attention.

Careers page

  • Any “ninjas” or “rock stars”?
  • Are the benefits listed all about beer and banter?
  • Is a university degree a requirement on every job ad?
  • If there are pictures, are they all of socials or do some show people working together? Are they all of white men? Does the one woman/PoC appear in almost every photo?

Glassdoor Reviews

  • Flick to the salaries tab. Are there huge ranges for each role, or is it quite tight?
  • Do any of the positive reviews use the word “inclusive”?
  • What are the main themes in “cons” of the reviews that are there?
  • If you sort by date, does it look like the company have requested positive reviews to bury a couple of negative reviews?
  • Any red flags in the interview reviews? (Lack of useful feedback; unrealistic demands on candidate time; racist/sexist/transphobic or otherwise hostile or dismissive comments; feedback that should have been self-evident from application review)
  • Are there benefits listed? If so, where do they skew on the “free beer” to “good parental leave” scale?


Go to the company’s page on LinkedIn and navigate into the People tab:

  • Did everyone go to university? Did they go to the same few unis?
  • Does everyone look the same?
  • Does it look like the leadership team are just the oldest people in the company?
  • With some searching, can you locate former employees? If so, do they represent a different demographic makeup to current employees?
  • If they’re a startup, check crunchbase: who are their investors? Who is on the board?
  • Search “CEO name” + allegations. What comes up? Do the same for each board member.

When you meet them

Generally you’ll have ruled out some companies based on the info you found through the above searches. Either way, by this point you’ll have some signal you can use to gauge toxicity level. When you first meet with the team, you’ll have the opportunity to validate the conclusions you’ve drawn so far, and check some extra dimensions.

At Interview

  • Who offers & makes you a drink on arrival? Is it the person who greeted you, someone who is interviewing you, someone whose job involves greeting people (office manager, receptionist, recruiter) or the nearest available non-white-man?
  • Do they say anything offensive or red-flag-raising? Do they ask anything that crosses the line on potentially discriminatory topics?
  • How much do they focus on your past experience vs exploring your ability to solve future problems & scenarios they’re currently facing?
  • Do they ask about your career ambitions?
  • Do they bring up diversity or do you need to?
  • What happens when you ask about diversity - are they awkward or thoughtfully introspective?
  • Do they take your questions seriously?

Office environment

  • Are there tampons in the bathroom? Are there unnecessary gender signs?
  • Is the way they’ve designed the internal space inaccessible for a wheelchair user?
  • Can you see mixed groups (by age, by race, by gender, etc) sitting together or interacting?
  • Do people have personal items in their work space?
  • Is everyone dressed the same or are there visibly multiple ways to dress acceptably? Can you see any non-natural hair colours or people with tattoos?
  • If you see alcohol in the kitchen, are there also good soft drinks available?

Explicit conversations

This is wayyyy easier if you’re working with an external recruiter, but if you’re applying direct you can still use some of these questions to gauge what’s happening.

Both the answers you receive and the way people react to the question are telling.

Another caveat: it can be super uncomfortable to ask these questions if you know you need the job and don’t want to be disqualified as a “bad culture fit” because you care about your own safety as a person belonging to a marginalised demographic.

  • I’ve noticed that my interviewers so far have all been white/men. Would it be possible to chat to a Black person / someone with a disability / a woman in the company? Would there be opportunities for me to be involved in the hiring process if I join?
  • At what point do you think it becomes important to make diversity in the company a priority?
  • What are the team demographics like?
  • Out of interest, does anyone work part-time or remote? Would you consider roles where those are possible in future?
  • Do you have any parents or carers in the team yet?
  • How do you build a sense of community in the team?

Now what?

Everyone has a different tolerance for workplace environments, and each person requires a different level of inclusivity to be able to perform their best and feel safe at work. From my perspective, very few of these things individually would cause me to veto a particular company; however I want to know as much as I can before joining so that I can take an informed risk.

Sometimes you’re wrong on your initial assessment - and the company turns out to be more toxic than you can handle. In this case, I’d immediately start looking for a new role, and completely disregard the standard advice that staying in a role for less than a year looks bad on your CV. Your mental health & happiness are more important, and a good employer will understand that.

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