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Innovation Economy

Signs you’re heading for a nightmare job

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For job seekers, advice abounds on topics like how to tweak your LinkedIn profile, answer tricky interview questions, and network your way into your next job.

But how do you know when you are pursuing a job you wouldn’t actually enjoy, at a company you wouldn’t want to work for?

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I spent last week collecting examples from Globe and Boston.com readers about job hunt harbingers of doom — signs that you might be chasing a nightmare job, or are interviewing at a company where the headaches will outweigh the salary. I received more than 40 examples by e-mail and on Twitter. Some people requested anonymity because they’re still in the job market, or they still rely on a former employer for references.

The warning sign mentioned most often was vagueness in the job description, or conflicting explanations from different interviewers about what the job entails. “They don’t have clear expectations and you probably won’t have any direction,” writes Kelli-Ann Ring of Ipswich.

Jane Pioli of Winchester says that she runs the other way when a job description includes terms like “self-starter” and phrases like “able to work independently.” In her experience, “it means that your bosses will give you no training or guidance whatsoever, and the only feedback you will ever get is negative.”

Is your prospective boss disparaging his or her current employees? Run, don’t walk. Angela Foster from Marblehead, currently in the job market, says she has had hiring managers gripe about “lazy and entitled” employees. She’s in the market now, “still looking for that right opportunity.”

A rushed interview process was a red flag for many job hunters — especially if it only involved one interviewer, or was mainly done via phone or Skype video chat. Lauren Bard of Jamaica Plain says she was offered a job at a nonprofit after two phone interviews. “I requested an in-person meeting before accepting the job, which they gave me, but they seemed annoyed about it,” she says. Bard says she should have declined the offer.

‘If several different recruiters are calling you about the same opening . . . , it’s probably a bad position.’

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“If several different recruiters are calling you about the same opening with the same company, it’s probably a bad position,” says Stacy Bartko of Norton, who works as a Web and mobile designer.

It can indicate that a company is a difficult place to work and needs to interview scads of candidates to fill a seat, she says.

Companies often hint at how much face time they expect. Nat Tarbox of Cambridge says “mandatory office Saturdays” have been mentioned to him during job interviews. And if your future boss brags about 12-hour work days, you might conclude the same will be expected from you.

If “the person you’re interviewing with seems distracted and is checking his or her phone the entire time, they’re going to be a scattered boss,” says Allan Telio, director of the Startup Institute, a training program in Cambridge.

Executive recruiter Clark Waterfall of BSG Team Ventures in Boston says it can be an omen when a company doesn’t bother to check your references.

He explains, “The company clearly doesn’t care about who they hire, which means the peers you’ll have (and/or subordinates and superiors) were likely also not referenced well, or at all. My experience is that the more references checked, the better the sign of a serious commitment to cultural fit, and desire to get it right the first time.”

“When a manager shares with you, a job applicant, important information that will impact all of the existing staff, but tells you, ‘Don’t let any of the staff know — we’re not going to tell them until right before,’ your Spidey sense should start to tingle,” writes Sudan Ruderman of Arlington.

Ruderman, a fund-raiser for nonprofits, also cautions about interviewers who won’t answer straightforward questions, like, “How much money did the organization raise last year?” (“It’s complicated” is not a satisfactory answer, she says.)

Venture capitalist Antonio Rodriguez of Cambridge says, “If you don’t know what the company does after the first interview, neither do they!”

Don’t ignore the office vibe, says Chris Jones of Braintree, who works in the insurance industry. “I’ve been on interviews where I see employees walking around with doom and gloom,” he writes. Is the office environment too quiet for your tastes? Too loud? Is everyone still at their desks at 6 p.m.? At some start-up companies, that’s a sign of a committed crew, but for people desiring a job with a more traditional work day, it may be undesirable.

When the interview takes place somewhere other than the company’s office, Adam Rubin of Boston starts to wonder, “What are they hiding?” Rubin says he found himself in that situation twice: once “because the CEO wanted to show off his house, and once due to nasty company politics.”

Other harbingers people mentioned: messy offices, bosses who tell you that you need to like sports to work there (and you don’t like sports), creaky old computer equipment or outmoded software systems, interviewers running unforgivably late, pressure on a candidate for a fast response to a job offer, refusal to put things in writing, and long commutes that you try to persuade yourself you can handle.

Brenda Flynn of Stoneham supplied me with the best warning sign of all. She was applying for a programming job at a health care software company in Boston.

By the end of her phone interview, she says, “I was brainstorming with my interviewer about how he could get out of the awful work situation he was in — and affirming to him that it wasn’t OK how he was being treated, and he could do better.”

Naturally, after dispensing that impromptu therapy, Flynn opted not to show up for an interview at the company.

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com.
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