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Question: “I recently left a very toxic workplace. I never again want to work in such a fearful, backbiting culture. Next time, how can I make sure that I’m entering a healthy work environment?  Should I ask to take a tour or interview some co-workers?” — Cautious

Marie’s Answer: Spotting a toxic organization from the outside can be tricky, but you’re smart to make the effort. Here are a few pointers:

•    An online search will sometimes provide revealing facts, but for the real scoop, you need to find people who’ve worked there. Use networking contacts to get names of current or former employees, then give them a call. Actual conversation will provide more information than an e-mail exchange.  

•    Use open-ended questions to get more information in these discussions. Saying “Is XYZ Corporation a good place to work?” invites a one-syllable answer.  But asking “How would you describe the positive and negative aspects of working for XYZ?” encourages greater disclosure.

•    Ask tactful questions about the work environment during job interviews. You must interpret the answers carefully, however, because interviewers always try to create a positive impression.  “Fast-paced” might translate to “overworked.”  And “flexible hours” could mean you’ll be there long after sundown.  

•    Once you have a firm job offer, ask to tour the facility or meet the staff.  Fearful employees won’t say much, so keep your eyes open for culture clues. If people appear relaxed and cheerful, that's a good sign.  But if they seem harried and stressed, proceed with caution.

To determine whether your work environment is toxic, check out 13 Signs of a Toxic Workplace.

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