Watch for these 4 'red flags' during the job interview, warns Harvard business expert: 'You don't want to work there'

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We spend an enormous amount of our lives working. Unfortunately, some employers can be greedy with our time and energy, and can ask us to set aside our values to abide by their culture.

After 15 years teaching business and law, I've written a book, "Business Ethics: What Everyone Needs to Know," that outlines some of the major ethical challenges we often face along the course of our careers.

Before taking a job, remember that some employers will try to paint a rosy — and inaccurate — picture of their work environment. Below are some red flags to help you assess what's really happening behind the scenes. If all signs point to "toxic," you don't want to work there:

1. Hypocrisy

What are the company's commitments? Do you like what the company is publicly saying on issues that are important to you? Do you hear top executives routinely bring those commitments up and act on them?

Look on its website for public statements. Then check the news for company reports and public filings with agencies such as the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission for what the company is doing.

There can be a major difference between what a company says and what it does. If there's too much of a gap, people who work there will experience that hypocrisy, stop trusting the company and leave.

2. High turnover rates

When it's your turn to give questions during the interview, ask the other person how long they've been in their job, and how long the people before them stayed in the position.

Companies develop reputations within their industries, so ask people in your network about what they've heard, too. You can also find this information by conducting informational interviews with past employees, or by reading reviews on websites like Glassdoor and Indeed.

Each person may have a different reason for leaving, but if there's no one left in a team after six months, you have to wonder what's going on.

3. It's not a "speak-up" culture

The Ethics and Compliance Initiative, a community of organizations committed to creating high quality ethics and compliance programs, defines a "speak-up" culture as one that "encourages, protects and values the reporting of concerns and suspected wrongdoing."

While interviewing, try to understand current and past employees' take on whether or not there's a "speak-up" culture at the company. Ask about the type of issues that they — or, to make it less personal, their "colleagues" — have brought up to managers, and what response they received.

If people don't feel safe about raising concerns at work, the company's ethics can go off the rails quickly. Employees may feel less engaged and stop putting effort into their work.

4. Retaliation

This is a big issue. Employees won't speak up about problems if they feel that they are likely to be retaliated against.

To promote a healthy ethical culture, a company's disciplinary process must be transparent, accountable, consistent and protective of those who report misconduct — regardless of whether or not the misconduct was committed by the CEO, or by someone in the mailroom.

Be on the lookout for media coverage of retaliation within the company. Ask about the human resources and compliance structures.

Another reminder I always give: Trust your read of employees' immediate reactions when you ask these questions.

What to do if you see these red flags

If you have other options, I wouldn't advise taking a job at a company that raises the red flags above.

Even if a scandal isn't public now, brewing misconduct at the company may be public soon. When that does happen, the company's name will be a mark against your reputation — making it much harder to leave and find a job elsewhere.

Instead, look for company that better fits your values. You'll have a better experience, feel more motivated and proud of where you work, and be more likely to thrive.

J.S. Nelson is a visiting professor of law at Harvard Business School, teaches at Villanova's Charles Widger School of Law, and is a senior fellow at the Zicklin Center for Business Ethics Research at University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. She is also the co-author of "Business Ethics: What Everyone Needs to Know."

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