Gary Burnison is CEO of Korn Ferry and author of Lose the Resume, Land the Job. For more information, see KFAdvance.com.
People can talk themselves into almost anything, like that “transformational” job opportunity that sounds too good to be true. By staying objective and detached from the outcome you’ll be able to tell whether the grass is greener, or if there are some serious red flags.
My friend “Beth” called me after being approached by a well-known company in need of a turnaround. The company’s declining revenues, shrinking profit margins and falling stock price didn’t scare her off. She was sold at “hello” because she wanted to move to the city where the company was located, the challenge to revitalize some of the most well-loved brands in the world intrigued her, and the salary range for the job would be a significant increase.
As her sounding board, I cautioned Beth to keep an open mind. She needed to be a discerning “buyer.” Was this really a fit for her? Too many people miss this point, especially when they want to change jobs, relocate, or an opportunity excites them.
Here’s what happened to Beth:
Apathy alert. Beth flew across the country for her first in-person meetings on a Friday afternoon. As she headed toward the door, so many people were streaming out of the headquarters, she wondered if there was an emergency evacuation. When she asked, Beth was told that the company has “summer Fridays” all year long and people could leave at 2 p.m. The concept of a year-long summer was not only an oxymoron, it was also a mild cause of concern: Here was a company in serious trouble, yet most of the workforce was rushing out the door as if the school dismal bell had just rung. And it was just after one o’clock! Inside the building, the executive floor looked like a ghost town. The vibe just felt off to Beth and she had to wonder: Could the leaders do the hard work of a turnaround?
No connection. Since Beth had come all this way, you’d expect the interview to start with some small talk to get to know her. (It’s one of the reasons why I always bring candidates into the kitchen to get coffee or water to start our conversation, asking about their drive to the office, their flight night before, etc.) Instead, after a brief session with the chief human relations officer (CHRO), Beth found herself sitting opposite the chief financial officer (CFO) who immediately asked her, “So what questions do you have for me?” Given that the CFO made no attempt to establish a connection or rapport with her, Beth was shocked at the end of their meeting when he said, “We’d love to have you here.”
Illusion or reality. Beth talked herself back into excitement for the job; after all, the CFO said they wanted her. She began contacting realtors and investigating schools for her children. Then a week went by without a word from the company. Finally, during the second week, an external recruiter contacted her. The company wanted her to fly back to meet with seven people. When Beth called me with the update, we discussed how she needed to be enthusiastic in each meeting with those seven people. Even if she had to answer the same questions over and over, her responses must be fresh. Second, she remains a discerning buyer. Could she really see herself working there?
Welcome to the bizarre. What happened in the second round of interviews was beyond strange. Among the seven people she met was an internal candidate for the position. She kept asking herself, why would the company have them talk to each other? How could a competitor for the position evaluate her qualifications? Beyond that at times during those seven meetings, candor about the challenges at the company spiraled into a gripe-fest. At this point, every concern and doubt Beth had tried to ignore was amplified.
She had really wanted this to work out, but the red flags were too glaring to ignore: the apathetic culture, lack of strong leadership, signs of in-fighting, and the unprofessionalism of meeting with an internal candidate. Her next conversation with the company had to be “thanks, but no thanks.”
Beth’s experience is a cautionary tale for job seekers at any level. You shouldn’t be put off by a company with challenges to overcome—that might be perfect for you. But when your opportunity goes off the rails, you have to avoid the train wreck.
There’s a lesson for employers, too. If you want to attract top candidates, you need to know how to engage with them. Had this company’s leadership been more organized and professional, Beth may have stayed a candidate. Instead, she wisely stepped away.
The bottom line is that while no place is perfect, too many red flags signal problems that can’t be ignored. It’s far better to say “no thanks” now than regret later.
A version of this article appears on Forbes.com.