Red Flag Series Part III: Red Flags from the Applicant’s POV


Hiring can be a perilous process for all involved. If it doesn’t work out, the consequences can be unpleasant, long-lasting and costly in a number of ways. Whenever possible, signs of trouble should be noted so serious problems can, hopefully, be avoided down the road.

In this three-part “Red Flags” series, we're looking at some causes of concern for both employers and applicants. Parts I and II were from the employer's point of view: Part I covered resume and cover letter red flags and Part II discussed bad signs during an interview.

Part III covers things that applicants should look out for. Some of these may cause only mild hesitation, while others are absolute deal-breakers.

Red Flags for the Applicant

Many job descriptions end with something to the effect of “additional duties as assigned.” When unspecified “additional duties” seem to make up the bulk of the responsibilities of the job, though, there may be a very uncomfortable situation awaiting the person who is hired. During the application process, how would you, as the applicant, convince the interviewer that you are a strong candidate if you don’t know what the job entails? How can the hiring manager make the best hiring decision without such crucial information? In a worst-case scenario, the new employee might be assigned anything and everything, and won’t know what the expectations and priorities are or how performance is being evaluated.

This might mean that the person who wrote the job description doesn’t know about ALA accreditation, which may mean that what an information professional is capable of is not really understood at this workplace or by that hiring manager. Consider carefully the rest of the description when deciding to apply. This is somewhat less of a concern if the position requires a Master’s degree and Library and Information Science is one of a number of subjects that would meet the requirement.

  • No info on salary in job description (especially if perks are emphasized)

If the job description goes on and on about the beautiful location of the workplace (and/or other amenities, perks or benefits), with no mention of salary, it is likely that the salary is not a selling point. The importance of this is going to vary from one person to another, as it may be that for some applicants the perks could make up for a salary that is not ideal. The cost of living for that location should also be taken into account when you are determining an acceptable minimum salary, especially if accepting the job means moving to a new area.

  • Employer demanding salary history or requirements very early in hiring process

For some jobs, the application instructions request salary information with application documents, for others the question of salary comes up in the interview. Know that if you give this information before an offer is made, you will be at a significant disadvantage once negotiation begins.

  • Unprepared or reluctant interviewer

Aside from knowing the responsibilities of the job, if the interviewer seems unprepared, uninterested or inexperienced with interviewing, that should be cause for concern. The interviewer should have read your resume prior to the interview, ask questions that relate directly to the duties of the job (not just generic job interview questions) and not rush through the interview as if he/she just wants to get it over with.

  • Inappropriate interviewer behavior in interview

Just as inappropriate interview behavior by an applicant can be a deal breaker, so can such behavior from the interviewer cause an applicant to say “No thank you.” In the interview you are getting a glimpse of what it may be like to work at that workplace. Any rudeness, hostility, anger, belligerence, flirtatiousness or inappropriate questions, etc. from the interviewer should be taken as a bad sign.

Note: sometimes interviewers will badmouth a mutual acquaintance or another workplace; this may just be bad judgment on the part of the interviewer, or may be a deliberate test to see if you join in with the criticism. Be on your guard and make sure your behavior and responses are positive and appropriate no matter what anyone else says or does.

  • Interviewer’s reluctance or refusal to answer questions

If the questions are reasonable ones and the interviewer doesn’t want to answer them, something’s up. Think twice about accepting an offer if the hiring manager seems to be trying to hide some information about the position or the workplace.

  • Instability of workplace and/or negative feedback from multiple sources

It is very important to do your homework and gather as much information as you can about an employer if you are interviewing and especially if you are close to accepting an offer. Use your research skills and network to find out what you can about the employer’s financial stability, working conditions and morale at that workplace, and the supervisor for the position, if possible. Vault and Glassdoor are two good sites to start with.

  • High turnover

This could indicate a dysfunctional or even toxic work environment or ineffective hiring practices; either way it does not bode well for a new hire if employees leave a short time after being hired. You can ask an interviewer how long people tend to stay at that workplace, or how long the previous person to hold the job was there, or try to find out if the position has been posted repeatedly in the recent past. See if there is someone in your network you could contact who would be willing to tell you about the turnover and what it is like to work there.

  • Multiple supervisors

This is something that may or may not be a problem, depending on your workload, the culture at the workplace and the management and communication styles of the supervisors. In a worst case scenario, though, each supervisor will consider him/herself your primary supervisor and you may find yourself under excessive pressure and with competing deadlines, working many extra hours to get everything done.

  • Any violation of privacy or unreasonable request for personal information 

Some employers will ask for your Social Security number with your application materials, and applicants have even been asked to provide access to their Facebook accounts. Guard your personal information as carefully as you would in situations outside of job hunting, to avoid putting yourself at risk.

  • New employer demanding that you start immediately without giving notice to current employer

A reasonable employer will understand that giving notice of at least two weeks is expected if you are leaving your current job to accept the new position. Pressuring an employee to behave unprofessionally is not a good way to begin a work relationship.

  • Not hearing back from hiring manager after an interview

In a perfect world, all applicants who are interviewed would be contacted within a specified time with a status update and information about the next step in the process. Unfortunately, though, as many job seekers know, it is very common to hear nothing after an interview, no matter what is said by the hiring manager. While this is inconsiderate to interviewees, it happens so routinely that you are setting yourself up for additional stress if you expect to hear back after your interview.

You can’t control whether the hiring manager gets back to you, but you can control your own expectations and reactions. (You can also submit your thoughts about this in Hiring Librarians and INALJ’s Job Hunter's Survey.) At the end of your interview, ask the hiring manager what the next step in the hiring process is and when it would be good for you to call or e-mail about your status as an applicant. Follow-up once, and beyond that, put it out of your mind and occupy yourself by applying to other jobs. That will make it a less frustrating experience overall and if you do hear back, it will be a pleasant surprise.

Hiring is a subjective experience for all involved, and it should be. There is a lot at stake and a proper fit is crucial for long-term success. Applicants and hiring managers should pay attention to possible signs of trouble and if something doesn’t feel right, seek more information in order to make the right decision.

Ellen Mehling received her MSLIS from Long Island University and works as a librarian, instructor and writer in and around NYC. Her professional experience includes work in special, public, and academic libraries, as well as archives. She is Director of the Westchester Graduate Library School Program and Director of Internships for L.I.U.’s Palmer School and since 2009 has been METRO’s Job Bank Manager / Career Development Consultant. She teaches classes and workshops on job hunting, information literacy, researching, and other subjects at METRO’s Training Center and other venues within and outside NYC.