Assistants, avoid these red flags when looking for your next employer

An assistant with red glasses looking confused. She's sitting at a desk with a laptop, a hot drink, and a red table lamp.

Got a bad feeling about an interview but can’t put your finger on it? Sometimes, you notice something odd about an interview, but maybe desperation clouds your judgment. There’s always a risk when you decide to take on a new job. However, you can significantly minimize the risk by keeping an eye out for some red flags.

There’s only so much to learn about a company’s values, work environment, and work style in a short-lived interview and on-boarding process. And you’re not alone in this. 29% of workers quit 90 days into their job. We’ve got you covered, though, and you don’t have to wait that long to find out if a company isn’t right for you

Recently, we surveyed The Officials Community of administrative professionals around the world about red flags they have experienced and the responses are eye-opening. You’ll find their responses sprinkled throughout the article below. We’re certain that this guide will help you avoid a ton of headaches down the line when taking on a new job.

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They are Disorganized

Sometimes, you can notice a red flag straight off the bat when the interview process is poorly organized and unprofessional. Every employer has their processes and style, but there are boundaries and standards that are irreplaceable – effective communication, appear on time, remember who you are, etc.

On average, the hiring process takes 23 days, so if it’s significantly quicker or slower than that, you should probably be looking for a job elsewhere. 

When we posted a questions about red flags on LinkedIn, one person commented, “The people I was meeting were late, I couldn’t get into the building, told me on the phone to ‘tailgate’ someone in through the side door and they would meet me in there…. Got locked in an empty building for an hour until they showed up…. Spent the whole time wishing I’d run away when I had the chance.” Yikes! 

These red flags can be a sign of a disorganized business with little or no regard for order and consistency. 

Red flag: They can’t keep an assistant

They Have Been Through a Lot of Assistants

This one is a big red flag, on fire, on a hillside, will scream hoards running away. Finding out if this role has had high turnover, can be a symptom from a larger malignant issue. We’ve met quite a few assistants who took this as a personal challenge. They knew of the high turnover but were flattered that they had been offered the role. More often than not the narrative from the company was that the assistants occupying the role were not up to the task.

That narrative is telling you one of two things. That the company doesn’t clearly understand the role and is making bad hires or that the company culture or executive behavior is extremely lacking.

During the best case scenario you actually get to meet the assistant that is moving on from the role.

However, if you have not yet heard from or met with a current assistant in the role we recommend  asking this one question, “Is this position new or has it been occupied previously?” If it is an existing role they are recruiting for, we suggest a few follow-up questions:

  • How long was the previous person in the role?
  • Will I be able to meet this person and will there be a handover period?
  • During the executive tenure, how many assistants have they worked with in this role?
  • Why did the assistant move on?
  • What did this person do well in the role?
  • What do they think could be added to the role now to make it a success?

The Officials founder, Lauren Bradley, reported that she walked into a toxic culture at a company when she ignored this red flag. “I was actually told by the company founder himself that he had gone through quite a lot of assistants but had made it sound like they were too junior or not up to the task. I should have run,” said Lauren. Though everything else looked above board, once in the role, Lauren found hazing, drug use, and sexual harrassment to be common practice in the workplace across their locations. 

This is also where it can be quite useful to talk to other current and former employees of the company. If your interviewer is  another staff member, ask them how long they and others have been working there.

The Great Resignation is currently a master trend affecting most companies, but some companies are just having it worse. If people are leaving a company in their droves all the time, it’s likely a clear sign of a toxic work environment, low employee engagement, and high levels of job dissatisfaction.

Red Flag: Difficult people

They Ask How You Handle Difficult People

It almost feels like this is a standard question that admins and assistants can expect in their interview. Asking a candidate about how they handle difficult people typically means they have a “difficult person” in mind. It could likely be the executive the assistant would be supporting. Don’t be afraid to push back on this question. 

Lauren’s advice: When I have been asked that question, I like to turn it around. I say something like, “It sounds like you have someone in mind when you say that,” and add a wry smile. They interviewer typically laughs and admits they do. I then use it as an opportunity to say, “I believe it’s importance to get more context here. The question I have for you is, why would someone believe their difficult nature be tolerated here? What can I expect to be HR’s stance on this type of behavior?”

We are under no delusion that everyone you work with will be the most supportive and friendly person, which is one reason emotional intelligence is so important. However, you need to know who they have in mind and specifically, that it is not your line manager or the executive you support.

Everybody is different and we have met a few exceptions to this rule. Assistants who have absolutely thrive with those difficult execs but they are in the 1%. Most of us are the rule, not the exception. Don’t ignore this red flag. We challenge you to make sure you are not taking the role, if offered out of flattery, thinking you will be the “special” one who will turn this person around. Difficult people become difficult from some emotional baggage or unresolved trauma in their past. Unless you are their licensed psychotherapist, this is not part of your job description. 

Sounds Too Good to be True

This one’s especially for rookies. If this isn’t your first stint, you can easily tell apart what’s reasonable from what’s not. One of the first BS claims to look out for is a relatively high salary and extravagant benefits. It’s not like they won’t be paying that much, but it’s what they’re paying for that’s the problem. You could be virtually selling your soul to the devil, with a job that sucks all your energy and leaves you with no time for other aspects of your life.

It might also be too good to be true if they make just verbal promises and refuse to put things down in writing. It could be your word against theirs on the day of reckoning.  

Asked to Work Without Pay Before Being Hired

We are seeing an increase in overly long hiring processes including testing and trials. Not only is it important to ask about the hiring process and its timelines but to make sure that if you are required to work in any capacity (trial) that you are compensated at least minimum wage for your time.

Be wary of any request telling you to work for days or weeks before you can start earning. Some may not even ask for that much – they may ask for a presentation, a proposal, or a free sample of your work. But it’ll still cost you a significant amount of time and effort, and you should be paid for it. You shouldn’t be that desperate to soak in a significant part of your life in a job that you’re not guaranteed pay.

Red Flag: The interviewer doesn’t like working there

They Don’t Seem to Like Working There

It’s so important to pay attention to non-verbal queues. Whether you are in the interview or just starting a role, if you feel tension and stress coming off of those around you, it may mean you’ll be feeling those things too in this role. One way to combat this is by asking the interviewer why they enjoy working at the company and seeing how they react and respond. 

One Officials reported, “Someone I had recently interviewed told me this happened to them in another interview they had been on. They had asked the recruiter what their favorite thing was about working at the company and the recruiter took a HUGE sigh and said, ‘Today’s really not a great day to ask me that.” 

Research comes in handy here, too. Make sure you check out places like Glassdoor and Google News to make sure there has been not bad press or comments about the company or leadership teams. You may even want to do your own sleuthing and networking with current/former employees on LinkedIn to find out who they feel about the place.

Lauren’s Tip: Create a target list

Create a target list of potential employers you would love to work for. You should include 5 to 10 possible organizations and get to work researching.

Start proactively checking to see if there is a public list of the best employers in your area or in your industry. Find the ones that seemingly align with the values and benefits you desire and target them as potential future employers. Go for the good ones from the start.

We have a workbook that can help you determine what you are looking for in a company inside our Getting The Job course.

They Ask You Inappropriate Questions

We can’t believe this is still a thing but we keep hearing about assistants being asked about whether they want to have children, if they are married, how old they are, and more. In fact, in countries like Spain or France where it was/continues to be expected that candidates put personal details such as date of birth, nationality, and marital status.

Luckily in some countries such as the USA, UK, and Australia, you don’t have to discuss personal things like marital status, sexual orientation, disability, race, or ethnicity, and your previous jobs with a potential employer. The UK even recently banned employers from asking about past compensation, benefits and performance.Many countries have equal opportunity employment and anti-discrimination laws that prevent potential employers from hiring you due to discrimination. 

No matter where you live we don’t think you should have to answer these questions. It’s important to check your local laws to find out what you can and cannot be asked and prepare ways to deflect these questions. However, if you are asked these types of questions, you probably don’t want to work for them anyway.  

Red Flag: They won’t discuss salary

They Won’t Tell You the Salary Range Before the Interview

A lack of transparency is certainly a red flag in any interview, whether they’re withholding information about your salary, job description, or any other aspect of the work. It is important that you ask for the salary band before agreeing to an interview. You want to mitigate the risk of the interview process being a waste of both your time and theirs. We know this can be daunting especially if you are feeling desperate. Cities like NYC are helping candidates make better choices by requiring companies to disclose pay in job postings come November 2022.

According to a report by CareerBuilder, 53% of employers make a lower offer than they are willing to pay, expecting the candidate will negotiate. This practice is problematic when you consider that 60% of women report they have NEVER negotiated their salary, like EVER. This becomes even MORE problematic when you read that not negotiating over your professional career could amount up to $1 million being left on the table. Ouch!

This is why we suggest asking up front what the salary range is for the role. It is as simple as saying, “Thank you so much for reaching out about this opportunity. The role sounds very interesting. Before we investigate any further, I want to make sure we are on the same page. Please tell me the budget for this role.” Lauren loves this one because you aren’t asking a question. You are giving a polite command. Negotiation starts at this early stage. You are also teaching others how to engage with you and what to expect. This statement delivered professionally and factually keeps you as an equal with the representatives of the company. You are not asking and showing there is an option to refuse. You are just stating factually that you need this information to move forward.

What if they refuse, you ask? Lauren suggests this is a good time to state your salary requirements and don’t undersell for example, “I appreciate that you have stated the salary is competitive but I am already dealing with companies who have been willing to disclose or that know I am looking for a role in the $80-95k band. Do you think that is realistic for this role?”

If they still do not fully disclose the range, you have a decision to make. If the company is one that you have on your target list because you’ve done your research and know they are a known top employer, you’ve spoken with those that work there already and speak highly of it, and/or you just are too damn curious then you will have to make a decision on whether to pursue the interview process. You can also say you would like to set up an interview, do some research, and decline later.

Lauren’s Tip: Don’t take the first interview time suggested

“After about 6-7 years into my career I realized I was too accommodating and was setting the wrong narrative with companies. I decided to start clawing that power back. So I decided to stop taking the first interview slot they offered. I wanted to set the narrative that my time is as valuable as theirs, I am not desperate nor a Yes Person,” says Lauren.

Here you are taking a small but important step towards the narrative that your needs should be considered as well. Of course there are exceptions to this, such as they are only hosting interviews on one day but that may be a sign that this company is inflexible. You’ll have to be the judge.

Lauren continues, “The more I established to them and myself that I was an equal, I found my interviews went better and I was more likely to get an offer (almost 100% of the time), and the happier I was in the role. It works. It just does.”

Wrapping Up

Remember that you set the narrative for how you want this company to treat you and what you are willing to put up with. If you take the first appointment, if you interview without knowing the salary, or if you answer inappropriate personal questions you may be actively allowing yourself to walk into a company that is not a good fit for you and doesn’t respect your boundaries and needs as a human being. Being aware of the red flags in the early stages of working with any company will help prevent you having to start your job search again so soon.

What do you think?

Have you experienced a red flag you think should be on this list? Let us know by commenting below, adding to the LinkedIn thread, or emailing us at Sharing your story could help someone else avoid making a huge mistake. 

One Comment


    This is an excellent article. A great read with solid advice.

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