Sreejita Deb, chief business officer at the Mumbai-based luxury fashion startup Flyrobe, has some standard red flags and screening criteria to avoid “toxic workplaces.” Deb, who has worked with big companies (Nokia, Amazon) in the past as well as startups (TellApart, acquired by Twitter in 2015) in India and the Bay Area, shares some indicators that signal the culture at a startup:
1. Composition of core team: Please note that I say core team and not founders. A core team with at least one woman who holds a critical role shows me that the team is not just a bunch of dudes hiring guys they went to college with. Even if there’s no woman in the founding team, a core team member who is female shows an underlying commitment to diversity.
2. How they handle strong opinions from women: It’s pretty well documented that likability and competence/being opinionated are inversely correlated for women. I tend to be pretty opinionated and it’s important to me to be part of an environment where my opinions are welcome and I’m not criticised for being aggressive. A tactic I’ve used to screen out whether this environment is conducive for women who have strong opinions is to engage in a debate with the founder and judge their demeanour throughout it.
3. Some obvious red flags: comments on appearance, generalising based on gender stereotypes (when are you getting married, you’ll probably not be as serious about work then), running down other women in their team.
4. Differences in how they talk about their male and female employees: I personally hate it when men refer to the women in their team as “girls”. The best boss I had always used to refer to his former female employees as “women” and that has stayed with me.
5. If the only folks you see when you go to interview in an office are in administrative positions, then that’s not the right place for sure.
6. Finally, will this person have empathy if you have trouble with sexism at the work place or just brush something that makes you uncomfortable off as a joke? Good way to test that would be to ask how this person sees you fitting into an all-male environment and see whether he/she has a cogent response. Bad sign if this person hasn’t even thought of integration as an issue. Employees fail or succeed at startups largely due to the efforts of hiring founders to integrate them into the team.
7. Know what you’re worth and negotiate hard on compensation. It’s a well documented fact that women are paid less than men. This has happened to me- I found out a male colleague and I were paid significantly differently when we started working at the same company (not a startup). Ask in as many words whether the offer you’re getting is on par with those you’ve met in the interview process who have the same qualifications and work experience as you and are in same positions/level at the company.
8. If you know of women that have left the company after relatively short stints (anything less than a year) make an effort to contact them and ask them what their experience was like.