How To Spot Red Flags

Written by
Salve Salvana

Each month we ask creative professionals to dive into a different theme about the creative working world.

Navigating the working world is hard enough without dodging red flags. We want to learn from your mistakes. We asked our community "what are the red flags in a job application process that you missed the first time round?" "If you could start your career again, what are the warning signs you'd look out for?"

We hope you find ways to avoid finding yourself in an awkward or toxic situation from their experiences below.


Being hired on the spot after an interview may sound like a cliché dream, but it should ring alarm bells as well.

I’ve been through plenty of arduous interviews and rejections and know how tough the design competition is. So being slightly cynical might be advantageous when everything just runs too smoothly. Two days after sending out my portfolio to the recruiter, I was offered the role right away with the salary that I asked for.

When things sound too good to be true, take a step back and question why your spidey-senses might be tingling. In hindsight, I should have done more research and asked more questions before jumping the gun from my endorphin surge, first impressions, and feeling rushed to do so by both the recruiter and agency. I searched for further information after feeling iffy about the whole process but I couldn’t find more, strangely enough for a mid-sized agency and shrugged off the only two (but scathing) reviews that they had.

My gut feeling had been right. It wasn’t the type of agency that valued designers; hence the high turnover and hiring rate. I learnt that people before me weren’t there for long. Unlike other design agencies that pride on well-being and transparency, this was not the case. As I worked there, other warning signs began showing up; a highly sterile environment where no one speaks, the lack of trust with employees, and seeing me as a design tool rather than leaning on the expertise I was hired for.

Always heed that niggling feeling; it might just prevent you from ending up in another dead-end job! Also, research as much as you can before saying yes; getting a higher pay check may end up costing you more in the long run.

Fred Wiltshire, Freelance Typedesigner

“We’re not just a team, we’re a family” is a saying used by certain directors, wanting to portray a loving and welcoming workplace, but used, in my opinion, to take advantage of young, passionate designers.

These sayings reinforce notions of not being in a workplace, but rather a friendly area to pursue your passion and love for design is a perfect way to get designers to do overtime, without compensation or room to complain. It is easy to let certain behaviours slip by due to a passion for the craft, but this should not be a reason to take advantage of your employees for profit.

You should welcome finding satisfaction in doing a good job, in a friendly and inclusive workplace, but you do not owe companies any more time than what has been agreed upon. If it truly is a good workplace they should understand that you require a good work-life balance.

Jennifer Taylor, Graphic Designer at MagManager

Over the years, my experience applying for jobs has left me dodging bullets at the worst job descriptions I see. Here are five red flags I look out for when applying for these jobs.

Salary below living wage

Above anything else, employers are responsible for paying your wages so you can cover all your expenses for your work hours. A living wage can vary nationwide, especially in then cost-of-living crisis, so research the living wage for where you're applying to jobs

Job description is unclear

I'm sure we've all come across job vacancies with an endless stream of unrealistic requirements and skills necessary for the job. While it's an obvious sign the employer hasn't done their homework on the position they're posting, it's also a clear indication they don't understand what you do.

No mention of development

Whether it's career progression, training on the job or mentorship from senior leaders within the organisation, development is a ladder to a better salary and a worthwhile investment in your future. It's also a strong indication your employer values you and cares about your future. No mention of development could indicate there's no future within the role or the company, the position might not be rewarding, and you also run the possibility that there's a lack of leadership within the company.

Completing an assessment

For some larger organisations, you may need to complete assessments to continue the interview process for a job. While these can introduce you to the kind of work you'd be doing, you're doing the work for free, and they're also an unfair judgement of the potential and value you can bring to an organisation if the deadline is unreasonable.

'Cultural' fit

Often an indication for me that the company lacks inclusivity and diversity is when they ask for someone that fits into the company's 'culture'. Putting aside race, religion, age and gender, hiring for a cultural fit spells out hiring the same trendy hipster the company hired the previous year. When companies hire from the same 'culture' it can become a breeding ground for cliques and friendship groups that become a driving force for valuable team members to leave or even push away new members.

Jessie, Motion Graphic Designer

When a boss or manager refers to a company as a ‘family’, run. This small statement tells you everything you need to know. When the ‘f’ word is mentioned, it means you will more likely be expected to make sacrifices in your personal life to suit the needs of your work life due to this overpowering sense of loyalty. You may be expected to stay late more, expected to do things outside your contract because they now have that ‘family’ guilt factor hanging over your head. Asked to perform a role not in your job description? Fast forward to months down the line and you are still being assigned that job. These things are all a recipe for burnout, and then where does that leave you?

A family is permanent, a job is not. A family is a personal life, a job should be a professional one. It’s understandable that the strong bond, socialisation and reliant nature of a family is seen as a perfect mix to create a hard working team, however, this most often leads to workers being exploited and taken advantage of - sometimes without them even realising.

In my experience, a workplace that is referred to as a ‘family’ has only led to unachievable expectations from my higher ups and disappointment. Issues are often tackled the wrong way which in turn seems much more personal. A close, tight knit team feels incredible when everyone is on the same wavelength but there does come a point where you need boundaries. Avoid a work family, aim for a work sports team.

On our radar

Some further reading on the themes explored in this article:

Major Red Flags To Look For Before Accepting The Job: Dawn Graham tells us what to look out for and to avoid before signing over that dotted line for Forbes.

Careers: 7 red flags to look out for in a job interview, according to experts Leah Sinclair speaks with career experts exploring signs to be aware of in the interview process for Stylist.

Client Red Flags: how to spot the warning signs of a toxic creative relationship: It's Nice That just with came out with a piece on how to dodge those crimson obstacles when working with clients by Danielle Pender.

The If You Could Jobs Journal is a space the creative community have the opportunity to share their unique vision and insight into the creative working world. We're always on the look out for contributors interested in writing opinion pieces our Journal. 

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