For some reason my school actively pushed back (hard) against any suggestion that an employer might be a bad fit or just bad in general for one of their graduates. In a way this makes sense, they want you to get a job in your field so they can post numbers saying they get graduates jobs in their desired field because who needs to be treated like a human when there's dollars to be made?
That might be a little bit of a cynical exaggeration, but it does tend to be a student's overwhelming experience that they are set up to put themselves in terrible and in some case dangerous working conditions because they are not introduced to basic warning signs or red flags during the job hunt process. I've worked in at least four different industries, but I can tell you these basic red flags are found no matter where you go.
I want every student who goes out into the wilds of the job market to at least know the dangers and if going with a company who has these red flags to at least go in with eyes-wide open.
So here are my list red flags to look out for in no particular order:
1. Their job posting doesn't say what you would actually be doing or contains a lot (like a lot) of jargon
I fell into this trap a few times when I had been unemployed for a while and needed the work. In one case I thought the position was for an admin assistant (because that was the title) but during the phone interview it became obvious this was really a job as a personal assistant to the owner. Totally different (doing her laundry was one job requirement) then what I thought and when I looked back at the job posting there was literally nothing in there about what I would be doing. It only listed the qualifications I needed to have.
Do not assume that you know what the job will entail based on the job title especially in games, lots of big studios use the same terms/titles for totally different things. So if you can't see at least three tasks you would be expected to do email them for more information or bring it up in the interview.
But be wary, if instead of concrete tasks they start using a lot of vague terms or too much jargon in their answer you may end up doing work you have no idea how to do and being disciplined for failing at it.
2. They try to make you upset or run "social experiment" tests during the interview
As a favor to a friend I applied to a receptionist job when I was young and wanted to have a better paying summer job than lawn mowing. I knew it wasn't a great place, but I was not ready for the manager/owner to do everything he could to make me upset during the interview. When we were finally finished (and after I had decided I definitely didn't need the money that bad) he congratulated me for passing all his tests and offered me the job. I turned it down. After I got the whole story from my friend who admitted that he liked to scream at staff whenever he was upset. Which was often.
Game development is hard and stressful, you do not need to make your life worse by working for people who would rather find those who can "take it" rather than fix their work environment. It's one thing to have an interviewer admit that it can get very stressful it's another thing for them to try and shit-test you to find your breaking point.
These are toxic people and you need to get the hell away from them.
3. They aren't very well put together at the interview
This one may seem petty but believe me, how a person dresses and presents themselves during an interview is as important for the employer as it is for the prospective employee. If you arrive to an interview where your potential manager looks like a mess or worse, is so disorganized that they think you are an entirely different candidate because they stapled your resume to someone else's cover letter. (True story. The interviewer yelled at me for saying in my cover letter that I could do full stack development, but that there was nothing in my resume to prove that. I kindly pointed out that, that was not my cover letter and my name wasn't Michelle as he could see from the top of my resume)
Having a frumpy manager is not the end of the world, but it has been my overwhelming experience that managers who look frazzled are frazzled. That often makes for a very difficult and stressful work environment which is why it's good to ask a lot of questions about how they like to manage or about their expectations of a worker. Generally get a feel for what they're like to work for.
It may be they were having a bad day or, more likely, that they are constantly unprepared and distracted.
4. They can't answer the question: "What does a typical day in this job look like?"
You wouldn't think this was an issue, but trust me it is. Since getting into game design I have heard "it varies from day to day" as a response to the question of what a typical day is like so often I'm starting to think they're just being lazy.
Often, if they are a manager and they say this then they may not know what they're reports are doing. If they are in the role and they say this then either they're hiding something like: we have 3hrs of meetings each day and then I go on Facebook for two hours after lunch or the work changes so much daily that it really does vary which is NOT A GOOD THING.
In one job I took where I got the answer "it varies" and it turned out what they meant was: you will spend one week a month in absolute terror getting a project done that didn't have a due date till six days before and the rest of the time you will update documents...maybe. In another job it meant that the person answering did not really pay attention to what they did all day and couldn't really answer the question (Which obviously they are not going to say in front of their boss or HR). This is still bad because it means you have at least one team member who doesn't even care enough to think about what they do each day.
And no, in neither of these cases was the answer "it varies" the truth. A company that can't give you an honest (if polished) idea of what the day to day (or month to month) is like is going to be full of surprises and not all of them may be the good kind.
5. No one you will work with or for is at the in-person interview
It's normal during screening interviews to not meet with anyone you would actually work with or for but if you are at the official interview and there isn't anyone you are talking to that is part of your potential team that could lead to issues. First of all, the chances of you getting useful answers to your questions about culture or work expectations are not likely. Second, it may be an indication of a few problems, such as a controlling owner or a team that doesn't know they're getting a new member, but generally the bigger issue is the first one.
How can you be expected to make a decision about joining a group if you can't even meet anyone from it? A good company will at least have the manager at the in-person interview and sometimes that's all you need to get an idea of what kind of work environment it'll be like. If you use the right questions.
6. Lots of turnover (or really bad reviews on Glassdoor)
I don't think I really need to go into why this is a red flag, but if you really want to work for a company with this flag then please ask them about the reason for the turnover or the reviews and what they have done to remedy the problem.
Really listen to their answer.
If it's summed up as "those people are just haters" or "they just couldn't hack it" then this is not a good place. If they get mad at you for bringing it up, then this is a very bad place.
7. They mention a beer tap (or that alcohol is available during business hours)
I worked in live production for about five years and if anyone was ever caught with drugs or alcohol on the job you were out. If you were lucky you only lost a day's pay. This was probably because if you screw up in live production someone could end up dead. But ultimately when I think about any job I've ever had it would be stupid to be drinking anything more than a single beer at lunch. So maybe I'm old, but why, dear god why would you want to work for a place that encourages day drinking alone? Or even day drinking in groups?
Usually this line in a job ad is code for: "we try to be cool and have boundary issues."
I try to stay away from applying to aggressively "cool" companies because they tend to be run by the kind of people who are more interested in image than letting you do your job, but by god will they take it out on you if the job doesn't get done. I might also throw in places with loud lounge areas near work stations or where there is nowhere quiet you can go to work or have a meeting as additional things to be wary about with aggressively"cool" companies.
8. They won't talk about pay or benefits even after the second interview (or are shocked, shocked that you would bring up money)
Not putting the salary band in the job posting should be treated like a huge red flag in this industry, but the truth is it's not because too many companies don't do it. So don't be surprised if you get to the end of the interview and you still don't know what it pays even with a good company. This info should be posted in the job ad as a salary range along with basic info about benefits, but more often than not you will get to the end of your second (or even third) interview without knowing what you might be paid.
This is shitty for two reasons: one, it puts the onus on you to bring it up which is going to be uncomfortable and two, it means you could have gone through several interviews (or even received an offer) before you know if you could afford to take the job or not.
But a serious red flag is if you do bring it up and they act like you're some kind of shameful creature for daring (DARING!) to suggest that money would effect your decision to work there.
Listen, lots of other artists have said this better than me, but don't think that a job you love means you shouldn't still treat it like a job. Work should be paid for and you deserve to be paid and not made to feel like crap because you want to know if you can even afford to take their offer. A good company, one that isn't run by people who treat their workers like disposable spoons, will understand that this is a transaction and will treat it professionally.
Anyone who actually makes you feel bad for asking or who refuses to even give you a pay range without an offer in hand should be avoided. It's a good indication they will not treat you very well or that they cannot act professionally about simple business issues.
9. They talk about being one big family
It just means they don't have boundaries.
They will call you while you are in chemo (or just show up) and demand to know where those documents on the shared drive are. (Did not happen to me. But something like it happened)
Work should be separate from life. It's how we keep sane and balanced. I worked for my parents as a kid and if you have never worked in a family business before let me tell you, it is awful or at the very least exhausting. They will ask you for work answers over dinner. They will yell at you in front of other staff because they don't need to be professional. After all, we're family!
It's hard enough for new staff to feel comfortable taking lunch breaks or leaving on time when they want to look productive and like a team player. You don't need to add on a manager who makes fun of you for heading out at five, even if they say it's just "good natured ribbing."
10. They don't know basic things about your local industry (also, you should know basic things about your local industry)
This is probably less of an issue if say an insurance company has hired you to make a web game. But if you're, oh say, talking to a Canadian studio and they don't know what the CARFAC Minimum Fee Schedule is or they didn't know that another studio in the city won an IGF award for a game that looks a lot like the one they're working on then you may want to be careful.
Usually this means something might be a little sketchy about the money situation and if this is paired with point eight (won't talk about money) then just run for the hills. A small new studio that has it's shit together will be able to talk intelligently about the local market and industry. A bunch of people who want to "live the game making dream" with no idea what even exists in their own city need to be avoided.
11. They bash other companies
For some reason this happens a lot with groups who fall into point nine, but not always. Just like you should not be bashing or badmouthing competitors neither should a perspective company. Other than being unprofessional it usual means something isn't quite on the up and up with the owner or manager.
Game Development is a very small world and there are lots of bad companies that everyone knows about, but an interviewer has no reason to disparage another company in front of an interviewee. Now, someone may ask if you are interviewing with other companies and, if they feel compelled, may advise you to avoid a particular company if you mentioned it. But I'm not talking about that.
I'm talking about you showing up, mentioning a competitor's game in an answer and then having to listen to a twenty minute rant from your interviewer about how much that company/game sucks. It's not cool and it speaks to a larger professional problem that might not bother you now, but probably will before long.
12. They won't show you around the studio/office
This is one of those points that won't be a red flag until after you received an offer.
If a company is really serious about you they'll make sure you get to check the place out and talk to the team to make sure you're a good fit. It's a good time to find out that there's a pinball machine next to your working area and decide if you could handle that. You should be able to ask if you can check out where you might be working and most places would be proud to show you around.
Them not offering to show you around is not the problem (Though companies should offer!). It is, however, if they say you're a top candidate or you're on interview number two, but they WON'T show you around when asked. That's what you need to watch for.
NDAs exist for a reason so there's really no reasonable excuse why you can't have a tour of the working space before you get an offer. This is usually a sign that they are hiding something and it's either the team or the workspace. Or maybe something worse. Be prepared to wish you changed your mind about accepting that offer within a week or two.
13. They give you the creeps or a "weird vibe" you can't place
You are much better at picking up "problem vibes" then you give yourself credit for.
If something doesn't feel right about anything from the application to the interview then just drop it. Do not make yourself take a job at a place that feels off just because you think it's stupid for not having a concrete reason. If they get back to you just say another opportunity came up or don't answer at all if the vibe is particularly creepy.
It doesn't make you a bad person and you deserve to work in a place you feel comfortable in!
I will give you one last caveat, some of these things are not going to sound like red flags to you and not to sound like an old person, but... you don't know what you don't know right now. That being said, it's not about avoiding 100% of these flags. It's about having an idea of what to look out for and to ask probing questions about. Sometimes you take a job with all the red flags because you had to (I did! Twice!). Because you need to live and there was nothing else at the time.
But when you do take those jobs have a plan to get out and continue job searching. And who knows? Maybe it'll work out, but it's better to plan for failure and hope for success.
I hope this helps you (even a little) in your job search!