During my long unemployment stint in 2016 I interviewed with any company that would respond to my applications (although I have a much better interview strategy these days). Unfortunately, there are a lot of predatory companies out there, and some of them even use scare tactics and guilt-tripping people into staying.
These are the signs of a cult mentality in the workplace that I learned to spot after my encounter with one of them.
Cult-ish workplaces play the numbers game
I walked into my interview at this marketing company and found—to my surprise—about 15 other people waiting for me too.
That was an immediate red flag, but I was more than a little anxious about getting back on my feet, so I stayed. This city was known for successful start-ups, after all, and some of them just grew so fast that they needed people immediately.
I thought some of them were on their way out, or maybe they were all there for different jobs. After all, I was applying for a marketing job, but that’s only one kind of role among many in a given company.
As they invited people for the interview, it became clear that was only one… and it was for everyone.
The “interviewers” had set up a little raised platform where they could stand and tell us how happy that we could join them and how excited they were to share this opportunity with us. It was a lot exhibitionism driving home messages, like:
- “There’s a lot of money to be made here”
- “It’s all hard work”
- “There’s no experience needed (they would, graciously, train us on the job)”
- “The company is like a family”
- “You could start your own chapter of the business”
- “We generate a 100% ROI for our clients”
They put some individuals on pedestals and said “you could be like this person, too—but only if you really want it.”
My brain couldn’t rationalize it any longer, even through the judgment-impairing cloud that my desperation had created. Something was up.
What does a cult mentality in the workplace have to do with group interviews?
Workplaces with cult-like mentalities tend to have high employee turnover—the “cult mentality” is simply an unethical tool used to recruit and retain people.
People have second thoughts about being in a cult when they realize they’re in one, naturally, but that becomes a problem for the leaders trying to keep employees around.
So those organizations play the numbers game as a result so that they can scale their recruitment efforts. If they cared about culture or accountability then they would vet candidates one at a time, like you would for a real job.
Cult-like workplaces need to put on a show to recruit people because the actual job tends to be awful (and we’ll get to that part soon). The exhibitionism should tell you that a company is only concerned about their own needs instead of yours—even if a group interview doesn’t tip you off before that.
Cult-ish companies hide job details
Back to the group interview.
People asked questions, and so did I:
- “What kind of marketing does this job entail, exactly?”
- “Who are your clients, and what industries do they represent?”
- “How do you generate a ‘100% return on investment’ with every client?”
- “What does an average day look like here?”
- “How do employees start their own businesses? Is this a franchise?”
All of those questions were deftly dodged so that the presentation could continue ‘without a hitch’. When the interviewers felt particularly pressured to answer, we were redirected back to their core talking points:
- How successful people can become.
- How sheer tenacity can take you far.
- How we could all start our own branch of the business over time.
But we didn’t know what the actual job entailed, or what it was. As you’ve no doubt figured out, that was by design. It turns out the job wasn’t about marketing at all—it was a door-to-door sales job!
Talk about a bait and switch.
Even better? The compensation for this sales grunt job was 100% commission. You could work a 10-hour day and never make a dime. Cult leaders take followers’ money, and this company wasn’t all that different. Little or no compensation is another sign of a cult mentality in the workplace, especially at the leadership level.
What made this cult-like?
If you’ve ever studied cults in psychology, sociology, or even history classes, then you’ve probably heard about their recruitment strategy.
It’s called “love bombing.” It’s not a new phenomenon.
Cults shower recruits and initiates with attention, feelings of belonging, and promises of opportunity. Cults have been using this strategy since the 1970s, at least (if not longer), and workplaces with cult-like mentalities and poor culture have caught on.
This “marketing” company put out job postings for marketing positions and then misdirected applicants away from the job description itself with promises of wealth and success. Clearly they didn’t want to scare people away with “door-to-door salesperson” as a job title, so they obscured the truth until they had applicants in the door.
Workplace cult leaders don’t tolerate questions
After learning that this marketing company was actually a sales company, I felt deceived—because, well, I had been. So I asked more questions to figure out if they were hiding anything else.
In the first interview I asked about actual marketing roles within the organization.
“Well this is a ‘direct’ marketing role, if you’re up to it.” Obviously, it wasn’t.
In the second interview I asked if there were any other kind of non-sales marketing roles (or just “marketing roles” as the rest of the world calls them).
“We don’t have any other kinds of marketing roles right now, but there’s a lot of opportunity after this role. We’re looking for people who really want it.”
In the third interview I asked the owner and founder of this illustrious “marketing” company if she was open to creating a content marketing role, as that was my real strength.
“We already have partners who can introduce us to new sales prospects. I’m getting the sense that you just don’t have the right attitude to work here. We only hire people who really want to succeed, and it doesn’t seem like that’s you right now.”
Yes, the owner really had the nerve to say that to me in the middle of an interview, even after intentionally deceiving me and others. Obviously I didn’t want the role—I didn’t apply for a door-to-door sales job and she knew it.
However, it was interesting that the owner tried to turn the tables on me psychologically, trying to brow-beat me into regretting that I ever asked questions. That brings us to the last sign of a cult mentality in the workplace: control, manipulation, and even aggression.
Your checklist for spotting cult-like mentalities during interviews
I hope that account gives you an intuitive radar for spotting red flags during the interview process. I’ve also summarized them here, plus a few bonus signs.
- The company intentionally mislabels itself to avoid scaring away recruits.
- It recruits vulnerable people who won’t question things too much.
- Group interviews signal mass hiring practices and high employee turnover.
- Interviewers constantly “sell” you on wealth and success inside the company.
- Company leaders are propped up as paragons of success for your personal aspiration.
- Actual job details might be obscured.
- The compensation model can even be a scam sometimes.
- Questions are evaded, dismissed, and eventually answered with scorn.
Companies with a cult-like mentality in the workplace don’t tend to hold themselves accountable for things like ethical behavior, so run the other way as soon as you notice a pattern of these behaviors.
Don’t waste your time on companies that violate your trust, even in your lowest moments.