How to Tell If a Prospective Employer Values Psychological Safety

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Trishia*, one of my executive coaching clients, was driving the regulatory strategy for a global biotech company. At a recent cross-functional Zoom meeting, Gordon*, the VP of product development, publicly questioned Trishia’s approach. Trishia believed that Gordon didn’t understand the reasoning behind her proposal and was using the opportunity to flex his political muscle.

Whatever the reason behind Gordon’s actions, the situation caused Trishia to lose her feeling of psychological safety, which Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmundson defines as “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.” Since the meeting was virtual, with Gordon at the corporate headquarters in Boston and Trishia remote in San Diego, Trishia felt she had been publicly shamed — and without the physical proximity to quickly clear the air with Gordon.

Psychological safety has long been recognized as a critical driver of employee engagement, superior decision-making, healthy team dynamics, and effective organizational execution. Pre-Covid, psychological safety focused primarily on open communications between managers and employees in a traditional office setting. Now, with work-life boundaries increasingly blurred, communications between employees and managers must also consider remote/hybrid staffing, scheduling, and coordination along with employees’ personal circumstances — a wider sphere with many more entry points for violations of psychological safety to occur among individuals and teams. Hybrid working arrangements have made psychological safety more complicated.

With all of these new variables to consider, the landscape becomes particularly challenging for job seekers at the interview stage to assess whether a prospective employer offers psychological safety. Here are some strategies to help you screen for red flags:

Look and listen for inclusive vs. exclusive language.

Job postings can subtly communicate bias, which counters psychological safety, according to organizational psychologist Gena Cox. “Job descriptions often contain non-neutral language that attracts certain types of applicants and discourages others,” Cox said. For example, she noted that using the word “competitive” has been shown to deter more women than men from applying for a job, and terms like “hacker” or “ninja” in job postings imply that a certain type of more aggressive personality is desired, leading to the likelihood that the employer may not offer psychological safety to workers who do not adhere to their mental image. What you want to hear is language that’s neutral and skills-based, like “programmer,” “software engineer,” or “developer.”

Cox also suggests staying alert for ageist language that could damage psychological safety for older applicants. “Language related to ageist stereotypes in job advertisements, such as ‘must be a digital native,’ has been linked to discriminatory practices because it defines the current generation of millennials and Gen X, but not Baby Boomers,” Cox said.

Using gender-based pronouns such as “guy” or “he” to describe employees in general may imply a company’s cultural bias that discriminates against women. Instead, an organization that creates psychological safety for all applicants will choose a gender-neutral pronoun such as “they,” which acknowledges the full spectrum of gender identities, including people who are nonbinary.

Stay attuned to clarity in the company’s answers to your questions.

During a job interview, Jordan*, one of my coaching clients, asked for clarification about compensation details at the point when the company told him they were ready to make him an offer. But after Jordan asked for specifics, the hiring manager repeatedly told him they would get back to him with the details — and didn’t.

Although flattering Jordan’s capabilities and fit for the position, this lack of transparency by the hiring committee created a lack of trust and made Jordan feel that the company culture was opaque, which detracted from a feeling of psychological safety.

“Trust is a currency to be exchanged between the job seeker and the employer, and vagueness is a power play and a sign of gamesmanship,” Cox explained. Be sure the interviewer offers specific parameters and answers to your questions during the interview to create psychological safety.

Determine if the employer will meet your requirements.

Another way to tell whether an organization is psychologically safe at the interview stage is to try to find out whether they’re open to employee needs around flexibility and different working styles.

Scott*, a marketing professional, was negotiating an offer with an agency that had recruited him. Since he wasn’t actively looking for a new position, he decided to lay his cards on the table and tell the prospective employer his criteria for getting hired: that he had to be home for his daughter’s soccer games, that he wouldn’t travel more than 30% of the time, and that he was looking for the freedom to manage projects as he saw fit. The employer accepted all of Scott’s requirements, a sign that they were a psychologically safe organization that was willing to meet employee preferences and requirements.

Ask questions about the culture.

Asking open-ended questions during the interview is another way to have current employees on the hiring team reveal their beliefs about their company and its culture, which can provide insights into whether or not an organization is psychologically safe. While asking about corporate culture may yield platitudes since every organization wants to put its best foot forward during the interview process, the following questions are designed to help you uncover information about its philosophy and practice:

1. Can you tell me about a time a person or team messed up? What happened?

This question gets to the heart of psychological safety. Organizations that allow mistakes and don’t penalize employees for failure provide the psychological security workers need to take risks because they don’t fear retribution.

2. How do you typically onboard employees, and how are remote employees integrated into the company culture?

The answer to this question — and the specificity with which the employer can address the needs of remote employees — is an indication of the value they place on doing things differently.

Onboarding a new employee in a hybrid or remote environment requires increased transparency, designing new arrangements that serve individual and organizational goals, such as emphasizing personal connection over paperwork. If what you learn in answer to this question seems like the same old, same old, then the organization may be prioritizing process over inclusivity and psychological safety.

3. What do you wish you would have known before you joined the company, good and bad?

Surprising insights about the company, department, and role can arise from this question, such as learning about internal politics or a difficult internal stakeholder that may flag psychological safety issues. Asking this can also reveal a lot about an organization’s values, and it’s the type of inquiry that a manager is unlikely to have prepared an answer for in advance, leading to an unscripted response.

4. What makes an employee great, instead of good, at this company?

The answer you’re given can reveal the company’s values and definitions of success, providing insight into their culture and the qualities they prioritize. A negative or sarcastic response is a warning that psychological safety isn’t valued.

5. What makes people stay at this company?

Asking why people stay at the company helps give you a complete picture of what it’s like to work there. If the answer is “we respect and value teamwork and collaboration,” for example, that’s a promising indication that they value multiple perspectives and create an environment of safety and belonging.

Understanding the characteristics of psychologically safe organizations, identifying potential red flags from the hiring team, and knowing the questions to ask during a job interview to uncover a company’s values will help you find the right cultural fit.

Names have been changed. 

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