How to know if a prospective employer values ​​psychological safety

Trishia*, one of my executive coaching clients, was driving regulatory strategy for a global biotech company. In a recent cross-functional Zoom meeting, Gordon*, vice president of product development, publicly questioned Trishia’s approach. Trishia believed that Gordon did not understand the reasoning behind his proposal and was taking the opportunity to show his political strength.

Whatever the reason behind Gordon’s actions, the situation caused Trishia to lose her sense of psychological safety, which Amy Edmundson, a Harvard Business School professor, defines as “the 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 corporate headquarters in Boston and Trishia remotely in San Diego, Trishia felt she had been publicly embarrassed, and without her 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 the boundaries between work and life increasingly blurred, communications between employees and managers must also consider remote/hybrid staffing, scheduling, and coordination along with employees’ personal circumstances: a broader sphere with many more entry points for psychological security breaches to occur between individuals and teams. Hybrid work arrangements have made psychological safety more complicated.

With all 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 spot red flags:

Look and listen for inclusive versus exclusive language.

Job postings can subtly communicate bias, which counteracts 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 will not offer psychological security to workers who do not adhere to their mental image. Neutral, skill-based language, such as “programmer,” “software engineer,” or “developer,” is what you want to hear.

Cox also suggests keeping an eye out for discriminatory language that could harm the psychological safety of older applicants. “Language related to age 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 Xers, but not Baby Boomers,” Cox said.

The use of gender-based pronouns such as “guy” or “he” to describe employees in general can 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 like “they,” which recognizes the full spectrum of gender identities, including non-binary people.

Stay tuned for clarity in the company’s responses to your questions.

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

While praising Jordan’s abilities and suitability for the role, this lack of transparency on the part of the hiring committee created a lack of trust and made Jordan feel that the company culture was opaque, leaving him with a sense of security. psychological.

“Trust is a currency that is exchanged between the job applicant and the employer, and vagueness is a power play and a cunning signal,” Cox explained. Make sure the interviewer offers specific parameters and answers to her questions during the interview to create psychological safety.

Determine if the employer will meet your requirements.

Another way to tell if an organization is psychologically safe at the interview stage is to try to find out if they are open to employees’ needs for flexibility and different work styles.

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

Ask questions about the culture.

Asking open-ended questions during the interview is another way for current employees on the hiring team to reveal their beliefs about their company and its culture, which can provide insight into whether or not an organization is psychologically safe. While asking about corporate culture can be cliché, as all organizations want to put their best foot forward during the interview process, the following questions are designed to help you uncover insights into their philosophy and practice:

1. Can you tell me about a time when a person or team went wrong? What happened?

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

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 greater transparency, designing new arrangements that serve individual and organizational goals, such as emphasizing personal connection over paperwork. If what you learn in response to this question seems to be business as usual, then the organization may be prioritizing process over inclusion and psychological safety.

3. What would you have liked to know before joining the company, the good and the bad?

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

4. What makes an employee great, rather than good, at this company?

The answer they give you 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 is not valued.

5. What makes people stay with this company?

Asking why people stay with the company helps you get a full 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 possible red flags from the hiring team, and knowing the questions to ask during a job interview to discover a company’s values ​​will help you find the right cultural fit.

* The names have been changed.

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