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This Is the Number One Question You Should Ask During Job Interviews to Avoid a Toxic Workplace

Finding a job that's the right fit can be difficult, especially when you're searching during the pandemic. That's why it's important to ask the right questions.

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The job application process can be incredibly tiring and cumbersome, requiring an incessant amount of cover letter-writing, multiple rounds of hour-long interviews and seemingly endless waiting periods.

By the time a somewhat enticing offer comes along, candidates might feel resigned to take it — just to simply get the application process over with. But, at a time when the pandemic has made the jobs market uncertain and added to existing financial stress, it's more important than ever to make sure that the job that's being offered is the right fit. 

According to Karin Borchert, CEO of Modern Hire, that starts with asking the right questions during the interview process.

Related: 15 Ways to Spot a Toxic Work Environment Before You Take the Job

While interviews are a good way for employers to better understand how your experience fits a certain position, it's also an opportunity see if the employers are a match for you. Their responses to your end-of-interview questions are an indication of whether they'll be attentive to your concerns or needs should you decide to join their team.

As such, among the many responses interviewees should look out for, one stands out above all: "An employer should be able to have a real answer to what [they] do for work-life balance, particularly in a time with so much uncertainty and safety concerns and all of that," Borchert says.

This is important and timely for a couple of reasons.

Last year, workplace-consulting firm Emtrain published a survey of 400,000 employees at 125 companies, revealing that toxic workplaces were common and that at least one in three employees left their companies due to "workplace conflict." One should expect, then, that the issues found in toxic work environments have only been amplified during the pandemic, especially when many (especially those from the baby boomer generation) have been working at home and found it increasingly difficult to log off their computers at a reasonable time. Asking about work-life balance, then, addresses a serious issue that continues to impact a majority of employees today. 

The question can also give insight into how empathetic an employer is. A considerate employer understands that striking the right work-life balance means more than just providing a sufficient number of days off. It also means being flexible, allowing employees to address unforeseen circumstances as they arise and providing them with peace of mind. 

"We've been in [a pandemic] for a while now, and mental health and a toxic work environment," says Borchert. "So a prospective employer should have some answers there if they're really serious about having a healthy work environment and recognizing the importance of work-life balance."

How the employer answers your question matters too. "If you're asking about hours or flexibility, you want to feel good about those answers," she adds, while urging job candidates to pay special attention to the interviewer's body language. "You don't want to feel like someone's avoiding answering the questions, inconsistent in how they're answering or depriving you the opportunity to get more information."

If you're still not satisfied with the interviewer's answer, ask whether you can speak to a current employee. This gives you the chance to get a firsthand account of how much the employer prioritizes work-life balance during a precarious time. 

"You have to listen to your gut instincts in the kinds of answers that you're getting from a potential employer," Borchert advises. "You know there's some judgment and evaluation [in the sense that] the person you're interviewing with is applying as well." 

In other words, always remember that an interview goes both ways. As much as you have to sell your experience to the prospective employer, that person also has to convince you that they will protect your work-life balance at a time when the line between work and life has become blurred.