Jack and I served the same Christian organization. When he left the mission field, he vowed that he would never work for another Christian organization again. He had developed a distrust for those who name the Name of Christ, but treat their employees (and other stakeholders) like dirt.
Now, after several years of healing and vocational development, Jack has begun looking at job possibilities in Christian organizations once again. His love for what the church of Christ can do for the building of God’s Kingdom is pulling him back. As we talked, his concern was how to determine if an organization is toxic before signing on the dotted line.
What questions can you ask when the typical interviewer says, “Are there questions you have for us?” What steps should you take to identify an organization that is toxic? This is what I found in my research to identify questions you can ask and steps you can take to make wise organizational choices.
If being interviewed by the boss:
Because you are primarily looking for toxic leaders, you may be speaking directly to one in your interview. If that is the case, these questions are hopefully non-intimidating and you might get honest answers that will point to problems if there are any.
- What is the average length of employment at the organization?
Does the organization have a seemingly high resignation (or firing) rate? Is it due to the pay or because they are particularly hard to work for? Many Christian organizations pay less, but have high loyalty rates. If they have neither, there may be red flags flying.
- If an employee has difficulty with a manager or other employee, is there a policy / process for complaints in the organization?
This commonly overlooked area of ministry development can go a long ways in making the organization toxin-proof. Is there a clear policy that shows respect for individuals and gives the employee a safe way to complain of mistreatment? Of course, the organization may have a policy in place but fail to implement it well.
- How do managers in the organization seek to develop and use the God-given gifts of their subordinates?
Ultimately, a Christian organization (or any other for that matter) should be seeking to “take dominion” in the use of employee God-given gifts and talents used for His glory. Leaders in a Christian ministry ought to have considered how they are fulfilling the dominion mandate or they may be seeking to develop their own image and seek their own glory through the work of others.
Ask these questions of Employees:
Discussing the organization with employees is probably the most important step you should take. But, as you begin to gain insight to the organization from the grass-roots level, there is one very important thing to keep in mind: Often employees do not agree on whether a leader is toxic or not. As Kusy and Holloway, in a very helpful book called “Toxic Workplace,” say,
“A tip in recognizing toxicity is that there may be (and likely are) different perspectives about the toxic person; there may even be some people who do not experience the person’s toxicity at all. This is especially true for those who are in a position of power or control access to powerful others, perks, or any number of resources the toxic individual wants.” 
There are some big-picture ideas that you need to understand as you interview employees of the organization. Kusy and Holloway say, “When we examined the behavioral items statistically, we arrived at three primary types of behaviors that put a frame around how to identify [toxic leaders] in a simple and straightforward fashion: shaming, passive hostility, and team sabotage.” 
Here are some ideas:
- Do you consistently feel valued by your bosses?
Is the leader demeaning or derogatory? Do they act like a parent disciplining a child when criticizing their subordinates or other managers? Do they intentionally embarrass others?
- Are your ideas asked for and considered in decision-making?
Are the leaders team-oriented? Do they see a win by a subordinate as a win for the team? In Biblical language: Do they believe their subordinates are creative image-bearers of God so they actually believe they can learn from them?
- Have you, or someone you know, questioned an idea of the boss / team leader? How did that go?
This could be either a matter of a leader’s sin or simply a leader’s idea that others disagreed with. Usually, toxic individuals will either blow a fuse or shift blame for any implied shortcomings…oftentimes no matter how small an issue it is. In Biblical language: They are unrepentant – unwilling to admit wrong. Be attentive to answers that suggests the managers have little or no humility.
- Is there respect shown among leaders and followers for other organizations than their own?
Are the leaders very territorial? Do they suggest, “Our organization does it the very best way.” “If you aren’t for us, you are against us.” Even if you get this sense from the employees, it is possible brainwashing has come from the leadership.
- Do the leaders change decisions “and claim no knowledge of the initial conversation and decision.” 
This is common to those toxic leaders who are “passive-aggressive.” The employee may think the leader is very busy, has a lot on their plate, and “probably just forgets things.” They may also go behind a co-worker’s back without discussing issues directly with them. These are particularly manipulative people.
- Do the leaders trust you to follow through with the details of your job? Do they trust their teams to fulfill the organization’s mission?
Micromanaging is a destructive and toxic approach to management. If the subordinates cannot do their job and will not deal with details, the manager may feel the need to do this. This kind of environment may be or is possibly in process of becoming toxic systemically. This may not mean there is toxic leadership, but by talking to several employees you should be able to get an idea of whether it is employee or leadership induced micromanagement.
There are many other questions that can be asked, keeping in mind the bigger issues and forming questions that get to the heart of those issues. I have found that most people do not really understand when they are in a toxic environment. Often they have drunk deeply from the Kool-aid and refuse to see their organization as toxic. Therefore, you must get the answers by means of non-threatening questions and listen closely for what may be underlying their responses.
Do you have additional ideas born from experience? Please share them with us.
1 Kusy, Mitchell. Toxic Workplace!: Managing Toxic Personalities and Their Systems of Power (Kindle Locations 378-380). Wiley. Kindle Edition.
2 Ibid. (Kindle Locations 421-423).
3 Ibid. (Kindle Locations 471-472).