I have a job interview coming up. I met the CTO at a networking event. The work seemed interesting and seemed to matter, so I figured, "Why not?".

However, on researching the company on Glass Door, about half of the reviews refer to 80 hour work weeks, high turnover rates, and a general "sweat shop" approach to the software development process. The other reviews are glowing, but feel kind of fake. I want to be wary of sites such as Glass Door and go into the interview with an open mind, but I also don't want to get suckered into a sanity draining environment.

So the question is: How can I find out if a company is a sweat shop in an interview?


4 Answers 4


I work in a sweatshop now and I regret having not asked the right questions to gauge how much of a "sweatshop" the workplace would be like. Glad that you asked this question. Interviewing is a tricky process on both ends because people often "lie" through their teeth or pep talk themselves up a little bit to sell themselves. This is natural. It takes a skilled interviewer (on either side) to see through the lines.

I would dissect a few things:

  1. When interviewing - maybe initially a phone/skype interview - How interested is the person in conducting the interview? Does he sound enthusiastic in getting to know you? Does he sound interested in finding the right hire? Or does he sound impatient, or obligated to have conduct an interview? I've interviewed both types - usually the disengaged interviewers were those who just needed to find a hire (usually to fill in gaps from employee turnovers)

  2. When going on-site, what's the general "culture" feel like? Do people seem engaged, collaborative, happy? Do conversations look like they're constructive and productive? Or do people look like they're tucked away in their cubes, and nobody talks to anybody, and it generally feels "cold"?

  3. Observe closely how employees behave when they're not "working" - coffee room chats, team lunches, etc.

  4. Ask about what the work hours look like in general, can people work from home, how do they handle overtime, and do you need to be on-call during off-hours like holiday times? This is a tricky one because I don't know anybody who would really want to do this happily - try asking this question in an indirect way in order to get a more honest, realistic answer

  5. Ask about the general practices they apply in their software development. What is the end-to-end lifecycle: from requirements gathering all the way to product delivery. And understand who your customers are. This will give you some insight into how stressful it may be.

  6. Ask directly to people who might not have anything to lose if they were honest. Perhaps former employees, people from different teams at the same company, friends who may know friends.

I can go on and on, and I feel like I will revisit this answer and edit it, add more, and clean up a few things., but overall general advice: If most employee reviews on glassdoor (or whatever site), have negative reviews - don't take it lightly. I repeat DON'T TAKE IT LIGHTLY. Most yelp reviews who have a lot of negative reviews are spot on. People don't go out of their way to write a negative review unless they were serious about it.

  • 2
    If they are very eager in hiring you without asking you much then it could indicate high turn over and they're eager in filling the position with just anyone they can.
    – Dan
    Commented Jun 23, 2016 at 19:18
  • 6
    "do people look like they're tucked away in their cubes, and nobody talks to anybody, and it generally feels "cold"?" -- in fairness, you'd get that impression walking into my office, but it's actually a really laid-back, supportive, happy environment. It's just that everybody happens to have aspergers. Commented Jun 23, 2016 at 20:37
  • If you think about taking the job but you are suspicious about the over time, you can ask them to specifically add a clause in the contract to get paid for overtime. Because if everybody works 80 hours a week, it's pretty likely this overtime clause is really vague in the current contract.
    – dyesdyes
    Commented Jun 23, 2016 at 23:05

The truth is a company is never going to say "Yes, we are a sweat shop", so the best you can do is ask questions that hit on the symptoms of sweat shops. For example, ask how they manage on-call work, you could also ask how releases are done, and how often they release on schedule. I also like to ask about their work from home policies because I believe a company should trust its employees with their time, however this doesn't necessarily equate to a sweat shop if there is no WFH.

One more thing you can do is see if you can get in touch with someone you already have a connection with at the company, or a friend of a friend. This will give you a way better picture from a more trusted source. You could also look around during your interview and see, do the employees look exhausted, sad, and miserable or are they happy, cheerful, and seem to be enjoying their day/work?

  • 2
    Unless someone has a contact inside the company you can never trully know the answer. As you have said people will never portray a company in bad light and will be economical with the truth or tell you what they think you want to hear.
    – Stormy
    Commented Jun 23, 2016 at 17:39

Insist on meeting your team before signing a contract. This is key to ensuring good cultural fit for everything from typical working hours to tools and practices to office environment. They are likely to be honest with you if you ask something like "How many weeks per year are you putting in 50+ hours?". Even if they can't give you a number they can give you a feel ("A couple weeks before each release" or "Workweeks come shorter than 50 hours?!?!").

  • You should ask the question anyway, but "A couple weeks before each release" needs to be followed up with "and how often do you have a release?"
    – PeterL
    Commented Jun 23, 2016 at 22:09
  • @PeterL Every couple of weeks obviously :)
    – Myles
    Commented Jun 23, 2016 at 22:14

A decent question to ask here is "What is a typical day like for a developer?"

You could ask what a typical week is like, or what a typical day is like for the software team. Just something to get them talking about what an actual day consists of for someone in your potential position. How you actually gauge if it would be a "sweat shop position" I can't be entirely sure. But if it sounds like they're rehearsing lines when you ask that question, or seem reluctant to answer, that might indicate they don't want to be entirely forthcoming with those details.

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