For many, receiving a promotion or job offer is a positive career milestone—so why do some experts suggest there are scenarios in which you should consider declining? The phenomenon they refer to is the "glass cliff," which Harvard Business Review describes as "the informal barrier that keeps women out of upper management." According to researchers, women are more likely to be offered leadership positions when a company is in crisis, thereby setting them up for failure.
"I've definitely seen the glass cliff phenomenon at play in many arenas, from corporate to philanthropy to government," says Romy Newman, president and co-founder of Fairygodboss. "I'm sorry to say that I think companies appoint women at these times because that's when the roles are less coveted by men. That said, I do think women thrive in turnaround roles thanks to their strengths in communication, collaboration, encouragement, and empathy."
Marjorie Mauldin, author of Feedback Revolution, agrees, arguing that women are often considered for these roles because of their perceived skillset. "Most projects fall apart because of people issues, not technical issues. Women are then tapped because it's perceived that they are able to deal with these shortfalls," she explains.
So how do you know if you're being set up to fail? These are the crucial questions career experts ask before accepting a job.
Ask About Company Culture
It can be difficult to gauge company culture in an interview, but Mauldin says it's a crucial factor to determine if a "glass cliff" scenario could unfold. "It's important to understand the politics. Who are the champions of culture and the important projects? What happens in the organization when projects fail? Are adequate resources provided or is there a lot of wishful thinking?" she asks.
Newman recommends checking the staff turnover rate to find out if there's a toxic culture. If you have an opportunity to speak to other employees at the company, she recommends asking questions such as, "Do you/the department feel supported by leadership? Have you been given opportunities for advancement? What programs does the company have in place to support work/life balance or community?"
Assess the Management Team
A company's management team can provide a few hints about the team and culture. Newman says one indicator should act as a red flag: "I always recommend taking a peek at the 'management team' web page on the company website. If you see a wall of white men, you'll get a pretty strong and immediate sense for the company's values," she points out.
Career networking sites like LinkedIn make it easier than ever to contact employees or managers to ask questions outside a formal interview, too. "The digital world is full of information, and it's easy to play detective. Find the person on LinkedIn and reach out. Or find someone in a similar role on Fairygodboss and message them directly (and anonymously!) through our platform," she says.
Understand Goals and Resources
Another key metric to gauge if your new role is set up for success is understanding the manager's expectations and resources available to achieve them. Mauldin recommends asking, "Who set the goals for the position or project? How familiar were they with the obstacles? Is feedback accepted and encouraged?"
Likewise, Newman says it's best to be direct during the interview process so you know exactly what's expected of you. A few sample questions include, "What are the main strategic goals of this role? What resources will be available to me to achieve them?" She also recommends asking for a timeline to reach each milestone so you can gauge whether goals are realistic.
So what happens if you believe you're heading toward the glass cliff? Newman says you shouldn't necessarily decline a challenging role. "I believe if you're offered a promotion and it fits within your personal goals and lifestyle, then you should go for it," she says. "Some of the best achievements of my career have been turnarounds, and they go a long way to raise your profile and open up opportunities down the line."
Once you've assessed the potential challenges, focus on the next step: equipping yourself with the skills and resources to succeed. "Rather than decline, I'd create the path to success," says Mauldin. "If there's no budget, get one—meet with the executive sponsor. Create a feedback cycle for everyone involved. Continuous communication with timely feedback will facilitate a highly accountable culture," she says. The bottom line? Use the interview process as an opportunity to ask as many questions as possible.
Only then can you get a true feel for the organization and potential role so you can make a decision that's right for you.