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Why free snacks at work are a red flag

Updated: 3 days ago

You see these job postings all the time now... meditation caves, nap pods, foosball tables, free beer, and... free snacks in the breakroom. While these perks sound amazing and cool, they're often red flags about the culture of the organization.

Now, I tend to lean on the optimistic side and as much as I would love to believe that employers genuinely want their employees to be happy, there's a trade-off in what this means for the company.

You may be expected to work more.

When a company is providing you with free food, entertainment, and yes, even booze, many times they expect you to stay there longer. Which means working more. Goodbye work-life balance. I worked at an entertainment advertising agency in Hollywood that regularly bought us lunches and dinners, plus had a well-stocked kitchen. I know because I had to do all the ordering and shopping. And I regularly worked there 16 hour days. As a receptionist. Coming home at midnight only to wake up at 6am to have a messenger arrive at my house to pick up movie poster comps was the norm... and expected.

The culture may suck.

Another company I worked for regularly focused their job postings on all the freebies you got by working there. There was a "think tank," free snacks, and a foosball table that were promoted high up in the ad. And you know what? It was hell on earth there. The owner knew that this sort of messaging worked to attract young job-seekers who had little experience and would be willing to be paid significantly less to do jobs below pay scale. His bread and butter was junior employees who didn't know how business worked so he could take advantage of their ignorance. They took salaried jobs when they should have been hourly workers (based upon CA employment laws), so he could make them work long hours and not pay them overtime. He told them this was "how it was" in their industry, which simply wasn't true. Turnover was exceptionally high at this company... but he was able to keep getting young people in the door with his ads.

The slackers stand out.

At many companies where these perks are offered, you're working very long hours. And if you're one of those super busy responsible people, you usually don't have time to even take part in the fun activities offered. But, you'll probably notice that the same crew of people is there for every event, and they're generally the people who don't pull their weight. At one company I worked for, we had free beer and trivia on Fridays. I was always the one stuck at my desk ensuring things got done while the same group of lackluster employees was there slinging back beer and chatting for two hours. Now, if these were people who worked hard and made my job easier, I'd have been all about it. But no. These were usually the people I had to follow up with constantly to ensure their work was done and was done correctly. After a few midday beers, do you think they were ready to come back and push code for me, design collateral, or finalize the media plan that was on deadline? Hardly.

The pounds pack on.

Sure, many companies offer healthy options in their kitchens. But if you're stressed out and need to snag a snack because you're starving, are you really going to choose the raisins? No way. Not when those chocolate chip cookies and cheese crackers are calling to you. This one is all about self-control, which often goes out the door when you're overly hungry and time is short.

Yes, there are some companies where this culture and its trade-off works for people. Like Google. You know that if you work at Google, that's going to be your life for the duration of your tenure. But if you go into that arrangement clear on what you're getting and what you're giving up, it's great. Free meals, haircuts, and dry cleaning are all things you'd need to do with your free time anyway, so if you can knock those things out while you're working, it's pretty hard to pass up. They also allow a lot of flexibility in their culture, which is the true benefit of working there. But remember... Google also has a ton of money. That's a different experience than a small-to-midsize organization who offers similar perks.

I'm not saying that all companies who offer free snacks are bad. What I'm saying is that when you see that promoted in their job postings, you should take note and interview extra carefully. Ask if you can talk to employees who work there (not just hiring managers or those you would report to directly). Watch for vague responses or banal platitudes ("it's great" or "everyone is nice") when you ask them about working there and work-life balance. Body language is also super important here. See what they're not telling you with their words. Ask "Would you recommend working here to one of your friends?" If they start the sentence with "It depends what you're looking for..." listen for what comes next. This is usually when they tell you what's under the veneer.

Ultimately it's up to you to decide what is important and what you're looking for. So here's my final tip... when you see mentions of the freebies and non-financial perks, take a quick look at Glassdoor. See what people are saying there. If you see lots of negative feedback, be sure to address this with the hiring manager or HR. Gauge their reaction. If they're dismissive of the comments, that's another red flag. Full time employees spend at least 1/3 of their day working, so ensure it's an environment that's worth it for you.

Blog - Why free snacks at work are a red flag by Christine Day

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