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If you’re out of work and scanning the ever slimmer pickings in the classifieds week after week or reloading the job sites a dozen times a day, it’s tempting to take the first reasonable offer that comes your way. But unless you’re reduced to searching under the couch cushions for rent money, this is generally a bad idea. Much as you might want to rejoin the ranks of the gainfully employed, you’d do well to carefully evaluate any offer you receive: Something might be rotten in the state of Denmark.

Keep your eyes open for these seven warning signs. If you find any of them, think hard before you accept that offer.

The employer says company policy doesn’t include written offers of employment
Most large companies won’t try something like this, but a small startup might. By accepting a verbal offer, you leave yourself absolutely no recourse down the line. If the employer reneges on a promise, you can’t prove it. Is the salary review set for six months? Be prepared to hear, “Are you sure we promised you a raise? I can’t remember saying that, and there’s just nothing in the budget right now.” If the employer is reluctant to put anything in writing, he’s essentially saying he doesn’t want to create a paper trail.

You don’t believe in the company’s mission
Or you clash with the corporate culture. Or you disagree with the way management does things.

You don’t have to be truly passionate about semiconductors to work for a chipmaker. But if, for example, you’re vehemently against smoking, then creating proprietary software for Big Tobacco is probably not your cup of tea. Don’t set yourself up for misery. Your quality of life will be greatly improved if you work for a company you believe in. Passion creates excellence, and excellence creates a thriving career.

It’s okay if you have absolutely nothing in common with most of your coworkers. You don’t have to be just like everyone else, but if you don’t respect their beliefs—or if you actually resent them—you’ll have problems. If you’re car-free by choice at an automotive plant in Detroit, you may have trouble relating to your peers. If you actively participate in protests against your company and its competitors, you may have trouble, period.

What’s important is how you feel about the way management runs the company. Forget about individual management styles: One bad boss doesn’t necessarily negate a whole company. What’s important is whether you completely disagree with the company’s philosophy—where it’s going, and how quickly it’s getting there. Maybe you’re after aggressive growth, and the company is committed to maintaining the status quo. Or maybe you’re essentially conservative, and the company is banking on the world’s going wireless in the next few months. Unless your new title is Vice President of Making Big Changes, you’re not going to have much of an effect on established policies. And if you really hate the way things are being run, it’ll show. Look for a company that’s more in tune with your own way of doing things.

Turnover at this particular position is high
Ask the interviewer why the position is available. If the answer starts with something like “Well, we can’t seem to keep anyone in this particular position,” you’ll know something’s up. Unfortunately, the employer probably won’t be quite that direct, so you’ll have to listen carefully and read between the lines. Is this job a stepping-stone to something better? Are people quickly promoted? That’s good, but make sure this job isn’t really just a dead end—a position people abandon once they realize there’s no chance to move up.

The interviewer has unrealistic expectations about your abilities
This could be the very reason turnover is high in the position. If you’re being hired to handle a project that’s been a financial drain on the company for the past decade, be very clear about what you can—and can’t—do. Do you honestly expect your revisions and direction to turn a sinkhole into a profit center in just three months? Well, gosh, then I’d like to hire you.

It’s flattering when people expect greatness from you, but temper others’ enthusiasm with a healthy dose of reality.

The company’s long-term goals don’t mesh with your own
Is the company in a thriving industry, or is it on the way down? Here’s a hint: Web design firms are probably not the wave of the future. You’ll have to do some market research and study the company carefully in order to reach an educated conclusion about its potential. And remember: A really high stock price doesn’t necessarily mean everything’s rosy. WorldCom? Global Crossing? Yeah, suspicion and paranoia can be a drag, but you should make an effort to know something about the company’s financials.

While you’re checking out the company’s future, you should clearly identify your own long-term goals as well. Looking to start your own business? Sure, a telecommuting job as a coding drone will leave you plenty of time to pursue side projects, but the full life-cycle project management position half an hour away will give you much more of the hands-on experience you’ll need to fulfill your goals. Determine what you’re hoping to get from the position, and see how much of that you’re being offered.

The salary offered has nothing to do with reality
It happens. You did everything right—researched the market, came up with your range, presented it to the employer, and sat back in your chair. And when the offer came in, it was for thousands less than you anticipated. Be polite and succinct, but tell the interviewer precisely why there’s no way you can accept her offer. “When I presented you with the range I’m looking for, I based that number on several weeks of research on salary reports. I checked Web sites, read annual salary reports published in industry publications, and reviewed the ranges offered for similar positions in the area. No one indicates that I should take less than $70,000 a year. You’re offering $50,000. Unless you’re prepared to revise your offer significantly, I’m afraid I’ll have to decline.”

The company may be truly clueless. You might provide them with a wake-up call, and their next offer could surprise you. Or they might say, “Well, this is all we’re prepared to offer.” Thank them for their time, and leave. You’ll find another company that’s prepared to pay you what you’re worth. And when you stick to your guns, you show that you truly believe in your own worth.

On the flip side, don’t let an especially high offer convince you to take a job you really don’t want. All the reasons you had for not wanting the job are still there, and the money won’t keep you happy for long. Unless the money is so good that you could retire after a year, keep looking.

The job is a step back—or it keeps you marching in place
With every new job you take, your goal is to gain additional responsibilities. You put in your time as a junior programmer, and then you move into a more senior position and oversee a younger version of yourself. Ideally, you’ll eventually make the jump to project management and move on from there.

Sometimes a position is more about hands-on coding (or troubleshooting, or whatever) and less about managing workers and resources. Do you take it?

Be careful. You may find yourself stuck in a rut you’ll never leave. If you’re certain you’ll be able to take on additional responsibilities in the near future, then go with it. But if you sense that you’ll be working in a vacuum, responsible for only a small part of the big picture, think twice before you accept.

Yes, your mother will be proud if you get a new job. But she’ll have so much more to brag about if you get the right job—the one that catapults you to stellar reviews, heaping piles of cash, and international fame. Of course, remember to stick a couple of coins under those couch cushions. Just in case.