How To Spot A Bad Boss — Before You Take The Job

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If you've ever worked for a bad boss, you know how miserable they can make your daily life at work – and how hard they can make it to progress in your career. And if you're like most people, you've probably vowed to avoid awful managers in the future.

But do you really know how to spot a terrible boss while you're interviewing? Bad bosses don't usually wear scarlet B's to identify themselves – but they do give away important clues if you know what to pay attention to. Here are eight ways to learn more about the person you'd be working for.

1. Pay attention to the energy in the office. What are others you interact with during the hiring process like, and what signs are you picking up on as you move through the office space? Do people seem cheerful and focused? Or do people seem unhappy, stressed, or fearful (signs of a tyrant manager) or negative or disengaged (signs of an ineffective manager)?

2. How does the interviewer treat you? Your interviewer doesn't need to buddy up to you (and in fact shouldn't), but she should treat you kindly and respectfully. If an interviewer is rude or hostile, denigrates your qualifications, or is dismissive of your answers, believe what you're seeing. There's no reason to think that this interviewer will turn into a kind manager once you're on the job – you're likely to continue receiving this kind of treatment.

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3. Can your interviewer clearly describe what success in the position will look like? Beware of a manager who can't tell you what you'll be expected to achieve in your first year on the job or how your success will be measured. That's the sign of a manager who hasn't thought through what she really needs – and of a manager who's more likely to surprise you with different expectations than what you thought you were signing up for.

4. Does your interviewer ask thoughtful questions that relate to your ability to do the job well? Interviewers who ramble on and one without rigorously probing into your ability to do the job, or who ask questions that have no bearing on your skills (like "If you were a tree, what kind would you be?") are managers who don't know how to build an effective team – and it's likely to cause problems once you're on the job.

5. Why is the position open, and what happened to the person who used to fill it? If the person who used to be in the job left after less than a year – and especially if the person before her did too – find out why. Is the workload unmanageable? Are the expectations unrealistic? Is the manager hard to get along with? Hearing about the experience of people in the job previously won't always be conclusive, but it can give you some insight into what the position might be like.

6. How does your interviewer talk about how she manages? When it's your turn to ask questions, probe into what kind of management style she uses. Good questions to ask include:

  • "What type of person works best with you, and what type of person doesn't do as well?"
  • "What do you think staff members would say if asked to describe your management style?"
  • "How do people you manage know what they're doing well and where they can improve?"
  • "What kind of training and professional development do people in this role receive?"

You're not listening for one "right" answer, but rather using these questions as openings to get more insight into what she values and how she operates.

7. Talk to others who have worked with the manager. You're probably used to having your own references checked, but are you checking references for the person you're considering working for? LinkedIn is an easy way to see who in your network might have contacts who have worked with the manager in the past. Or, once you reach the final stages of the hiring process or receive an offer, ask if you can talk with some the manager's current employees. A good manager won't mind this, as long as you're a finalist and you ask politely – and if she balks, that's a danger sign.

8. Think rigorously about what you want from a manager right now. Different people want different things from a boss at different times in their lives. Sometimes, especially earlier in your career, you might want a boss who acts as a mentor and coach. Later on, you might prefer a manager who's more hands-off or who can navigate office politics skillfully. By giving some thought to what you do and don't want in a boss, you'll be better able to spot it when you find it – and notice when you don't.

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