How to Avoid Working for a Bad Boss

Does your potential new manager pass the sniff test?

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Alison Green
When you're interviewing with your potential manager, keep in mind that you should assess her just as much as she assesses you. Too often, people don't pay attention to the danger signs that could have warned them during the hiring process that they'd be signing up to work for a nightmare of a manager.

Here are five steps that will help you spot bad bosses – before you're working for them.

1. Think carefully about what you want from a manager. This may be different at some points in your career than others. Early on, you might want a more hands-on manager who will help guide and train you – both in the work itself and in learning your field more broadly. Later on, you might want a more hands-off manager, or one who can mentor you on professional politics or one who can help you stretch yourself in new ways. Sometimes you might want a boss who won't care if you just do your job and go home, or you might want a boss who's as passionate about your field as you are. Some people care about getting recognition and praise; others are more motivated by a good salary and a nice office, or flex time. The key is to know what you want, what you can tolerate and what's a deal-breaker for you at this particular point in your career.

2. Think about danger signs that you ignored previously. If you've had bad bosses in the past, think back to whether there were signs in the interview process that you ignored. Are there patterns that you can recognize and watch out for now, to avoid the same mistakes?

3. Pay attention during the interview. As the old saying goes, "When people show you who they are, believe them." You'll learn a lot about your potential manager in the interview. For instance:

  • How does she treat you during the interview? Is she respectful of your time, polite and interested in you, or is she distracted, unpleasant and disengaged?
  • Does she answer your questions directly or give vague responses?
  • How honest is she about the job's downsides? A boss who can't imagine there's anything not to love about a job or a workplace is a boss who's wildly out of touch.
  • How does she treat other employees? If you see your interviewer interacting with others during your time there, pay close attention. You might learn a lot about how she'll treat you if you take the job.
  • 4. Ask questions about her management style. No bad manager is going to announce "I'm horrible to work for," but you can glean a lot from how she talks about her approach to management and her team members. 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?"
    • 5. Check the manager's "references." As a candidate, you're probably used to your references being checked, but are you checking your potential manager's? Given how much impact your manager will have on your quality of life at work, it would be negligent not to ask around in your field about her reputation. LinkedIn is a great tool for seeing who in your network might have contacts who have worked with her in the past, as well. If this doesn't produce any leads, at the final stages of the process (or when you get 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 frame it as wanting to flesh out your understanding of the culture and the work (as opposed to checking up on her) – and if she balks, consider that a red flag.

      Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results, and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.