Tips for spotting a bad boss in an interview

Bad boss

Here’s some advice for spotting a potentially bad boss during the interview process.

With all the work that goes into applying for jobs and preparing for interviews, it can be easy to forget that convincing the employer you're right for the job is only half of the purpose of a job interview. Equally important is getting a feel for whether the job is right for you.

With that in mind, one of the most important things you should be looking for in interviews is whether your potential manager is a bad boss. Here's some advice for spotting a potentially bad boss during the interview process.

Know how you work
The term “bad boss" doesn't necessarily mean the same thing for everyone. A manager can be perfectly competent yet still be a bad match for you. “It really depends on what you are looking for from a boss," says Katie Donovan, founder of Equal Pay Negotiations, LLC. “Ask questions about their management style. For example, does he [or] she prefer to give you the overall goal of the project and let you figure out how to get there or does he [or] she like to give detailed project outlines for you to follow? Depending on your perspective, one is a terrible boss and the other is the best thing."

Asking questions about management style may be somewhat uncomfortable, but it's just good preparation. It's better to realize your styles are incompatible during the interview than after you've been hired. “An indication of a really bad boss for everyone is someone who gets annoyed that you are asking these things," Donovan adds.

Personality goes a long way
A lot can be said for having a boss you can relate to on a personal level as well as a professional one. It may seem unimportant, but having similar personalities and values can create better team chemistry. “See if you can make small talk," suggests Cheryl Rich Heisler, president of Lawternatives. “Do you really want to be reporting in to a boss who can only talk about work 24/7? A well-rounded boss often values that same skill in her direct reports."

Conversation isn't the only way to gather useful information. Take a page from Sherlock Holmes by putting your powers of observation and deduction to work. “Get an actual visual on the boss's working environment," Heisler says. “Is she a neat-freak? A slob? A chain smoker or a caffeine addict? Are there breakfast and lunch remains still scattered around the desk by dinner time? Little signs can speak volumes about the work culture you may be entering."

Behind the scenes
Your interviewer's interactions with co-workers can be a clear indicator that he may be a bad boss. “Pay close attention to the interpersonal dynamics between your potential boss and other employees in the organization," says Cheryl Palmer, owner of Call to Career. “This is relatively easy to do if you have a panel interview where potential colleagues of yours are interviewing you along with the potential boss." A boss who steamrolls others' ideas may be difficult to work with on a regular basis.

It's also worthwhile to watch how they behave in less formal situations. “Observe interactions that are casual, such as how the potential boss treats others who are just walking down the hallway," Palmer says. “The interviewer may put his or her best foot forward in the interview, but it is probable that the person will slip up when talking to others in the organization."

Your attention, please
Employers often pass on candidates who don't seem enthusiastic enough during the interview. Hold employers to the same standard. “You can tell a lot by the way he or she treats you in the interview," says Karin Hurt, CEO of Let's Grow Leaders. “Is the leader giving you undivided attention, or are they distracted, and allowing interruptions?"

There are several ways you can tell the interviewer lacks enthusiasm. "Look for: 1) a lack of interest, which can be demonstrated by asking poor questions, 2) limited preparation for the interview, or 3) poor listening," suggests Angelo Kinicki, professor of management at the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University. “Another warning sign is a person who cannot explain the company and department vision, or who does not speak passionately about the company."

When you get to the interview, take the time to consider what kind of work environment the position would offer you, keep an eye out for red flags, and don't be afraid to turn down a job offer if it's not a good fit.