How To Make Sure Your Next Boss Isn't Terrible

These job interview questions can expose who is a selfish, disengaged or clueless boss.
If you are a job candidate, you should feel empowered to ask questions about your future boss.
If you are a job candidate, you should feel empowered to ask questions about your future boss.

A job interview is meant to determine the best match for a role, and the questions go both ways. While hiring managers ask candidates about their skills and career history, candidates should use the time to suss out if a potential new boss is going to make their life a nightmare.

After all, many of us don’t leave specific jobs; we leave terrible bosses of a type we would like not to encounter again. A Gallup survey of over 7,000 U.S. adults found that one in two said they quit their job to specifically get away from their manager.

But bad boss behavior can be subjective, so it takes a little effort to find out what you’re getting. “Some people like a manager to hover, they like the support, they like that person with them every step of the way, whereas other people can feel like it’s smothering,” said Ashley Watkins, a job search coach and former corporate recruiter. “You can’t just ask the question, ‘Are you a bad boss?’ You ask based on the experience you are trying to avoid.”

Still, you should wait to ask deeper management style questions until you are in the final stages of an interview process, and know you want the job. “You want to make sure the position is a fit first,” Watkins said.

Try these strategies for asking about a potential future boss’ management style:

If You Want To Avoid A Disengaged Boss

Too many of us have bosses who are physically present but psychologically absent from their duties. A 2010 study found that the most common type of incompetent leadership employees experience is the laissez-faire leader who may “seldom involve themselves with their subordinates, even when this is necessary.” If you want to know how available your new boss is going to be for you, ask how often they check-in, Watkins said.

“How much input will you have on my projects?” and “What kind of structure do you use to evaluate people’s work and give feedback?” are questions Watkins said that candidates can ask to figure out if and how bosses judge performance.

If you are worried about having a totally hands-off boss, Randy Conley, a vice president of client services and a trust practice leader for The Ken Blanchard Cos., said candidates should ask questions including “How often they like to meet with team members (regular one-on-one’s? team meetings?), how involved in goal setting are they, how they share information with the team, etc.”

If You Want To Avoid A Boss Who Doesn’t Communicate Constructively

Before you agree to a new working relationship, ask about the manager’s communication preferences and see if they align with your values. In the job interview, Watkins suggested asking, “How often do people get feedback from you?” so that you can “gauge how often you are going to communicate.”

Then ask your potential boss how they prefer to give feedback so you can hear what values they prioritize. “If I was the candidate, then I’d be looking for things like, is the feedback specific? Timely? Focused on the work and not the person? Is it directed toward helping the person learn and grow, or is it punitive or focused on what was done wrong?” Conley said.

If You Want To Avoid A Boss Who Treats People Poorly

Bosses are not the only people to question in a hiring process. If you want to get the real answers on how a manager leads, talk with someone who has worked directly with them.

Watkins suggested asking, “Could I speak to someone who has worked with you?” If you get the chance to talk with an employee, then you can directly ask, “What is it like to work for this person?” she said.

Keep in mind that current employees may not be totally candid, because they may not want to jeopardize their job, but “you can read between the lines, you can pay attention to body language,” Watkins said. “If that person immediately freezes up, they look like a deer in headlights, then you know those are things for caution.”

You can also use research tools like LinkedIn and Facebook to reach out to someone who used to work for that person, Watkins said. Be upfront and specific about your request with a message like, “I’m currently interviewing for x, y, z position. I see you held this role two roles ago. Would you be willing to talk to me for 15 minutes? I have a couple questions that will help me make my decision,” Watkins said.

If You Want To Avoid A Clueless, Inexperienced Manager

If you have done your research and notice that your potential new boss has recently jumped into a management role, you can ask about their career journey to subtly inquire about their experience with managing people.

Watkins said candidates could frame this as, “I would love to at some point transition or grow into a leadership opportunity, can you give me some information or some insight into your path to leadership?” That way, it’s less accusatory, and “more them educating you,” she said.

Once you get going with this conversation, Watkins said you can ask, “Is this the typical size of the team you have managed or have you done larger?” and take mental notes.

If You Want To Avoid A Narcissistic Boss

To find out if your potential boss is a narcissist, asking them a general question like “What led to your team’s success?” can be revealing, said Marie-Line Germain, an associate professor of human resources and leadership at Western Carolina University and author of “Narcissism at Work: Personality Disorders of Corporate Leaders.”

Germain said narcissistic bosses are all about “me, my success, my organization, my people,” with an inability to recognize the need to give other people credit. Their thinking goes, “If they succeeded, it’s because of me,” she said.

If the boss answers that they are solely responsible for their team’s success and can’t stop talking about their achievements, that’s a red flag, Germain said. “If that person says, ‘I tend to be a good leader, I have a very good track record,’ what’s important here is they are turning the conversation around on themselves, rather than the success of a team.”

Watch out for what bosses can’t say as much as what they do say.

Job candidates should pay attention to the delivery of these answers as much as the information within them.

Listen to what they don’t say. Evasive answers are red flags. “A good leader should be able to talk about any [management style] topics, whether uncomfortable or not, at length,” Watkins said.

Listen to whom they don’t thank. Conley cited micromanaging, taking credit for other people’s success, talking negatively about others or the organization, and keeping themselves at the center of the conversation rather than the job candidate as causes for concern in these answers.

Listen to their tone. Germain said that narcissistic bosses don’t take challenges to their management style well: “Any angry response or irritation in the voice can be an indication that they don’t like to be challenged, and one should be very wary of that.”