A boss can literally, make or break your career. Here are five ways to spot the bad ones before they become yours.
A great boss can make you feel engaged and empowered at work, will keep you out of unnecessary office politics, and can identify and grow your strengths. But a bad boss can make the most impressive job on paper (and salary) quickly unbearable. Not only will a bad boss make you dislike at least 80% of your week, your relationships might suffer, too. A recent study conducted at Baylor University found that stress and tension caused by an abusive boss “affects the marital relationship and subsequently, the employee’s entire family.” Supervisor abuse isn’t always as blatant as a screaming temper tantrum; it can include taking personal anger out on you for no reason, dismissing your ideas in a meeting, or simply, being rude and critical of your work, while offering no constructive ways to improve it. Whatever the exhibition of bad boss behavior, your work and personal life will suffer. Merideth Ferguson, PH.D., co-author of the study and assistant professor of management and entrepreneurship at Baylor explains that “it may be that as supervisor abuse heightens tension in the relationship, the employee is less motivated or able to engage in positive interactions with the partner and other family members.”
There are many ways to try and combat the effects of a bad boss, including confronting him or her directly to work towards a productive solution, suggesting that you report to another supervisor, or soliciting the help of human resources. But none of those tactics guarantee improvement, and quite often, they’ll lead to more stress. The best solution is to spot a bad boss—before they become yours! Here are five ways to tell whether your interviewer is a future bad boss.
1. Pronoun usage. Performance consultant John Brubaker says that the top verbal tell a boss gives is in pronoun choice and the context it is used. If your interviewer uses the term “you” in communicating negative information ( such as, “you will deal with a lot of ambiguity”), don’t expect the boss to be a mentor. If the boss chooses the word “I” to describe the department’s success—that’s a red flag. If the interviewer says “we” in regards to a particular challenge the team or company faced, it may indicate that he or she deflects responsibility and places blame.
2. Concern with your hobbies. There is a fine line between genuine relationship building, and fishing for information, so use your discretion on this one. If you have an overall good impression of the potential boss it may be that he or she is truly interested in the fact that you are heavily involved in charity work, and is simply getting to know you. On the other hand, the interviewer may be trying to determine whether you have too many commitments outside of work. The interviewer can’t legally ask if you are married, or have kids, so digging into your personal life can be a clever way to understand just how available you are.
3. They’re distracted. The era of email, BlackBerrys and smartphones have made it “okay” for people to develop disrespectful communication habits in the name of work. Particularly in a frenzied workplace, reading email while a person is speaking, multi-tasking on conference calls and checking the message behind that blinking BlackBerry mid-conversation has become the norm of business communications. But, regardless of his or her role in the company, the interviewer should be striving to make a good impression—which includes shutting down tech tools to give you undivided attention. If your interviewer is glancing at emails while you’re speaking, taking phone calls, or late to the interview, don’t expect a boss who will make time for you.
4. They can’t give you a straight answer. Caren Goldberg, Ph.D. is an HR professor at the Kogod School of Business at American University. She says a key “tell” is vague answers to your questions. Listen for pauses, awkwardness, or overly-generic responses when you inquire what happened to the person who held the position you are interviewing for, and/or what has created the need to hire. (For example, if you are told the person was a “bad fit,” it may indicate that the workplace doesn’t spend much time on employee-development, and blames them when things don’t work out).
You should also question turnover rates, how long people stay in given roles, and what their career path has been. All of these answers can indicate not only if the boss is one people want to work for, but whether pay is competitive, and employees are given a career growth plan.
5. They’ve got a record. Ask the potential boss how long he or she has been at the company, in the role, and where he or she worked before coming to it to get a feel for his or management style, and whether it’s what you respond to. For example, bosses making a switch from a large corporation to a small company may lead with formality. On the other hand, entrepreneurs tend to be passionately involved in business, which can be a help or a hindrance, depending on your workstyle.
Goldberg also recommends searching the site eBossWatch, where you read reviews that former employees have given to a boss. If you’re serious about the position, she also suggests reaching to the former employee whose spot you are interviewing for, and asking for their take on the workplace. (LinkedIn makes this task easy to do). The former employee’s recount may not necessarily reflect your potential experience, but it can help you to determine whether his or her description of the job and company “jibes” with what the potential boss said.