how to avoid working for a bad boss

When you’re interviewing with your potential manager, you should be assessing her just as much as she’s assessing you. But 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 be treating 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 lot from how she talks about her approach to management and her team member. 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.

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 41 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    Regarding #2, the biggest thing I’ve learned is to take what they say at face value. In my case(s), if someone tells you that the company operates like “a dysfunctional family” followed by lighthearted laughter, you should still focus on the words, NOT the laughter! Same with things like, “we work hard and long to play hard and long! Haha!”

    Those sorts of ‘jokes’ are more often than not indicators of the actual culture and environment.

    1. Eva*

      Yes! I was present when my boss told a candidate that she worked well with people who had the ability to laugh at themselves. She had given a great spiel about the (small) company and her eyes twinkled when she said it, but the truth is she expects her employees to handle her laughing at them. She cracks jokes all the time about people’s shortcomings, effectively humiliating them without them being able to defend themselves because her calling attention to their flaws is supposedly all in good fun.

      1. Jessa*

        I’d love to recommend Suzette Haden Elgin’s “the Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense” series. She gives great tips on how to call out people like your boss at work.

    2. Anonymous*

      So true! I worked for a company that often joked that they “put the ‘fun’ in dysfunctional.” Trust me, it wasn’t fun.

    3. Cat*

      I may be unfair, but I always look at “We work hard and play hard!” as a bad sign even without the joking ending you mention.

      1. EnnVeeEl*

        It is, Cat. It means they are going to work you to death for little pay, few benefits and old equipment, yet offer you “perks” like leaving early on Fridays (which you will never be able to do), or ordering some cheap pizza for lunch occassionally. Naw, PAY ME!

  2. ProcReg*

    I’ve had two red flags I ignored, because I was fresh out of school with a degree in Economics in 2007. I just needed something:

    1. “I have the Bobby Knight management style.”

    After my MBA in 2011:

    2. The CFO trashed another candidate for not wearing a tie and not updating his resume, while the Controller spoke…deliberately, like he wasn’t telling half truths, and couldn’t stay focused. Both desks were a mess.

    I can’t afford another bad boss on my resume!

      1. EnnVeeEl*

        +1 on Bad Bosses having adverse affects on your career. I am monitoring to see someone post about how people need to suck things up, you need a job, a paycheck, just let it roll off your back. But bad bosses give people poor performance reviews, making it hard for them to get promotions and raises, they do things intentionally or out of stupidity to make it hard to produce good work product and sometimes Bad Bosses demote or fire people. It can be hard to bounce back from these things. Most people can’t let the crap roll off their back. Most people can’t do good work when someone is sabotaging them. Trying to avoid these situations up front is a good idea. Not every job out there is worth having.

        1. Rob Aught*

          Unfortunately, from a career management standpoint, you can’t always just walk away. That’s why the interview process is so important.

          I do agree that people shouldn’t just be miserable or accept their horrible boss. You may not be able to quit tomorrow, but I’d keep an eye on the exit. One of the reasons horrible bosses exist is because people put up with it.

          1. EnnVeeEl*

            I whole-heartedly agree, and would never advocate someone just leaving a Bad Boss without having another job in place. These jerks aren’t worth starving over!

            1. Jamie*

              I did it once – never again. Something about waiting until I jumped off the diving board to wonder if there was water in the pool to scare the crap out of me. Never, ever again.

          2. Anonymous*

            I agree. I also believe that is why you can never say “that is my dream job.”

        2. AnonToday*

          Amen and I agree. Some of the comments I’ve read on AAM indicate that some people have never really dealt with a Bad Boss….or multiple Bad Bosses. While that’s fantastic thing, all it takes us once and you’ll at least be able to sympathize with the rest of us.

          It changes the way you look at your career path….after dealing with bosses who were just brutal, it makes you wonder if there’s something wrong with you. Maybe there are things that need to ve fixed, but sometimes the boss is just power-hungry. But like I said, there are people who have never dealt with this; they are the ones who have this Pollyanna view on the working world…..and really, almost a smugness.

          I really hope it never happens to them. Sorry for the rambling….hope there’s a nugget in there somewhere!

          1. Rob Aught*

            I won’t ever claim I was thankful for bad bosses, but I have based quite a bit of my managerial style on bad bosses. Mostly I try to avoid doing the same things that angered or frustrated me.

            It’s been my experience that you’re more likely to have a bad boss than a good one. That’s why when the choice is yours, you should make the most of it. However, whenever I find out I am about to get a new boss I usually brace myself. I try to give the new boss a fair shot, but I’m usually not optimistic either.

            However, learning from bad bosses has been a valuable career experience for me. I wouldn’t ever ask to work for any of those people again, but I have made a point of learning everything I can from them.

            1. annie*

              I think that’s a good point, and I am the same – I try to manage people the opposite way that I’ve been managed by Bad Bosses.

              The thing is, sometimes it takes a while, especially if you are an entry level person or even just new to the company, to figure out that you have a Bad Boss. Obviously if you work with a mean or terrible person, that’s obvious, but there are lots of people who are friendly and kind and fun to work with who are just not great managers. So you may think you have a great boss because they are easygoing and nice to be around, only to later realize that he or she doesn’t handle situations directly, avoids conflict, is underpaying you, doesn’t hold people to standards, etc. For me that’s a bigger challenge because where someone is obviously a terrible person and bad boss, it is easier to know that behavior is out of the norm and not acceptable, but when someone is a good person but a bad manager, it is harder to know how to deal with those situations.

              1. Marie*

                Yes, so much THIS! I had a boss (for quite a few years) who many people thought was the nicest guy ever, and he often was. BUT…his managerial skills were horrendous, for all of the reasons you describe: “doesn’t handle situations directly, avoids conflict, is underpaying you, doesn’t hold people to standards, etc.” I didn’t see it for such a long time and many of my co-workers were great, so it was tolerable. Eventually, though, things completely unraveled, and I FINALLY realized that he wasn’t managing. He thought he was, but he wasn’t. So happy to be at a new workplace that’s run smoothly!

            2. Ruffingit*

              I absolutely agree that you are more likely to have a bad boss than a good one. It’s sad, but true. In over 20 years of working, I’ve had so many bad bosses that I really did begin to think it was me. But then I realized that there simply aren’t that many good bosses out there – people who truly know how to manage both business processes AND people. Seems to be a rare thing.

        3. EM*

          Yes! My last boss was awful. I was still fairly new in my career, but it wasn’t my first “real” job, thank goodness. My self-esteem really took a hit, and I was grateful that I knew it wasn’t me, it was that he was a poor manager and a jerk. It was still very hard not to feel incompetent when you’re berated over one error in a very large Excel document (which was caught during the internal QC process, which is what doing internal QC is for!!).

  3. Lucy*

    Would you be wary of a potential boss who is 10 minutes late to his interview with you and does not apologize or acknowledge it?

      1. ProcReg*

        I had an interviewer be 45 minutes late to an interview (I think they double booked him). He was an ass throughout the interview. No offer, because he could tell I didn’t appreciate him.

        1. Natalie*

          Ugh, I had a similar situation – waited about an hour passed the scheduled time, and then sat through the most convoluted, useless job interview I have ever been in (only about 15 minutes of the hour was about the job or my qualifications/fit/interest in it). And the cherry on that garbage Sundae was that I never got a rejection call.

          Should have listened to my instincts and walked once I had been left waiting for so long.

  4. B*

    Completely agree with the previous poster that I can no longer afford bad bosses. But at the same time sometimes you have take the best of the worst when you are in a no-win situation. And then hope against hope something good will eventually come your way.

  5. Tina*

    One of the most obvious red flags I’ve ever seen in an interview:

    Right out of college, I interviewed for a legal assistant at a law firm. The lawyer spent much of the time swearing (not at me, but in the conversation) and insulting women – how his female clients inherited businesses from their husbands in divorce or death and had no idea what they were doing, among other things. I may not be the most feminine person in the world, but I’m pretty clearly female. I don’t know if this was his way of making sure no women would be willing to take the job or what, since the departing assistant was actually a female.

    That’s obviously an extreme case. Alison’s tips are all right on the money. It’s really important to talk to current employees to get a sense for the management style and office culture, and be observant of the manager’s own behavior.

  6. Lora*

    I’ve had two jobs now where I interviewed with someone who was a Good Boss or at least a Half Decent Boss., and shortly after I started he was replaced with a Bad Boss. This also happened to me in grad school! I interviewed and clicked really well with a particular professor who was very smart and well established in her subfield, which I wanted to get into with a fiery passion. When I finally moved to the area and started setting up my rotations and advisor paperwork, I was informed that my slot in her lab had been filled by someone who was her second choice, but he had been able to work for free all summer–so she’d like me to do my PhD under her (completely unknown, barely published, no prior lab management experience) protege.

    In exit interviews when I ask, what the heck, why did I get stuck with this person–and it’s always someone with hardly any experience or barely-qualified–the answer usually is that they felt someone who works more independently would be able to help the new manager learn the ropes gradually rather than inundating them with both the management side of things and the day to day work as well.

  7. Andie*

    Wish I had a magic mirror ball for these situations. I totally thought my current boss was going to be great based on my interviews with her. She said everything I wanted to hear and I thought it was going to be great working with her. Turns out she is the complete opposite of everything she said in the interview. She is the worst boss I have ever had! Total insecure micromanager! I knew the first 30 days that I had made a mistake but luckily the higher-ups are not bad so coming to work is bareable but I am counting the days until I can find another position to get away from her. The only reason I am still here is because I dont want to jump out of the skillet into the frying pan so I have to make sure the next job is the right job!

  8. cncx*

    the biggest red flag my ignorant idiotic self refused to see was when I schlepped 3 hours for an interview on a work day- having been in contact via email and telephone- only to arrive at their office to be told the CFO didn’t have time to interview me that day and that I needed to come back tomorrow at the same time. So I schlepped 3 hours home and 3 hours back the next day. She knew and HR knew that my travel to the interview indeed involved a 6 hour round trip. They had no effs to give. Why they gave me the job and why I took it, I will never know.

    But that CFO? WORST BOSS EVAR. I left that job so fast. Crazy town. Should have been smarter in the interview process. Won’t be fooled again.

  9. Carrie in Scotland*

    Alas, if you are already stuck with a bad boss (internal re-structuring) what can you do? My boss is a micro-manager and doesn’t even say hello or ask us for handovers before we.go on annual leave…

  10. Elizabeth West*

    I wish I had read this before I took that job with the horrible coworker. The boss wasn’t any great shakes either; I should have known on the first day when she sat there and told me all the shortcomings of the previous person to hold the job.

    I don’t know if it was that or the constant stress of never knowing whether I’d be doing my job that day, or the receptionist’s job (since half the week, she didn’t bother to come in even though I was only supposed to sub for her one day a week), and the sales stuff they didn’t tell me about. But I didn’t do well there, and wasn’t happy (even leaving out Coworker from Hell). My leaving was a mutual decision. I’m sure I was the subject of the next diatribe when/if they hired someone else.

  11. glennis*

    Wow, interesting topic. I went from a Bad Boss who was a dishonest, lying saboteur to another Boss who was kind, ethical, but unfortunately turned out to be a micro-managing, risk-averse incompetent Bad Boss.

    What’s worse, is that the culture of my organization changed when CEO level management changed. Second Bad Boss became an overnight pariah for her inability to adapt, and her own new boss treated her badly and marginalized both her and our department.

    Even today, I still appreciate Second Bad Boss’s kindness and honesty. But working for her really damaged my career prospects within the larger organization, due to her mismanagement.

    It’s a difficult lesson to learn – how to discern what’s truly bad and in the complete context. To look at her, you’d think she was great – She had been there for 20 years, and new possibilities were on the horizon. What I didn’t know what that upper management were freezing her out from those new possibilities.

  12. jesicka309*

    I don’t know if this is a red flag or just how hiring works:
    I interviewed for a position six months ago (in person). I thought it went great – they even rang my references! They never called me back to say yes or no. I grudgingly move on.
    Now six months later they’ve rung to ‘touch base’ and set up a time to meet, though they don’t have any jobs going, but have potential changes coming down the line.
    In my head, I’d written that company off for never calling me back, especially after calling my references! I don’t know whether I should use this as a ‘red flag’ when considering whether to work for them, or if its just how hiring works sometimes. The hiring manager is the head of the department, so there would be layers of management I’d report to first…thoughts AAM experts?

    1. 22dncr*

      Go on the interview and ask! Ask the Hiring Manager why there was a lag. What they tell you will be very useful info. I’ve done the same thing and gotten useful insights into the workings of the company or the Hiring Manager’s style. I’ve even asked why the job had been advertised so often and gotten VERY interesting feedback. You just have to do it in a respectful way.

  13. Anonymous*

    Ugh. I so agree with all of these points. Every one.

    Yes, I would like to avoid any undue crappy job experiences on my resume but sometimes when the money is gone you just have to do the best you can with what you have. It can take time to work your way into a good situation with enough experience, time, etc.

    I have had some great jobs and also some that where really struggles, with difficult bosses. The common theme of them all is needing to support myself and pay my bills. Sometimes we have the luxury of looking around and taking our time, and other times we just have to make the best of what is offered. I don’t like it anymore than anyone else, but there it is.

    I have learned alot from ‘bad’ bosses, that’s for sure. And I do my best to kind and respectful as a result.

  14. Sissa*

    Sometimes you see the hints about an organization coming from a mile away. Like that rude (!) receptionist who, when inquiring about your interviewer, sighs and rolls her eyes (!!), telling you that you’re in the wrong building and vaguely gestures somewhere around the corner.

    Many times after that I’ve wished I would have walked out then.

    Since then I’ve had one incompetent & could-not-care-less boss, an awful screamer boss who gave me a horrible review, then half a year with no direct boss, and now a boss who doesn’t have a spine to stop the flow of overwork from coming through. You could say I haven’t had good bosses in more than two years….

    It’s funny how we don’t sometimes listen to the subtle warning signs.

  15. Anonymous*

    lol! I like the rude receptionist. I had an interview recently where I walked in wearing my old but very nice expensive blue suit and a pretty scarf. I clearly looked like an interview applicant since it was summer and about 100 degrees here in the SW. I came in with a maintenance man who was very friendly and we had been chatting aimiably.

    The receptionist looked at me, ignored me completely! and the proceeded to talk to the maintenance man about some minor issues she was having and she did this for about 4-5 minutes. Those were very long minutes, let me tell you. She would look over at me but she never acknowledged or spoke to me. Finally, the very nice maintenance man looked at me and said quietly: she still hasn’t acknowledged you? and I just smiled and shook my head.

    After another moment, she finally acknowledged me and said by way of apology: I’m sorry, I thought you were with him.

    Since there several people interviewing for this teaching position that morning I thought it was a pretty lame comment, but I just smiled and didn’t say anything.

    Yes she was a jerk, big time but I figured that was her issue. The rest of the staff were very friendly, but it made me wonder how she was able to get away with behavior like that and what did it tell about the environment in general.

  16. Anonymous*

    I gravitated to this particular topic because I am now officially unemployed after experiencing 3-consecutive BB’s. Reading the comments here has helped me to embrace the possibility that it’s NOT me and has nothing to do with LUCK (or lack thereof) . If I underwent one more ‘reorg’ or era of ‘realizing synergies’ or even departmental ‘cost-savings analysis’, I was going to go mad! I just read the article 3x to make sure the critical advice sinks in so that if I’m lucky enough to even get another interview in this life time, I’ll make sure I don’t pick yet another unworthy manager to work for. Fingers crossed!

Comments are closed.