how to screen out micromanagers in a job interview

A reader writes:

I am part of the interview team in finding a replacement for our ex-manager. And our department would really like this person to not be another micromanager.

Any ideas for questions I could ask? Or any red flags in the interviewee’s answers/demeanor to watch out for?

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 72 comments… read them below }

  1. Forgot My Last Username*

    Some managers micromanage certain aspects of the job while being AWOL WRT other important aspects. So in the interview it might also be useful to know what specific pieces they are managing when they answer the questions that Allison poses.

    1. Oof*

      My first professional job had a manager who was a total micromanager for end results but totally AWOL for planning / production, so I often found out they expected me to do something when I was asked why I hadn’t sent it yet – without ever being told I needed to start it! Or, I’d work on something without even seeing the manager for months and then get absolutely bombed with last minute edits. It was really stressful and demoralizing at a point in my career where I would have benefited from guidance!

    2. Lacey*

      Yeah, I think that’s a really common micromanager trait. They’re impossible to get ahold of until they get a bee in their bonnet over something and then they’re going to sit in your lap guiding your hands themselves.

    3. Junior Assistant Peon*

      I had one of those – a largely absentee boss who wanted nothing done without his approval. Countless important things didn’t get done because the requests for approval would die in his email inbox. I wouldn’t have minded a hands-off boss if I had the freedom to do things.

      1. TardyTardis*

        Roger that. There were some parts of my accounting job that I really wanted guidance as to how the manager wanted to do it, instead ‘well, just use GAAP’. Hello, every supervisor I’ve had had a different idea on how they wanted GAAP presented. But, no, just the criticism when I did it wrong, with more ‘use GAAP already!’ as the advice on how to correct things. (there were reasons this manager went through five accountants in six or seven years).

  2. Escaped a Work Cult*

    I enjoyed the response here and focusing on the real life examples to show that off! I also liked how Alison mentioned that sole focus on these questions can create another bad hire. I’m not a micromanager by choice (Boss asks me to get frequent updates from the team and unfortunately I have to deliver), so that last bit of advice relieved some stress!

    1. PT*

      I think I said something like that in an interview once, that I am not a micromanager but I understand that different employees have different levels of supervisory need and ability to work autonomously and they need to be met where they are.

      1. Escaped a Work Cult*

        That’s incredible and I will be using that script the next interview. Thank you!

  3. Keymaster of Gozer*

    Very useful advice and thank you! I definitely work a lot better if I’m left to my own judgement and don’t have someone or something hovering over me (I recently vetoed installing work monitoring software on all staff computers)

    1. Copyright Economist*

      I am disturbed that such software was ever developed, let alone proposed to be used by an organization.

      1. Keymaster of Gozer*

        Upon Covid hitting us it became so very very popular ‘because we need to see what our staff are doing when working from home!’.

        One of the great benefits from running the IT department is being able to veto stuff that’ll a) kill bandwidth and b) store vast amounts of useless crap on the servers.

        1. Charlotte Lucas*

          And are a waste of time & money. Does management sit around watching you work at your desk in the office?

    2. CW*

      Work monitoring software? Wow, last time I read you are an adult, not a child in elementary school using the computer for schoolwork. This is just as bad as the boss sitting 3 feet behind you and watching your every move (and violating COVID distancing rules in the process).

      1. Keymaster of Gozer*

        One of the managers of another department is convinced that if she doesn’t walk around and actually SEE her staff working then they’re just goofing off. She was actually shocked that I said I’ve got no interest in watching my staff work – if the job gets done what does it matter that at 2pm they read a non work website for 5 minutes?

        (Also told her that her department could pay the extra storage and bandwidth costs. Cash upfront)

    3. MusicWithRocksIn*

      When someone is standing at my shoulder looking at my screen my ability to type plummets, I stop being able to spell anything at all and it’s like a toddler smashing a keyboard. Strangely, I’m fine when I’m presenting at a meeting and my computer screen is projected onto a larger screen – it only happens with someone standing directly behind me – my brain just short-circuits.

      1. Keymaster of Gozer*

        Had a boss who did that, it’s why all text on my screen is super tiny. I knew he couldn’t read it even if he leaned in.

      2. RebelwithMouseyHair*

        This is why I always have my back to a wall, looking out over the room. I always have to be placed where I can see all doors and windows so I know nobody is spying on me.
        My work is often confidential, which is a useful excuse to hide behind.
        At one point I had my back to a large window (the office used to be a shop, we were literally in the shop window) and my boss suddenly said “what are you working on Rebel?” I was translating a catalogue for some very sexy lingerie, meaning that whether I was actually working on the text or doing terminological research, there were pictures of gorgeous, scantily-clad women draped all over my screen. And there was a guy drooling right behind me – yuk!
        At least this convinced the boss that we needed some opaque film over the window panes.

    4. NotAnotherManager!*

      I worked on a case once where the employer (who was nuts and kind of paranoid to start with) had used one of the monitoring programs on their staff, and one of my teammates had to watch hours of the former employee’s work to find the snippets where they had stolen company documents and uploaded client lists to their personal email account. It was an eyeopener on a number of levels.

    1. N/A*

      It is a thing – in my corner of academia they call it a 360 check. For my current management gig I had to give 3 references: one from my manager, one from someone I managed and one from a peer (either in the org or from other outside initiatives I was involved with).

      1. Junior Assistant Peon*

        Since when does academia give a shit if Professor Bigshot is an abusive psycho toward grad students, department staff, etc?

        1. N/A*

          I work in the library and not in the USA… It is definitely not standard operating practice across the sector but it is becoming more common. The place I’m working at now has been doing it for close to a decade at least.

        2. Adele*

          Not all of academia is academics and professors. There are a lot of support staff, lab staff, etc that get evaluated the same way employees at companies do.

          But in my experience, 360 checks are done for internal evaluations and wouldn’t be seen by someone interviewing me for a job, at least not an external one.

          1. Junior Assistant Peon*

            As a former grad student, I’ve seen a lot of stuff that would never fly in an office workplace with a real HR department. Is the support/administrative side of things more like a standard office workplace?

            1. Something Something Whomp Whomp*

              Without getting into too many generalizations, the further one gets away from directly supporting the professoriate (or a student services role), yeah, support/admin jobs often function like their equivalents outside academia. Once you get into functional areas like HR, IT, advancement, or institutional research, whatever weirdness you’ll find is often similar to what can go wrong in any large and somewhat decentralized organization.

              Higher education institutions have HR departments, but the way they typically interact with the professoriate is different from their involvement with other types of employees due to tenure/academic freedom considerations. A lot of things that non-academic staff managers could seldom get away with are looked at differently when it’s a professor calling the shots, sadly.

              1. Junior Assistant Peon*

                That makes sense. I knew my university had an HR department, but I figured they were essentially payroll processors with a 1950s-level understanding of sexual harassment.

    2. Dashed*

      Not so coincidentally, the worst manager hire I eve experienced was preceded by an attempt to get references from staff he managed. We all felt as though his interview was
      “too good to be true” and that he was feeding us the answers we wanted. So we tried to get references from his staff and got shot down. Unfortunately, when he was hired, it turned out our gut instincts were correct. His interview persona and answers were 180 degrees different from his day to day behavior and management.

    3. RebelwithMouseyHair*

      Yeah. At one point a project manager who used to send me work was fired. Learning about the fallout from HR, I made some casual remark that I had noticed the same problems with that person (being very dismissive about important details). HR opened her eyes very wide and said it had never occurred to her to that we could have an opinion about the people sending us work. Not that she ever came back to ask us, but that would have been amazing in that she mostly forgot we ever existed.

    1. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

      I think when you are the one applying for the job, you ask some of those same questions.
      1. What is your process for assigning work and making sure people are set up for success?
      2. How do you interact with your team, and at what points? (daily/weekly check-ins or only when things go off track)
      3. What kind of employee does/doesn’t work well with you?
      This doesn’t guarantee that you will entirely avoid a micromanager, especially if one is hired/promoted while you are an employee.

      1. Lacey*

        Those are good questions. The only problem is that people will flat out lie about it.

        My micromanaging grand boss said she liked to let people work independently.
        And that would be true – if it were possible for us to read her mind.

        We ended up with a cycle of no information (Use your best judgement!) followed by her micromanaging every detail of the project – until she decided she was too involved and would literally force us to guess which of the options we gave her was the one she wanted to move forward with.

        If we guessed wrong she would question whether we really knew our jobs if we thought that was the right option, if we guessed correctly she wondered why even needed to bother her.

  4. Panda*

    What about questions for someone who is not yet a manager, but is being interviewed for a management role?

    1. Bernice Clifton*

      You could ask how they’ve handled it when they need something from a colleague to complete a project.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Get them talking about how they’ve dealt with conflict, advocated for themselves and others, managed their own work, managed projects that others were working on, had hard conversations…

    3. Cat Tree*

      Ideally, the candidate would have some experience that it’s tangential to management before they have official direct reports. At my company, someone who is in that transitional phase might be given responsibility for an intern, but the actual manager would still have oversight over both of them. Or someone might be the lead for a project where they provide technical work but also track and organize technical work from others on the team. Or they might take the lead on training a new employee. Or become a mentor either formally or informally. Of course these things aren’t identical to being a manager, but still relevant. So I would ask questions about those types of experiences.

      Unfortunately, some people don’t ever get opportunities like those. If you have a candidate who has nothing to demonstrate managerial skills, you can still consider them but micromanging wouldn’t be my biggest concern there. And as Alison said, you would need to be prepared to really give them a lot of guidance and feedback so you could teach them how to avoid micromanaging as part of that.

  5. Didi*

    I like to ask some pointed questions, such as “How do decisions get made? What’s the process and timeline for decisions? Who owns the work product?”

  6. Cedrus Libani*

    From the employee side, I have learned to ask the peer-level people I’m interviewing with about the hiring manager’s management style. That sounds super simple and obvious, but I’ve dodged at least one bullet that way, and I don’t think the interviewers would have told me otherwise. (In that case, I asked three people; one explicitly refused to answer, the next deflected and then changed the subject, and the third let the silence linger well into awkwardness before venturing a quiet “difficult”.)

    From the perspective of hiring a manager…if this person has managed before, perhaps you could ask for a reference from one of their previous reports?

    1. Des*

      > the third let the silence linger well into awkwardness before venturing a quiet “difficult”

      Hah. What it must be like working there!

  7. Anon for this*

    I can’t sign up for the site without giving it a lot more information about myself than I am comfortable with (why does a website with news articles and no need to interact with me in real life want my home address? And my phone number!)

    Micromanagers often don’t know they’re micromanagers. My current manager, when interviewed, said he lets his team do their own thing as long as they get their work done, and his response to us being completely overwhelmed and drowning in work due to Covid with no manpower increases has been to start micromanaging us, which just causes more delays.

  8. Genesis*

    I think it’s difficult to screen out micromanagers without feedback from their past direct reports. All of the micromanaging bosses I’ve reported to are either in denial that they’re micromanagers, or consider their nit-picking a positive trait. If that’s not possible, I’d want to see an example of an email or other documentation in which the candidate discusses a performance issue with a direct report. It’s in these behind-the-scenes moments that I think micromanagers expose themselves.

    E.g. While interviewing for old job, I asked my would-be manager what her managing style was. She claimed to be “hands-off.” False. There were at least three people who left the company because of her very hands-on behavior. She hid it well though. She was bubbly in-person, but would send me nasty emails in private for things like being one minute late to a call because I was wrapping up another call coordinating a major event for a client.

    HER manager would say she cares deeply about the quality of her work. But her former direct reports, like myself, would call her an anxiety-ridden bully.

  9. UrbanGardener*

    We unfortunately have a micromanager who is also a narcissist as our boss! Everyone who meets her in our company thinks she’s weird or rude or some combination of the above, but she thinks they are all very impressed by her. We were able to get info on her from past places she worked when we first noticed her issues and they all confirmed she did the same thing there as she does with us, but until she does something egregiously wrong no one at the top will do anything about her.

  10. CW*

    I don’t think it is easy to spot micromanagers during the interview process. I had one boss who was nice, but he would have a tendency to do certain things that would be considered at least semi-micromanaging. It wasn’t bad enough to scare any employees off though. The other micromanager boss I had was a narcissistic bully that would berate me, act like a spoiled 5-year-old with tantrums when I didn’t do things exactly to a T, and accuse me of lying after twisting my words. The worse part was she would talk down to me like a child in elementary school. And she never said sorry. Ever.

    Neither one of any signs during the interview processes raised any red flags of a micromanager. That is sad because many managers who micromanage are good at hiding it during the interview process, only to make you feel tricked after getting hired.

  11. Team Lead*

    I am a team lead where I don’t have hire/fire ability but I do have day to day responsibilities for assigning work to junior co-workers and overall oversight of the product. I’m not a micro-manager with my junior co-workers, I usually make sure they know what their assignments are, make sure they have the information they need to complete the task and then leave them to their work, making sure they know to come to me if they have any issues or if they need assistance.

    But I have one junior co-worker who…I kind of have to micromanage. He has been working here for a while (though I have been here for longer) and has been given a lot of feedback on what he needs to improve/what he needs to work on and yet I still seem to see him making the same mistakes, or the same TYPE of mistakes over and over. He doesn’t seem to understand how to apply feedback in a broader context–he will apply feedback on this particular thing right in front of him right now but not think how that feedback can apply to the job as a whole. When I give him direct specific feedback on a task he will sometimes act like he completely understands what he needs to fix and then either doesn’t fix it or fixes it wrong, or does item 1 and 2 on the list of feedback but doesn’t do number 3. I have to babysit his work constantly. It’s exhausting. I don’t want to do it.

    (Yes I’ve given all this information to my boss is who is the one who has hire/fire power and he keeps saying he is working with junior co-worker but …overall I have seen very little improvement over a period of YEARS. I think my boss is not willing to have the hard conversations/make the hard decisions.)

    1. Cat Tree*

      Yeah, that employee doesn’t need to be micromanaged; he needs to be fired. I realize you’re not in a position to do that though. Can you foist more of the burden onto your boss? If he doesn’t really have to deal with it because you’re handling it day-to-day and only complaining occasionally, he has no incentive to fix it. If you’ll get in trouble for the mistakes of others that you have no actual authority to fix, that system is unworkable and would make me start job searching (in fact, such a scenario has been the reason for half my job searches in the past).

      I had an coworker like yours though, who just didn’t apply feedback in a broad context, and when I gave him feedback he would give an excuse like he was a naughty child being scolded, rather than actually fixing it. He never did figure out that “I forgot” isn’t a get out of jail free card, and that as an adult it his responsibility to find a way to remember things (especially things that other coworkers had no problem remembering). So I understand how exhausting that is. My situation wasn’t exactly like yours though so his boss was more involved from the start. But his boss got paid a lot more money than me to deal with this guy’s problems so it was easy for me to set boundaries around how much I was actually willing to deal with. It doesn’t sound like that an option for you, but I would recommend bringing it to your boss much more frequently. If you feel weird about doing that, keep reminding yourself that he literally gets paid to deal with this and he’s not doing what he’s paid to do. Make it harder for him to ignore the problem than to just fix it.

    2. H*

      My first employee as a new manager was that type. Everything you say ring spot-on true for what I experienced. Thankfully I had argued with my manager that if I was to lead and handle the daily work and be responsible for managing him I needed the formal authority to do so, which meant that even though my title was team lead I had the hire/fire power. Once his performance went so bad that he delivered about 1/3 of what our newly hired employees did, it took more time from me to correct him and manage him than doing his work, he actively started causing conflicts with the other team mates and he still thought he should get a promotion he was put on a formal improvement plan. That led to him stopping to show up for work at all and yes, he was let go.

      I was so concerned with being a micromanager back then because I saw no other way to manage. And there really wasn’t. Maybe I should have put him on a performance plan earlier, maybe I should have reacted to the warning signs earlier, I don’t know. What I do know now is that my concern with micromanaging was not really well-founded, but it is very difficult to say before I had the option to manage employees that does not have a large amount of performance issues.

    3. RebelwithMouseyHair*

      Such a person needs to be micromanaged into good work. He’s been micromanaged, but hasn’t achieved good work. Time to fire him. You have my sympathy.
      Maybe you need to provide the boss with a list of all the things he’s got wrong in the past week or month, along with all the explanations and chances to improve he’s had up to now, shown alongside a similar document for an average employee who over the same course of time might forget one minor detail and arrive five minutes late because the busses aren’t very reliable in her neighbourhood.

  12. Leela*

    One thing I’d add (not sure if someone else commented this already, on a break and no time to read through) is, does your company support managers in not being micromanagers? What’s the training of your managers like? Do they have the ability to properly put people on PIPs/let them go if needed? Reward and promote them if needed? Are they themselves being given clear delegation, clear objectives, clear explanations of divisions of roles, rights and responsibilities?

    I think a lot of times people look only at the management style of managers they bring in, and not the system of training, building up, and retaining quality managers through concrete company efforts, and that definitely hinders a lot of managers’ abilities to become good ones, and if you don’t have a strong system like that in place, even if you get a “good” manager, they won’t be able to flourish like they could otherwise!

    1. irene adler*

      Very astute and brilliant!
      A company provides training to their employees when they come on-board. Seems logical to provide training to managers when they come on-board.

  13. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

    I think it’s important to realize too that humans are reactive to their environments and not always predictable. A manager who wasn’t a micromanager could become one in a bad work environment, or if things happen in their personal life; a micromanager could get their anxiety, control or anger issues under control, or learn better management skills in a more supportive environment. In a way, trying too hard to suss out if a potential hire is XYZ is a little like being a micromanager — the anxiety of not knowing, and feeling like the decision is somehow unchangeable leads to things like dubious personality assessments and invasive, prolonged hiring practices. Employers should do their due diligence when hiring, but more importantly, act swiftly to intervene when a behavior starts to emerge.

    1. RebelwithMouseyHair*

      yes, I had a micromanager. I told him point blank that I was perfectly capable of writing “Dear X please find attached the translation of Y. Please note, I put a comment in page 2 to highlight an inconsistency with the previous document. I remain available should you have any questions. Best regard Rebel” without his input. He then proceeded to offload more work onto me and left me to it… provided I put a printout of every single email in the dossier for him to review when billing. He did actually call me into his office to rake me over the coals for simply typing in my phone number when a client emailed to ask me for it. I should have started with “Hello Client, please see below my telephone number best regards Rebel”, even though I had already greeted him in a previous email that day, that I had also printed out, and the client had been very pleasant when he called me.

  14. Sara without an H*

    Be careful. If your search is based on getting somebody who isn’t like the last incumbent, you run the risk of missing serious problems with your new candidate. We once replaced a micromanager with someone who was so hands-off he created a vacuum.

    You need to have a clear idea of what qualifications a good manager for this position needs to have, rather than, “Anybody who’s not like the last one.”

  15. Velvet*

    I have been fortunate to hire numerous people in recent years (a wave of retirements, not me driving them out, promise!) and candidates often ask me what is my management style. I still don’t know how to handle that broad query. I usually fumble around talking about what I think makes me an effective manager, but would love a better approach.

    1. NotAnotherManager!*

      I describe what I see my job as being and what I hope they will take on themselves. Essentially, I work in a fast-paced environment where my job is to provide training/guidance, help prioritize (and, if needed, renegotiate) deadlines, help them solve problems/serve as a gut check for unusual requests, and remove obstacles from them doing their job. The have to be able to ask questions when they need help, work independently once trained, work productively with their team, and letting a supervisor know when they’re feeling the water starting to rise too high or they don’t have enough to do. (I literally do not have time to micromanage my entire team, but I always have time to help them figure things out or deal with uncooperative people/departments/etc.)

  16. NotAnotherManager!*

    The most productive interview I ever had involved the hiring manager looking at my resume and saying, “I see you are consulting directly with farmers on llama shearing projects and writing your own project plans. You wouldn’t be doing that here. You would be drafting an initial plan based on my consulting notes and then send them to me to finalize and implement. Can you do that?” And the answer is, sure, but why would I want to take that step backward? Told me that I absolutely did not want that job. I politely told her that consulting was the part of the job I enjoyed the most and was actually looking to do more of, so that it didn’t sound like I was a good fit for the role. We both got an hour of our day back.

  17. Des*

    >”What kind of person do you have trouble managing?”
    > “What kind of person doesn’t work well with you?”

    Now I’m really curious how a good manager could answer this question. Because to me it seems like a “what are your weaknesses?” question (“I am too driven and work too hard.”)

    1. Bird bird*

      This was my thought when I read it. I can’t figure out what a good answer would be, as surely a good manager should be able to manage a diverse team.

      ‘I don’t work well with racists’ maybe?

    2. The Other Dawn*

      I admit I don’t know how I’d answer that diplomatically, when the true answer is: people whose emotions I need to closely manage and people who want to be micromanaged. I’ve managed both and it’s exhausting.

      1. lazuli*

        That sounds like, “I appreciate employees who can keep the big picture in mind and are resilient enough to understand that a few minor bumps in the road are a normal part of any project, not necessarily major crises, and can generally handle small issues on their own or at least generate ideas on how to deal with them. While I absolutely want employees to come to me when they’re stuck or when large issues arise, including a pattern of smaller things that indicate the need for a larger change in workflow or structure, I struggle a bit when I am called in for very minor things or repeatedly for the sames types of issues that I would consider an expected ‘bump in the road.'” Maybe?

  18. MommyMD*

    The absolute WORST managers are “the screamers”. The ones who are easily offended and defensive. They all are micromanagers.

    In any interview I would ask “have you ever raised your voice to a colleague or subordinate?”

    The yellers are toxic to the workplace.

    1. RebelwithMouseyHair*

      I dunno, there was a manager at my former workplace who screamed regularly (at a client who was disparaging his employee’s work, at a former employee who came back to air grievances, at his teenage son on the phone…) but was so hands off he couldn’t even help out when one of his staff had to go back to her home country on bereavement leave, meaning that the company almost ground to a halt while she was away.

      1. RebelwithMouseyHair*

        And another manager at the same place, had no idea what the minions were doing, and screeched at me when I asked how much I was supposed to expect of my (hopeless) intern. He had no idea what the answer was in fact.

  19. Maisie*

    I’ve found if they are able to CLEARLY articulate their answers to your questions about goals, roles and responsibilities and not give vague answers they are less likely to be a micromanager.

  20. Reformed HR*

    If a candidate had previous management experience, the only real way to tell if they are a micromanager is to get brutally honest feedback from people the candidate has managed in previous roles.

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