How to Spot a Bad Boss

Empty office (FEMA News Photo)
Image: FEMA News Photo

This article by Jim Carman originally appeared on the Military Association of America (MOAA) website.

A random encounter with a former shipmate caused us to reminisce about the challenges of working for a particularly demanding boss a number of years ago.  It was a vivid reminder that good places to work are run by people who respect employees, listen intensely, set a vision, and then empower people to make it happen.

If you haven't been in the job hunt for many years, remember that every discussion during the interview process is an opportunity to explore issues of workplace style, personality and cultural compatibility – three qualities that when mismatched, often lead to job failure.

Warning signs of a problematic boss are easy to spot and include someone who is easily distracted or multi-tasking during the interview.  Other cautionary behaviors include poor eye contact, providing terse or shallow answers to your questions, dominating the conversation, excessive emphasis on himself and his achievements, and negative comments about other people in the organization.  Although initial appearances can be deceiving, an interviewer who comes out from behind his desk to greet a candidate; makes a special effort to introduce you to others in the organization; strives to have a balanced conversation and eliminates all distractions during the interview is demonstrating excellent people skills.

However, is it reasonable to ask if there are any virtues in nastiness?  Exhibit one in this debate is the late Steve Jobs, the creative genius known for his tirades and tantrums while leading Apple Inc. 

Dr. Robert Sutton, a professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University has researched Jobs’ workplace idiosyncrasies and noted that he was “among the most imaginative, decisive, and persuasive people” in American business.  “He inspired astounding effort and creativity from his people.  Although his tantrums and nasty critiques have driven many away – they were a crucial part of his success, especially his pursuit of perfection and relentless desire to make beautiful things.” 

With a steadily growing economy and unemployment at record lows, this may be a good time to consider new opportunities.  As you make connections and search for your next professional role, it may be useful to recall the qualities of past bosses that have inspired your best work.  Other relevant questions include: How would you describe your least-liked boss?  What impact did this have on your overall performance?  And, what did you do to manage this problematic relationship?

As you move through follow-on interviews and begin the negotiation process, investigate additional clues to the workplace environment by probing for details of corporate responses to past emergencies and crises – such as the 9/11 attacks or the 2008 Great Recession.  Many companies shed staff with metronomical consistency at the first sign of earnings pressure.  By contrast, more thoughtful employers may have avoided layoffs by trimming at the margins -- for example, reducing or eliminating 401(k) matching -- in order to maintain the loyalty of their core employees.

Further, look for personal mementos and family photos on display in work areas, which are an excellent indication of a commitment to work – life balance.  Finally, ask thoughtful questions during your interviews to probe management style and cultural compatibility, such as: Tell me about a time when an employee really disappointed you; describe your proudest accomplishment as a manager; or if you could change anything about the workplace, what would it be?

Recognize that tensions often run high between companies’ drive for increased productivity and workers’ desire for some boundaries between work and personal time.  All of this due diligence is essential to identify situations where you can do some of your best work and achieve the greatest long-term rewards.  For more career building ideas, check-out www.moaa.org/careerevents.

This article, "Spotting a Bad Boss," originally appeared on the Military Association of America (MOAA) website. MOAA is the nation's largest and most influential association of military officers.  

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