How to Spot a Nightmare Employer on Interview

nightmare boss

There’s nothing like working for a great manager – someone who understands you, sees your potential and inspires you to achieve it. And of course the opposite is also true, and many of us know only too well the Sunday evening horror before a Monday morning working for a boss or an employer that you hate.

Of course not all awful bosses work in bad companies, but often the two go together; there can be a ‘trickledown’ effect in business cultures where bad behaviour at the top is replicated throughout the organisation by ladder-climbing wannabes.

A bad boss can turn a position that looked incredibly desirable and impressive on paper and during an interview, into an unbearable nightmare, that will have knock-on effects on your happiness, your career and your relationships.

Manager bullying or abuse isn’t always as obvious as shouting insults; it can also mean unjustifiable blame or criticism, rubbishing your ideas or marginalising you from key areas.

In a supportive company, there are ways to manage this situation, but few of them are ideal. The best way is preventative – how can you proactively avoid working for a bad manager in the first place? Here are a few clues that you may be about to walk into their trap.

1. The interviewer is late and doesn’t apologise or explain

Being late in itself is not a problem – it happens to all of us. But the way an interviewer deals with it – particularly if they are going to be your line manager – is important. If they don’t care about making you wait, and they don’t care about your potential negative perception that might stem from that, it’s likely that they won’t particularly value you and your time if you accept the position. 

2. Listen for the pronouns.  There is plenty of research that suggests our pronoun usage gives away many clues about how we interact with the world. If your interviewer uses ‘you’ when talking about potentially negative situations (‘you may have to deal with some difficult characters’), then it’s possible they will have a less than supportive and inclusive type of personality. If they use ‘I’ to describe the team’s performance, that’s a warning sign that they’re egocentric. And if they say ‘we’ to describe a difficult situation, they may be deflecting blame, but if it’s to describe success, they may be genuinely team-focused and ready to share praise.

3. They’re not listening; they appear disinterested. If they keep looking at their phone, or if they don’t appear to be listening, then again, it may well be that they don’t particularly value you or your potential. Being distracted by electronic devises is the norm these days, but not when you’ve just met someone and are interviewing them.  If your interviewer is reading emails or taking phone calls during the interview, don’t expect them to make time for you later.

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4. They don’t answer questions.  Watch out for pauses, ‘umms and ahhs’, or stilted, over-formal replies when you ask what happened to your predecessor in the role. Listen out for phrases like ‘bad fit’ or references to cultural issues – this is unlikely to represent an inclusive, friendly workplace. It’s always a good idea to ask about staff turnover rates, how long your closest potential colleagues have been in their roles and what likely career paths are. If the answers on interview aren’t convincing, you’re quite likely to be looking at a company with poor staff development.

5. They’ve got a solid track record. When given the opportunity, ask your interviewer how long they have been at the company, in the role, and where they were before. Ask about their management style, too. The more open questions you ask about them and their beliefs and history, the better you will understand them, and the more likely it is you’ll get an accurate sense of how good a boss they will be.

6. Support staff are stressed, hostile or weirdly unsupportive.

Take a good long look at how your potential boss interacts with the people around him, particularly PAs or support staff. If they appear cowed or nervous, or stressed out, this is a very clear indication of a sub-optimal working environment. If they are rude or dismissive, this is an even worse red flag – no company should employ impolite or aggressive support staff.

7. The work environment doesn’t feel right.

This is really down to your own individual preference. Ask if you can see the environment in which you’re supposed to be working. If you get a ‘no’ response, this may indicate something to hide, and walking around in a place where you’ll potentially spend half your life can be surprisingly useful in supporting a yes / no decision. Too loud, too quiet, too messy – any of these things may be deal breakers for certain personality types.

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