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Some Common Warning Signs To Watch For in a Boss-to-Be

By Joann S. Lublin

Twice in the past two years, advertising professional Melissa Dantz missed signs that a hiring manager would be a bad boss.

In 2003, she accepted a job at a Boston-area ad agency, even though its owners failed to divulge their marriage to each other until after her job interview. She left after nine months, largely because she was expected to cover for the owners when they fabricated staffer names to show potential clients the tiny agency was larger than it was.

The following year, Ms. Dantz took a job with a suburban Boston event-production firm even though the official interviewing her disparaged the prior incumbent. At work, that supervisor acted condescending toward everyone. Ms. Dantz quit after seven months.

"The toll on my self-confidence from these bad boss experiences was tremendous, and in retrospect, avoidable," she says.

Many applicants ignore warning signs about their boss-to-be. Yet recognizing the type of person you will be working for is one of the most important factors that should be considered when deciding whether to accept an offer. In today's buoyant job market, "you have the choice of picking your boss as much as your boss has the choice of picking you," observes Beverly Kaye, a retention consultant in Sherman Oaks, Calif.

So, keep a sharp lookout during a company's courtship for hints that your hiring manager will morph into Ivan the Terrible Boss. Here are some common warning signs:

Easily Distracted: He arrives late for your twice-postponed interview. He can't find your resume in his huge pile. He frequently interrupts you to take calls, check email or glance at his watch. Clearly, you or your coveted position isn't his highest priority.

Poor Interaction: She offers a limp handshake, scant eye contact and shallow answers to your detailed questions about the business. She stays seated behind a huge desk, arms folded across her chest, and relegates you to a lower couch. This isn't exactly someone committed to collaboration.

Me, Me, Me: The hiring manager talks solely about himself, giving current and former associates no credit for their accomplishments.

The head of one major Philadelphia nonprofit organization spent much of his 30 minutes with a prospective fund-raising manager bragging about his feats there. The new hire soon found he was abusive. "He would scream at me in the middle of meetings in front of board members," she says. "I went into a very bad depression while I was working there."

Negative Buzz: The fund-raising manager had checked out her would-be boss with other community groups, but ignored their hesitant responses. She now believes that "if references aren't effusive, that's a warning sign."

It helps just to look around the office. The twice-burned Ms. Dantz subsequently withdrew applications when no one seemed happy at a potential employer.

Wrong Line of Inquiry: Your interviewer wants to know your marital status, but he doesn't ask much about your relevant skills.

Intrusive personal questions could signal problems ahead with discrimination or workplace harassment. Meanwhile, a lack of serious talk might mean an aloof boss.

A man seeking a public-relations vice presidency at a big Florida company earlier this year was surprised when the chief executive never asked about his communications-strategy plans. The CEO was distant, then eliminated the new VP's position three months later.

Stress Overload: How well a boss-to-be copes with stress during your interview speaks volumes about what it would be like on the job.

Melissa Payner once turned down a middle-management post with a New York retailer because the frazzled hiring manager repeatedly barked orders to his assistant. "I felt as if he was looking to me to be the solution to his stress -- almost to be his savior," recalls Ms. Payner, president and CEO of, an online fashion, accessories and home furnishings concern in New York.

There are ways to hone your bad-boss detection radar. If job seekers "were just a little more attentive, they could save themselves a lot of grief," suggests Dory Hollander, president of WiseWorkplaces, an executive-coaching firm in Arlington, Va.

Prepare a list of ideal traits you'd want in your next supervisor, and a second list of what bothers you most about your current one. Keep both in mind while quizzing present and past staffers about the boss-to-be. During your hiring interviews, ask direct questions about the boss's leadership style and philosophy.

Trust your gut. If your stomach aches throughout the interview, share your feelings afterward with a coach or friend so you can separate bad-boss anxiety from routine job jitters.

Don't let job-hunt desperation cloud your radar screen. Ms. Dantz, now an international marketing manager for a shoe manufacturer, vows to never again let financial pressure "dictate the necessity of accepting any job offer."

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Article from Today – December 2005