Bad Boss Alert: Red Flags at the Job Interview

The key is to carefully observe the interviewer’s behavior throughout the conversation. Some red flags indicate you won’t be happy working with a new boss. 

When you land a job interview for a position you want, the excitement and anxiety of facing an evaluation can lead you to dismiss the importance of assessing if you’ll enjoy your new work environment.

Is the company a good fit for you? High on the list of must-haves for your chosen career path should be a boss you enjoy working with.  

But how can you tell from just a few interactions what a job will be like? 

As a candidate, there are constraints on your ability to investigate the character of a prospective employer. At the same time, experts say candidates should “tread lightly” with questions to avoid seeming skittish or disinterested.  

The key is to carefully observe the interviewer’s behavior throughout the conversation. Some red flags indicate you won’t be happy working with a new boss. 

4 Signs You Shouldn’t Work With an Employer 

1. Rudeness

It’s not unusual for an interview to start a few minutes late, but if the interviewer doesn’t acknowledge or apologize for their lateness, it’s cause for concern. Good manners should be expected in a job interview from both the prospective employer and the candidate. A conscientious boss will make every attempt to focus on the candidate, limit interruptions, and apologize if an interruption can’t be avoided. When an employer disrespects their candidates, it could foreshadow routine slights and disappointments. 

If it seems like an employer is inconsiderate, try to remain calm. Social tension could be a test to see how you handle pressure, and that’s a tactic you may or may not be willing to accept in the workplace.   

To defuse the situation, ask the interviewer open-ended questions about their career and experience with the company. Small talk demonstrates poise and could help you gain additional insights into their work style and company culture.   

2. Discriminatory Questions 

Discrimination in the workplace is prohibited under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Interviewers who ask about marital status and family planning violate the law—yet a recent survey found that 75% of the women surveyed were asked these types of questions during job interviews 

Sometimes it’s immediately clear if a question is out of line—for example, if an employer wants to know how old you are. But other times, discriminatory questions are harder to identify. Is it illegal to ask someone if English is their native language? What about asking a candidate what languages they speak? 

The nature of the position might affect what’s appropriate for the setting. While it’s illegal to ask about a person’s native language, no matter the circumstances, it’s acceptable to ask about fluency if the position requires a multi-lingual speaker.   

If an interviewer asks a question that’s illegal or makes you uncomfortable, you can answer it, deflect it, or politely decline. It could be an honest mistake or a serious lapse in judgment. Even if the transgression is unintentional, discrimination hurts workers, and that’s a red flag that merits your full attention.  

3. Tone   

The workplace environment offers clues about the culture that you can expect to work in day to day. Arrive early for the interview and observe how the office employees interact with each other and the boss, if possible. Do they seem energized and engaged, or do they avoid direct contact?  

Next, use social media and review sites, such as Glassdoor, to investigate the boss’s profile and their work style. You might find former employees from the department who are willing to share information. It’s perfectly acceptable to reach out on LinkedIn or via email, but take their opinion with a grain of salt. Look for multiple information sources to corroborate each other and provide a comprehensive picture of an employer.

If you eventually receive a job offer, ask if you can spend a half-day in the office before you decide to accept or decline. Being in the office can give you a sense of the daily routine and employee morale.  

4. Personality Clashes 

There are bad bosses who aren’t good for anyone, and then there are bosses whose style just won’t be good for you. Identify what you need to flourish in the workplace, and keep those ideals in mind when you meet the boss. Are you an independent self-starter who is thrown off-balance by a micromanager, or are you looking for a mentoring relationship with more personal contact?  

Depending on your personality, you might be keen to meet the challenge of a “tough-minded” boss whom others find too abrasive. Jack Welch, former Executive Chairman at Jack Welch Management Institute, describes a tough-minded boss as “closer to the hard end than the soft”—they set exacting standards and know what they want.  

Some employees feel energized and rewarded working in a challenging environment with clear guidelines—for others, however, the high-pressure situation can be emotionally taxing.  

Reflect on your work history and how your supervisors shaped those experiences. What did you like? What would have made the job better for you? 

The Hidden Costs of Working With a Bad Boss  

It’s disheartening to turn down an offer, especially if you’ve been job searching for a long time. You might consider taking your chances, even if you have reservations. But that decision may be more consequential than you know.  

The American Psychological Association reports that 75% of American workers surveyed say their “boss is the most stressful part of their workday.” Chronic stress has real health implications, ranging from depression and anxiety to cardiac symptoms, frequent illness, and stroke. Some studies show it can take up to 22 months to recover physically and emotionally from an incompatible work environment.  

When your gut feeling tells you to avoid an employer, it’s a good reason to decline an offer. Handle your response professionally and you won’t burn bridges. 

How to Turn Down an Offer 

Express gratitude for the interviewer’s time and consideration. Don’t make any critical observations about an individual—nothing is confidential, and like a game of telephone, people can misconstrue the message.  

Instead, focus on the positive aspects of the interview and the company and leave on an upbeat note. Take the time to tell every contact individually about your decision, and try to communicate over the phone, which is more personal than an email.  

If you decline the offer with tact, you could find yourself on the short list for a more desirable situation in the future. And ultimately, finding the right opportunity will help your career long-term. 

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