How to spot a good (or bad) boss in a job interview

This guest article is from Sonal Bahl. I recently read her original article and felt my audience had to know about this very relevant topic, spotting a bad boss.

People don’t leave companies, people leave bosses. Yes, yes, we’ve heard this for years. Then I heard something else: people don’t leave bosses, they leave a toxic work culture. Then I read that the number one reason people leave is because their position didn’t fulfil them. Then I heard about a Gallup study where 70% of leavers claimed it was due to their manager, not the position itself. (I can’t find that survey but have heard it quoted).

My head is spinning, is yours?

The point is: a toxic work culture and an unchallenging position are HUGE problems (or opportunities, for the optimists) for managers to fix. Some do, but most don’t.

It always starts with the top, it starts with strong leadership. To quote the spider superhero, with great power comes great responsibility.

So, what does this have to be with being a job seeker?

A lot, actually.

A recent post by the brilliant Dorothy Dalton got me thinking.

I always tell my clients during our interview preparation sessions, when they meet their hiring manager (who will be their future boss), that they are assessing for fit as well, not just the other way around. It’s a two-way street, always.

If you say: this is ridiculous, I don’t have a job, so how can I be the one assessing?

I say: you can, and you should. If you see tell-tale signs of a bad boss and you go ahead anyway because you need the money, then don’t ever complain when (not if, but when) things go south, your health starts to suffer, you bring your troubles home and your family doesn’t recognize you anymore. What’s the price of your mental health?

If you say: but I need the job more than they need me.

I say: hmmm… I’m not sure. The job market is tough right now, I know. But do you know times are hard for companies too? Not to sound dramatic, but there’s a war for talent, to quote my friends in HR. Good, very good people are hard to find. Companies are working hard to craft their EVP (Employer Value Proposition) so they attract the right kind of people and look good in the job market. You’re not the only one trying to impress someone.

The best relationships are relationships between equals.

The employer is not better than you. You are unique. You bring a standard, a point of view, a skill and a value that they need. Please don’t lose sight of that. I hope you’re convinced.

Anyway, coming back to the title of the article, let’s talk about the interview. You’ve just arrived at the office, you’re going to the meet your future boss. You’re prepared, you’ve done your homework, you’re dressed to impress. You shake hands, sit down. Now the assessment begins. They’re assessing you and you’re assessing them. Two-way street.

Look for the following, they’re part of a bigger picture called Emotional Intelligence, that I break down further:

1.     Respect

Here’s the thing. You don’t have to love or even like some people.Seriously. But if you can’t respect them this means they don’t have respect for:

a.     For your time: Did they make you wait for a long time before they finally showed up for the interview? Of course, in their defense, there can be an occasional fire to douse, and they got stuck, totally understandable. But did they apologise for keeping you waiting? A good boss will say sorry and mean it. If they don’t, they value their ego more than they value your time. Period.

b.    For what you say: Did you have a chance to be heard? Were you interrupted a great deal? Active listening comes from a deeper place, in my opinion. It comes from a genuine respect for what the other is saying, and then listening to them, really listening. Not with their phone flashing in front of them, not with interruptions, not with a crowded mind.

c.     For others: Did they gossip? Did they bad-mouth others to you? If they did, they will most definitely bad-mouth you to others too. Danger sign!

 2.     Humanity

‘We’re all human, duh’, you say. Yes, I know, I will ignore the scoff in your tone. Jokes aside, we’re all human, we’re all born as babies with the exact same needs. But at some point, something has happened to some of us, we became cold and lost touch with our humanity. Human Resources feels like only the ‘Resources’ part matters, not the human being. How can you check on the .. um… humane-ness of your boss?

a.     How do they talk about things? Listen carefully, really listen to them, when you ask about the challenges of the position, for example. How does their face look when they speak about such things? Do they make eye contact with you? Do they treat it like just another transactional piece, or do they they take pains to give you the bigger picture? How are they under duress? Are they are only compliance or process driven, or are they secure enough to be open and human?

b.    Ask them about opportunities for professional developmentand listen to their answer to see if this matters to them. The best bosses know that when their team succeeds, they succeed too. Egos are put aside.

c.     Ask thought provoking questions. A lot can be revealed by asking thought provoking questions, like “How would you describe your leadership style” or “What do you like best about working in this organisaion?” etc. Through their answers you can learn about how they deal with crises in their team, how they deal with exceptions. Just do the asking, and let them do the talking.

3.   A sense of Humour  

This is a tricky one, I know, and it’s not fair to judge someone based on whether they know how to have a good laugh or not. But the thing is, life is serious enough as it is, and the world is going through some tumultuous times. We spend nearly 1/5th of our life at work, so it really needs to be enjoyable, and not feel like going to prison or a punishment. Working with someone who doesn’t take themselves too seriously has personally helped me to keep the engine running during some rough patches.

Of course, as a disclaimer, I do want to mention that everything stated above is through my own lens: my own life experience, observations, research and lessons learnt. This is by no means a thorough and exhaustive list, because we are all different. What I look for or what matters to me may not hold the same gravity for you. You could follow this list or your own list to the letter, and still land up with a horrible boss. But when you approach the hiring process as an equal and with the intention of mutual fit, the chances that you do are a lot slimmer.

In conclusion, I’d just like to add that spotting a good boss is not rocket science and doesn’t need to be complicated. Good bosses are also good people. Do they smile, do they hold the door for the person behind, do they speak politely to the receptionist, the assistants, the colleagues, will provide you with a better idea of what you’re getting yourself into.

With these thoughts I just want to challenge the adage that you don’t get to pick a boss.

Yes, you do.

If you’re facing two doors: behind the first is the right company or job and behind the second, the right boss, pick the right boss. That boss, or leader, “doesn’t create followers, she creates more leaders.

And who does not want that?!

Now over to you: What are some of your best tips to spot a good boss during a job interview? Are there some red flags you’re always wary of? Share in the comments below!

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on


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