4 Revealing Questions to Spot a Toxic Boss

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Laura Berlinsky-Schine2.3k

Having to work with a toxic boss is many people’s nightmare. But too often, we end up with one (or even worse, several) in the course of our careers.

What if there were a way to keep yourself from ending up with a terrible manager, one who will suck the joy out of your workday, every day, before you even start? These four questions can help you spot a toxic boss before you get tangled up in their web.

1. Why did the last employee leave?

True, your prospective manager may not be totally forthcoming — especially if they know that their management style and personality were why the last person left — but how they frame their answer will give you insight into their work relationships and how the employee felt about the job.

For example, if the manager says that the previous person in the role got promoted and is still with the business, that’s a good sign that they’re committed and content with the employer. But if the hiring manager is vague or disparages the last employee, especially if they left voluntarily, it could be a sign that the relationship was strained, at the very least, and that your manager may not be easy to get along with.

2. How do you deliver feedback and constructive criticism?

Constructive criticism and feedback are important for your career and professional growth. You want a manager who is eager to offer it to support you not only in this role but also in future positions in your career trajectory. By asking HOW your prospective manager delivers feedback, rather than IF they offer it, you’ll gain insight into their managerial process and how they support their employees.

Watch out for managers who want to shame employees for mistakes. For example, if they say they believe in employees taking responsibility for their mistakes and owning up to them, while that’s certainly natural, it doesn’t speak to how they offer feedback to help them grow.

3. What soft skills do you look for in an employee?

Hint: a manager who seeks blind obedience (or anything along those lines) is a definite red flag. You want a manager who values qualities like independence, collaboration, communication, problem-solving, and other soft skills — not a boss who wants employees who are simply looking for cogs who will follow their command.

4. What’s your preferred management style?

A manager is unlikely to come out and say they preferred the autocratic style — if they do, run — but you can probably find clues in their response. For the most part, you’ll want a boss who strikes a balance between affording you independence while offering oversight, so you feel comfortable in your role and have the room and ability to grow.

Look for examples of how they might offer that support while still respecting your abilities and skills to do your job well. 

Additional tips

It’s not just about what you ask and what the hiring manager says. You should also pay attention to other signs of what working for this person is like. Observe the environment. Do people seem engaged? Is it lively and busy — or dead quiet?

Consider the hiring manager’s body language, too. Do they seem invested in getting to know you — or aloof and distant, like they’re just trying to get through the meeting? Of course, the hiring manager’s conversation skills will tell you a lot, too.

Don’t forget about your own intuition, either. That inner voice will often tell you what you need to know.

About the Career Expert:

 Laura Berlinsky-Schine is a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn with her demigod/lab mix Hercules. She specializes in education, technology and career development. She also writes satire and humor, which has appeared in Slackjaw, Points in Case, Little Old Lady Comedy, Jane Austen’s Wastebasket and The Haven.