4 Signs You’re Interviewing for a Toxic Boss

Frustrated woman on video call


Heather Taylor
Heather Taylor11
Characters, (pop) culture, and coffee.
Mikaela Kiner had a toxic boss early on in her career. 
Kiner, Founder and CEO of Reverb, has more than 15 years of HR experience at corporations including Starbucks and Amazon. Like most individuals entering the workplace, though, Kiner was a bit green in her early professional years. There were red flags that her boss was toxic in the interview but Kiner didn’t quite listen to her gut instinct. She knew her boss had issues and decided she could deal with it.
“I had worked with difficult people before and thought I could handle it,” Kiner says. “He had a reputation of being a loose cannon but I also heard he had improved a lot over the years.”
Unfortunately, Kiner’s optimism was lost on her new boss. Kiner’s gut feeling that something was wrong proved to be right: her boss was toxic. 
Having previously had toxic employers myself, I felt like I could instantly relate to Kiner’s story. Sometimes it’s difficult to determine in a job interview if your potential manager is or isn’t a toxic person. Many bosses may act professional and warm during an interview but turn out to be completely toxic once you’ve got job. This leaves you stuck, at least for a little while, in a poor work environment that can be detrimental to your personal self-esteem. 
Is there any way to prevent working for a toxic boss? The short, and honest, answer is not always. You may have a toxic boss, or colleague, at one point or another during your professional career. The key is to keep a watchful eye out for those red flags. Think twice about accepting a job offer if you discover that your potential boss-to-be possesses the following characteristics.

1. They’re zoned out.

Have you ever been an interview where it feels like you’re doing all the heavy lifting? You’re asking questions, taking notes and getting fully invested in the process. However, your potential boss isn’t paying attention. They keep having you repeat questions or visibly have their eyes glaze over.
Yep, they’ve checked out from the interview. Emily Frank, Career Counselor at Denver Career Catalyst, says that this is a warning sign of a potential toxic boss. 
“An interview is supposed to showcase both parties at their best, so someone who doesn’t seem very interested in you, the applicant, is likely to be less invested in you, the employee,” Frank says.

2. They frequently interrupt you.

Charlotte Beasley, Careers and Workplace Analyst at Fit Small Business, recommends listening up to this red flag. Does your potential supervisor-to-be keep interrupting or cutting you off during the interview? This is often a sign that they do not value what the candidate has to say. Beasley also notes that sometimes this dynamic carries over into the workplace with negative impacts on coworkers.

3. They haven’t met you.

This is not as uncommon as it sounds. Several years ago, I interviewed at a company strictly with their HR department. A wide variety of circumstances kept me from being able to interview, and even meet with, my potential supervisor one-on-one. The company made me a job offer, which I accepted, only to quickly discover I had a toxic boss. 
We struggled to find common ground. Despite our best efforts, it just didn’t work out. Had I had met with this individual sooner, I would never have said yes to the position. Beasley agrees that it’s critical you interview at least once with the boss you’ll be reporting to. 
“Generally, there’s a correlation between a hiring manager’s style and their day-to-day attitude in the workplace,” she says.

4.They’re reluctant to discuss their leadership style.

In retrospect, Kiner wishes she had probed more into the “why” behind her toxic boss. Why was he still referred to as a loose cannon, even if he claimed to have changed his behavior? How did he really behave in the workplace?
Many applicants focus on asking questions during job interviews that relate to the position and the company. It’s also a good idea to ask your manager personal leadership questions, such as the following. 
  • What do they do when someone makes a mistake?
  • How do they handle disagreements?
  • When, and how, do they like to receive feedback?
Remember: a non-toxic boss won’t feel threatened or upset that you’re asking these types of questions. 
“Asking about their personal leadership style increases the chance that you’ll get insight into their personality,” Kiner says.