Is Your Future Boss Horrible? A 10 Point Reference Check

Discovering the answers to these questions before you take a job can save you a lot of heartache.

The film Horrible Bosses opens on July 8th. The basic plot, as I understand it, is that three guys who hate their bosses, played by Jason Bateman, Charlie Day and Jason Sudeikis, conspire to murder them. I don’t recommend that way of dealing with a bosshole, and have been suggesting more constructive approaches (see this ABC interview). As part of the film’s release, I have been getting quite a few media calls about bosses. This reminded me of a checklist that I worked on with the folks at LinkedIn and Guy Kawasaki a few years back to help assesses if a prospective boss is likely to be an asshole. The list builds on the ideas in The No Asshole Rule and some ideas that appeared in Good Boss, Bad Boss.


We developed ten “reference check” questions that you can ask people who have worked with and for your prospective boss — or perhaps had him or her as a client — to help determine if you are at risk of going to work for an asshole.

Discovering the answers to these questions before you take a job can save you a lot of heartache. One of the key points in The No Asshole Rule is that one of the most effective ways to avoid being harmed by assholes — and becoming one yourself — is (to steal a phrase from Leonardo da Vinci) “to resist at the beginning,” to avoid working for an asshole boss (or joining an asshole invested workplace) in the first place. Here is our 10 point checklist:

1. Kisses-up and kicks-down: “How does the prospective boss respond to feedback from people higher in rank and lower in rank?” “Can you provide examples from experience?” One characteristic of certified assholes is that they tend to demean those who are less powerful while brown-nosing their superiors.

2. Can’t take it: “Does the prospective boss accept criticism or blame when the going gets tough?” Be wary of people who constantly dish out criticism but can’t take a healthy dose themselves.

3. Short fuse
: “In what situations have you seen the prospective boss lose his temper?” Sometimes anger is justified or even effective when used sparingly, but someone who “shoots-the-messenger” too often can breed a climate of fear in the workplace. Are co-workers scared of getting in an elevator with this person?

4. Bad credit: “Which style best describes the prospective boss: gives out gratuitous credit, assigns credit where credit is due, or believes everyone should be their own champion?” This question opens the door to discuss whether or not someone tends to take a lot of credit while not recognizing the work of his or her team.

5. Canker sore: “What do past collaborators say about working with the prospective boss?” Assholes usually have a history of infecting teams with nasty and dysfunctional conflict. The world seems willing to tolerate talented assholes, but that doesn’t mean you have to.


6. Flamer: What kind of email sender is the prospective boss? Most assholes cannot contain themselves when it comes to email: flaming people, carbon-copying the world, blind carbon copying to cover his own buttocks. Email etiquette is a window into one’s soul.

7. Downer: “What types of people find it difficult to work with the prospective boss? What type of people seem to work very well with the prospective boss?” Pay attention to responses that suggest “strong-willed” or “self-motivated” people tend to work best with the prospective boss because assholes tend to leave people around them feeling de-energized and deflated. 

8. Card shark: “Does the prospective boss share information for everyone’s benefit?” A tendency to hold cards close to one’s chest — i.e., a reluctance to share information — is a sign that this person treats co-workers as competitors who must be defeated so he or she can get ahead.

9. Army of one: “Would people pick the prospective boss for their team?” Sometimes there is upside to having an asshole on your team, but that won’t matter if the coworkers refuse to work with that person. Use this question to help determine if the benefit of having the prospective boss on your team outweighs any asshole behaviors.

10. Open architecture: “How would the prospective boss respond if a copy of The No Asshole Rule appeared on her desk?” Be careful if the answer is, “Duck!”

Those are our 10 questions. I would love to hear other tips about what has helped you avoid taking a job with an asshole boss — or warning signs that you wish you would have noticed before going to work for a demeaning creep.


Reprinted from Work Matters

Robert I. Sutton, PhD is Professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford. His latest book is Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best…and Survive the Worst. His previous book is The New York Times bestseller The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t. Follow him at


About the author

Robert Sutton is Professor of Management Science and Engineering at Stanford and a Professor of Organizational Behavior, by courtesy, at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Sutton studies innovation, leaders and bosses, evidence-based management, the links between knowledge and organizational action, and workplace civility