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5 ways to spot a bully boss during a job interview

Look out for these subtle signs when interviewing.

5 ways to spot a bully boss during a job interview
[Photo: shahreboye/Unsplash][

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No one wants a boss who is a bully. One of the main reasons people leave a job is because they have a bad manager. Unfortunately, the drastic changes that happened in the workplace during the pandemic may have created more toxic bosses.

“Bullying behaviors often stem from stress and anxiety and the desire for leaders to solve a problem,” says Bonnie Low-Kramen, author of Be the Ultimate Assistant. “What the pandemic did is heighten stress and anxiety in the workplace, especially among leaders who didn’t get training on how to manage a team. … All of that is causing leaders to not necessarily act in a respectful way to the team.”

Instead of finding out too late that you’re working for a toxic leader, look for these five signs during your interview:

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1. Observe How They Interact with Others

One way to spot a bully is to listen to how they speak with others. Do they do they say “please” and “thank you”? Do they call people by their first names? Do they interrupt?

“Interruptions send a message that ‘what I have to say is way more important than what you’re saying,'” says Low-Kramen. “Those are those are strong clues.”

In an interview panel with more than one interviewer, candidates can also observe how managers react to their coworkers and vice versa, adds Jill Chapman, a senior performance consultant with HR provider Insperity.

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“For instance, a manager who dominates the interview without allowing for others’ questions may indicate a domineering management style,” she says. “If signs seem murky, candidates can ask about how managers maintain a positive work environment… with a dismissive or rude answer pointing toward a workplace bully.”

2. Determine Their Expectations for the Role

During the interview, ask the manager, “What differentiates a successful employee in this role from an unsuccessful one?” suggests Eileen Linnaberry, Ph.D., practice leader and consultant for professional services firm Vantage Leadership Consulting. “Look for clues that the hiring manager expects compliance, always-on availability, and exerting their authority for the sake of power,” she says. “For example, if the hiring manager considers successful employees to be the people who put in midnight hours and work weekends, you may find yourself bullied into doing so as well.”

3. Notice If They Try to Put You at Ease

Interviews can be stressful. Linnaberry suggests paying attention to what the hiring manager does to put you at ease.

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“If they do things to create a stressful environment in the interview, they are likely to do so on the job, as well,” she says. “The hiring manager who is late for the interview and does not give you time to represent your capabilities is likely continue showing little respect for your time and skillset going forward.”

4. Watch How They Handle Discomfort

The key to spotting toxic people is to get them to confront situations where they might fail or look bad. A lack of concern for others while responding to that ego threat is a sure sign of a potential bully, says Dr. Kenneth Matos, global director of people science for Culture Amp, an employee experience platform.

“A question you could ask would be ‘What is your opinion on your company’s chief rivals’ strengths and vulnerabilities and how they compare to your company?'” he suggests. “A good answer is one where the respondent can provide feedback with respect for the rival. Are they able to acknowledge where the rival is more effective? Do they speak of the rival with respect or disdain? Would you want your boss speaking to or about you the same way?”

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Low-Kramen, who worked as the personal assistant for actor Olympia Dukakis for 25 years, likes asking leaders, “How are you on your worst day?” The answer to that question will tell a lot, especially if you watch their body language after posing the question.

“Olympia Dukakis would often say, ‘Bonnie, the body goes first,’ meaning before anybody says anything, the body telegraphs what they’re feeling,” says Low-Kramen. “You can see a tenseness and discomfort.'”

5. Talk to References

“It is becoming increasingly popular for applicants to ask to speak to organizational references, such as others on the team or previous employees who have worked on the team in the past,” says Linnaberry.

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Speak to people who work for this leader and ask specifically how they are being managed and developed. When managers are investing in their staff and creating a psychologically safe environment, the team will have no problem sharing that information with new applicants.

“Bullying managers are likely to create an environment of vague secrecy—team members may not come out and tell you the boss is a bully, so read between the lines and probe deeper, if possible,” says Linnaberry.

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About the author

Stephanie Vozza is a freelance writer who covers productivity, careers, and leadership. She's written for Fast Company since 2014, and her byline has appeared in several other leading publications and websites

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