3 ways to identify a potentially difficult boss during an interview

Many employees have told me that if they had known the true personality of their boss before accepting a job, they never would have accepted it in the first place.

Sure, it’s true that you can always quit a job – but if you can avoid a bad situation entirely, why not do that instead?

During a job interview, everyone wants things to work out in their preferred way. This includes both the candidate and the employer.

Knowing this, it’s extremely helpful for job seekers to be able to “read between the lines” and to imagine what their future relationship with a potential boss would be like. Here are a few tips to help you along during this crucial stage.

1- Pay attention to the employer’s attitude during the interview

If you’re interviewing with a recruiter who will not be your boss if you get the job, there isn’t much point in analyzing their personality, since you won’t be working with them.

For this reason, before accepting an offer of employment it’s extremely important that you meet the person who will be your direct superior.

Even as you evaluate your potential new boss’ personality, don’t try to do an in-depth psychiatric evaluation and be very careful when using terms that describe psychological traits. You can still observe a person’s behavior while being prudent: Here are a few links that you can make between a person’s behavior and common indicators of personality problems (these examples are a little exaggerated, to make them more obvious.)

Paranoid traits

For no good reason, the employer undertakes investigations of your claims; they let it slip that they’ve already done a deep-dive through your Facebook profile and openly question the veracity of your CV. “You say you have a master’s degree – how do I know that’s true?”

Narcissistic traits

The employer likes to brag about their own achievements and is more interested in being admired than listening to you during the interview. “So you’ve supervised teams of five people? I’ve managed teams of 20 people – did you know that? In fact, I was the best-performing manager…”

Borderline personality

The employer swings easily between expressions of joy, fear and anger, and immediately places high expectations on you. “Wow! It’s going to be GREAT to work together! But I hope you’re a loyal employee, because people who choose to leave drive me CRAZY!”

Hysterical personality

The employer is in “seduction mode” and tries to get overly familiar with you right away. He gives you grand compliments based on little information, jumps from one subject to another and has trouble staying focused on one topic. “You remind me a lot of my brother. I used to go fishing with him… You like to go fishing, don’t you?”

Obsessive personality

This type of employer may focus on irrelevant details and may not seem to be able to effectively manage their time. “You mentioned in your CV that you completed an internship in 1997. What exact date did that internship finish? Oops! The hour I had set aside for our interview is up and we’ve barely started talking.”

Type-A personality (workaholic)

This employer seems overly busy and distracted, taking calls during the interview. Already, they’re putting pressure on you to achieve objectives. They ask few questions to learn more about you. “If you had to sum up your candidacy in two or three words, what would they be? Um.. Can you write this down for me instead? Sorry, my phone is ringing.”

No matter what type of potential employer you’re dealing with, always trust your first impression – and then try to determine if your intuitive feeling is based on tangible elements of the person’s behavior or personality.

2- Take context into account

I once took a job at a small company where every employee, with the exception of the boss, had to be replaced at the same time (three people) for no particular reason.

To me, it seemed like a good premise for a horror film. I could even imagine the movie trailer, featuring a terrifying narrator’s voice: Not a single person survived the purge of this once close-knit team. But what could possibly have happened to them? And where are their bodies?

I should have looked a little deeper into the circumstances of their departure, because my time there ended up being a hellish experience, both for me and my fellow new employees. We all ended up leaving over the course of a few weeks.

A high turnover rate at a company often isn’t due to a simple coincidence. Also, if everyone at a company is on sick leave, there may be other secrets waiting to be discovered.

3- Look behind the slogans

A lot of companies talk a good game about putting their employees first and being caring. There’s even a term for companies that want to give off a benevolent appearance without actually making the effort to put the values they preach into practice: it’s called Happy Washing.

There was a time when I saw this behavior as scandalous. But now, I understand that some companies, faced with a lack of skilled workers in the marketplace, succumb to overzealous branding and/or human resources marketing tactics and end up overselling their commitment to the happiness of their employees, without backing it up.

It’s up to you to ask specific questions about employee happiness to get some concrete answers: “I find it very inspiring that you say that the happiness of your employees is your top priority. Can you give me two or three examples of how that policy has helped your employees?”

In conclusion

Websites like Glassdoor can be useful for job seekers who want to learn more about the culture and climate of companies they are considering working for. Ideally, you can also reach out to someone who has already worked for the company to hear about their experience.

Like anything, however, take what you hear second-hand with a grain of salt. For example, be careful about frustrated current or ex-employees who have an axe to grind with the company.

Also, remember that one employee’s “terrible boss” may be considered a good boss by another employee. Sometimes, it’s simply a matter of preference.

By: Mathieu Guénette, Guidance Counsellor at Les Chercheurs de sens

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Mathieu Guénette

Mathieu Guénette is a self-employed Guidance Counsellor with over 20 years of experience, as well as an author and a lecturer. He has worked with a diverse clientele (teenagers, adults, managers, job hunters). In 2017, he has simultaneously obtained the Ordre des conseillers et conseillères d'orientation du Québec’s Professional Award and the Ordre des conseillers en ressources humaines agréés’ HR Book of the Year Award for his work Le candidat visceral. He provides services in Montreal, Lanaudière and remotely. His website is full of handy resources for you: Les chercheurs de sens.

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