THE BLOG
01/26/2015 12:24 pm ET Updated Mar 27, 2015

Spot a Bad Boss at the Interview Phase

I have a funny story: I'm on my lunch break.

Oh, that's not funny enough for you? You are so demanding.

Fine. How about this: I've been on this particular lunch break since 2004.

That's right. I had finally had it up to here with a boss (no, not this boss - this is a completely different story). The pay was high for my college-educated, 24-year-old self at the time, but the emotional stakes were higher.

So one day, I had to make a decision: My sanity, or that job.

Spoiler Alert:

On a sunny, August day, at about lunch time, I grabbed my purse, got in my car, and never looked back.

By burning that bridge, I took two major risks: No more steady income, and the loss of a pretty nifty résumé item.

But you know what I gained? The opportunity to start a teaching career that is now celebrating its 10th birthday.

I'm sure there are people who'd want to jump all over this story: "Well that's not a professional way to leave a position." I can just hear the tsk-tsking and unsolicited "burned bridges" warnings; I can see the pointer-fingers wagging in my face through my laptop screen.

And you know what? I agree. I probably could have departed a bit more, um, professionally. But by then, I was in such emotional disarray (a battered emotional state that sustained and gave life to that particular boss, given her control issues) that I did not care what was thought of me. I still do not care what is thought of my decision. That's why I'm sharing this story.

Also, I'm a fellow-Millennial. Which means that I'm supposed to make irresponsible/unprofessional decisions. Or something.

Most importantly, I am sharing this story because there is one thing that I do regret about that experience:

Not having had the tools or insight to spot a bad boss at the interview phase, tools and insight which would have saved me many headaches and tears in the long run.

Looking back, I remember two details in particular that should have been major red-flags for my inexperienced self:

  1. During the interview, my future boss spoke a lot. A little too much. And when I did have the rare opportunity to speak, she wrote down every single word I said. From what I could see sitting across from her, she wrote down my words verbatim. I exaggerate not.
  2. With a gleaming, overly-proud smile, she tried to convince me on more than one occasion that "there are absolutely no office politics at this company."

Sounds like a dream, right? A boss who cares about every word I have to say and a company in which office politics are but a myth?

Wrong.

Here is how the first red-flag played out:

I have to wonder about the motives of someone who does not learn as much as they can about you during the interview phase. When she hired me, I was surprised. I did not feel as though she knew enough about me to make an informed decision.

When I began working for her, she endeavored to control every word that came out of my mouth and every relationship that I began building with my co-workers; she'd demand that I contribute "new and fresh ideas" and then decimate the ideas that I dared to offer, as a new, young person who was nervously trying to learn the ropes.

She began referring to me as her "Mini-me" and even went so far as to publicly reprimand me when I innocuously joked with a colleague about ice-cream. I'll never forget how she puffed up her chest and put her hands on her hips when she scolded (me and only me), "We do not joke about ice cream here."

Yep.

When I shared these experiences with a friend, he asked me about the interview. I told him that I was not given the opportunity to say much, but that she seemed to record every syllable that came out of my mouth. Incredulous in tone, he said "Now that is the sign of a micro-manager."

You'd better believe those 9 little words have stuck with me since.

On office politics:

When someone says "there are absolutely no office politics," be extremely skeptical. There are always office politics. In many cases, they are innocent and benign. In many other ways, office politics are toxic.

In most every place of employment, there is a combination of both innocent and toxic politics, and you'd be wise to learn the difference. As it turned out, there were a ton of politics at this particular company, and most of them centered on what a difficult person she was to work with and for.

(No wonder she denied the existence of office politics.)

Finally, I made one major mistake during that interview: I failed to ask her about company turn-over. Soon after I started, I learned that she had gone through a conveyor of people who previously held my new position. Not all employers will be upfront about such a thing, and this is something you might learn the hard way. However, there are great websites now that call out toxic bosses and toxic companies. Figure out what they are, and do your research.

Remember this:

Whether you are applying for a campus job, an internship, or a post-college full-time position, you are interviewing a potential employer as much as they are interviewing you. I do not care if you "need the experience." Your time, intelligence, efforts, and emotional wellness are worth more than blindly snagging the first position that is thrown your way.

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