How to spot a bad boss before it's too late

You go for a job interview, answer all their questions and then there's that inevitable moment: do you have any questions for us? This is your moment to find out whether you want the job and, in particular, what kind of person your putative boss might be. So what are the questions that will reveal his or her true colors?
  1. Of all the people you've worked for, who are you proudest of -- and why? You want to work for someone who will help you grow, develop and advance. If this boss hasn't helped people progress, this could indicate a fear of rivals -- in which case, you'll be held back. It may also suggest that no significant mentoring or coaching will occur, in which case: what, apart from salary, will you gain from the position? On the other hand, if the executive can cite a number of people who've gone on to a wide range of opportunities, you could be onto a winner.
  2. Can you describe a disagreement within the project, job or department and how it was resolved? All healthy departments argue: that is how organizations think. If there's no debate, there's no thinking. What you want to glean from the answer is whether there is a professional level of confidence around healthy disagreement. If there isn't, then your own views won't be welcome -- a sure sign that politics trump intelligence. Avoid.
  3. Are there formal opportunities to mentor or coach rising stars in the firm? If you can't be a mentor, it's highly likely you won't get one either. Many job candidates hesitate to ask if they'll get mentoring or coaching (they think it looks weak), so this can be a good way to find out without appearing to ask.
  4. What did the last person in this position go onto do -- and what were they like? The background to a vacant position is always interesting. If the past incumbent left under a cloud, some of that opprobrium may attach to the position -- in which case, beware. If they've advanced inside the firm, it means you could too. If no one really knows -- they're lying and you should have a serious rethink. It's helpful to know how the job was done before, if only because it is far easier to follow someone who is different; if they're too similar, you may find it difficult to assert your own identity.
  5. How far have the expectations and requirements of the position changed since it was first created? If it hasn't changed at all, there's a high likelihood that this is a pretty stable -- but possibly rigid -- organization. Whether that is to your taste or not is a personal choice. But you want to know before you go any further whether you're jumping into a torrid or a stagnant pond.
None of these questions will get you into trouble -- but they may stop you jumping into it.

Article by Margaret Heffernan. Margaret has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.
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A change agent who successfully led and supported HR transformations across a variety of industries, making significant progress in reducing costs and improving operating effectiveness through HR system and process improvements, organizational excellence programs (EFQM Model), shared services, centers of excellence, outsourcing and employee self-service. Commercially oriented and capable of driving the best practices in the areas of HR business partnering, talent management, total rewards, performance management, talent acquisition, HR information systems and localization.