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11 Tips to Avoid a Toxic Boss in Your Next Job

Man boss shouting at employee on megaphone

As a career coach, I’m trained to be objective when coaching my clients.  To view situations with loving detachment.

But there are times when I feel fiercely protective over my clients and angry at what they are going through at their place of work.

What could cause this level of anger?

It’s the #1 thing I hear from the majority of my clients: Tales of trying to survive OR escape a toxic boss.

Now, before I continue, let me clarify something here.

There is a difference between a “bad manager” and a “toxic boss.”

A Bad Manager…..

  • Micromanages you
  • Is a task master but doesn’t coach
  • Doesn’t know how to delegate appropriately
  • Doesn’t motivate or inspire

A Toxic Boss…..

  • Belittles you
  • Tears you down and rips you apart in front of an audience (such as your colleagues or your direct reports)
  • Has mal-intent.  Picks apart your capabilities…. NOT with the intent to coach you or help you improve…. but as a power trip
  • Rules by fear.  Is a bully.
  • Isolates you.  Doesn’t want team members sharing information.  Wants to control the narrative.
  • Is on a power trip
  • Is emotionally or verbally abusive

See the difference?  

A toxic boss takes the concept of a “bad manager” to a whole new level.  

Many of my clients embarking on a career change feel gun-shy after coming off a toxic relationship with an abusive boss.

I’m constantly being asked….

How can I avoid a toxic boss in my next job?

The problem with interviews is that they are a lot like a first date. 

Everyone is buttoned up, on best behavior. Yes, of course, you as the interviewee are.  But so is your new prospective boss. That’s why a toxic boss can be so hard to spot at first glance.

Well, put on your safari gear and grab your binoculars – because I’m about to walk you through 10 ways to spot a toxic boss in the wild (& 1 way to avoid them all together.)

Toxic Boss in the wild

1. Learn from your past

Have you ever had a toxic boss before?  Or perhaps you have one currently.

Shut your eyes and put yourself back into the initial interview…. The first conversations you ever had with this person.

What red flags or warning signs might you have ignored?  (no matter how small.)

Where in the process did something feel off?  

Take heed of those warning signs moving forward.  

2. Ask your good bosses for recommendations

Speak to your favorite former bosses.  You know – the good guys.

Tell them about the types of roles or companies you are targeting.

Let them know that one of the most important things you are looking for in a role is an amazing leader (perhaps with a style similar to theirs.)

Ask if they have any recommendations of leaders you should network with.

Bonus points if your good boss has any openings!

3. Read online reviews

Check out company review websites like Glassdoor or Vault.com.  

What you are searching for here is… does this company tolerate bad behavior from bosses?  

Obviously, take this input with a grain of salt, as we all know the angriest of employees are often the ones to leave reviews.  

But again, this is just you clue-gathering and gaining insight.

4. Interview questions

Ask your prospective boss smart questions during the interview.

For example:

  • What type of team member gels best with you and what type of person does not?
  • What led to your team’s success?   (Undercover – you are sniffing out narcissistic tendencies or potential favoritism.)
  • What are some of the company’s problems? And what do you think caused them?  (Notice whether the answer is a “blame game” or “finger pointing” at other departments…. or worse their own department.)
  • How do you deliver tough feedback?  (They will probably have a cookie-cutter answer here, but note if they are struggling to answer. Or if they are overly-cocky with telling you they’ll give you direct feedback whether you want it or not.)
  • How do you support your team in achieving goals?
  • How would your team describe your management style?  (Notice you aren’t asking how the boss would describe it… you’re asking how their team would describe it.)

*Disclaimer* Watch HOW YOU ask these questions.  You don’t want this to come across as an interrogation. Put a smile on your face and let these questions roll out from a place of genuine curiosity.

5. Body language

Watch their body language as they respond to your questions.

This can potentially be more telling than the actual words coming out of their mouth.

During the tough questions….

  • Do they avert eye contact?
  • Shift in their seat?
  • Look uncomfortable?
  • Scramble to come up with an answer?
  • Get defensive?

6. Interview rapport

Did she show up on time for the interview or did you feel as though you were being blown off?

Did she seem genuinely interested in you?  Or is she distracted or disengaged (checking her phone or clock.)

Do most of her answers involve “me,” “I” or “my idea?” 

Does she interrupt or override your answers?

Does she directly answer your questions or do you get vague answers?

How do you witness her interacting with others? (From the executive assistant to other team members.)

7. Recruiter questions

Pick the recruiter’s brain as well.

For example:

  • How long has the team been in place?  (Gauging turnover)
  • Why did the last person in this role leave?

8. Feel out other colleagues

Find creative ways to feel out your future colleagues.

If you are already scheduled to meet with other colleagues, just prepare your questions.

If not, consider asking, “Can I speak to some members of the team to learn more about the team culture?”

A good leader won’t mind this once you are in the final interview stages.

Ask your colleagues questions like…

  • What is your favorite thing about working with this boss?
  • What is her management style?

9. LinkedIn reference check

Get on LinkedIn and find out who in your network might have worked with this boss in the past.  

Or perhaps you have a warm connection that can link you to someone who used to work with your boss. (Leverage your second-tier connections)

“Hi _______.  My name is Betty Kempa and I’m currently interviewing with XYZ company for the ABC role.  I noticed on LinkedIn you used to hold this role as well. I know you’re likely extremely busy, but I would so appreciate being able to hear a little bit about your experience in this role.  Would you have 10-15 minutes to chat over the phone with me?”

10. Gut check

After your interview…. Shut your eyes… breathe deeply and notice:

a) Do you feel expansive and excited?  Imagine getting caught in an elevator with this new boss.

OR

b) Do you feel constricted and heavy?  Do you have a lump in your throat or a tightened chest?

11. Become a your own boss

No, I’m not saying that if you want to avoid toxic bosses, you need to get out and become a freelancer.

However, if you function well with autonomy and would rather fire a bad client than deal with a toxic boss, the freelancer route might be something to consider.  

The bottom line is….

You do NOT deserve to be mistreated.

You deserve so much more than that.  

And you are not alone.  

Get some support. 

Build up your career transition army. 

And let’s do this.

HAVE I LIT A FIRE UNDERNEATH YOU YET?

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Betty Kempa, CPC, ELI-MP, is an executive career coach helping mid to senior-level corporate women transition out of unfulfilling jobs and into their dream careers. 

Visit:   bettykempa.com

Contact:  coachbetty@bettykempa.com

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