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by Vicky Oliver | March 10, 2009

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He speaks to you in shorthand. One grunt signals approval, two grunts means he has some sort of an issue. Today is a two-grunt day.

Past experience with him has taught you humility. You neither squint nor scowl as you try to tease out any problems your boss has identified with your report. He barks an answer barely intelligible to humans.

Toward mid-afternoon, an oblong shadow darkens your desk. You glance up to see your nemesis's pointy chin poised just inches above your head. This visit is a surprise: you had understood that you and your boss would not be meeting again until tomorrowmorning. His coffee breath curls down your forehead and up your nose like smoke. He skims the revised report on your computer screen, scanning for flaws with the intensity of a laser beam. This time he finds none, as evidenced by his low, monosyllabic grunt.

Phew! It seems that you passed his latest stress test. A tear of relief jettisons down your face as you thank him, yes, thank him for his valuable input! But then it hits you like a tree trunk's worth of reports. Why must you supplicate yourself like this? Why must you be at the mercy of a power abuser? You ask yourself -- perhaps for the first time in your career -- if there is any way to shun these Toxic Tommys? Or are you destined to minister to cretins for the rest of Time?

First, recognize that, like getting on Oprah, your odds are slim. Even-handed, communicative bosses are the exception, while the despotic kind of ruler, the rule. However, you can improve your chances of finding a boss whom you respect by delving a bit deeper into his management style the very first time you meet him.

Don't be shy about excavating the niches and craters of his personality, even if you don't like what you find. Following are six questions you can ask during an interview that will help you peer at the man behind the mask. Asking these questions shows that you're really interested plus they function as a personality litmus test. Two red flag answers on his part may indicate that your interviewer has an abusive streak. Should you choose to go forward, at least you’ll be forewarned.

1. "What are some of the frustrations you've experienced while working here?"
Hint: If he starts bad-mouthing his employees it could be a sign that he's impossible to please.
However, if he gripes about top management, he could be on his way out (which could leave you orphaned -- i.e., without a mentor -- in the first critical months at the job.) Try to assess if some of his problems will ease by hiring you. If so, don't be shy about explaining how they will. Doing so could help you both land the job and ingratiate yourself with him once you're on board.
An A+ Answer: "I've been here forever and sometimes worry if we're still keeping our edge. I try to encourage a spirit of entrepreneurialism and ownership within the team structure, but there's probably some room for improvement."
Red Flag: "Honey, get out of here, while the getting's good."

2. "How do you handle a scenario where there is too much work for your employees?"
Hint: Let him come up with his own answer, rather than directing him to a particular one that you may wish to hear.
Most bosses are adept at sugarcoating reality without any assistance on your part. Does he sound compassionate and team-centered or abrasive and self-centered? It could be a cue to his management style.
An A+ Answer: "If our team is overworked, there's often another team that's light on work. We try to redistribute the projects so that everyone has a chance to pitch in. Monday morning staff meetings help keep us honest."
Red Flag: Any kind of a redirect, grunt or curt joke asking you if you really want this job.

3. "What happened to the last person that held this job?"
Hint: A promotion is an excellent sign while a transfer to Siberia probably isn’t.
If the last person who had the job has left the company, try to dig a bit deeper to find out why. It"s natural to express curiosity, but don't pry. And drop the topic if you sense any resistance from your interviewer. Is he still on good terms with his ex-employee? If not, she may have been fired or let go, in which case you should do a bit of sleuthing after you leave the interview. Log onto Vault.com and see if there are any employee surveys from that company. Consult the trades as well. Can you spot any signs of discord between management and employees? Google the name of your interviewer. You might stumble on anything that might indicate he’s a less than stellar boss.
An A+ Answer: "She was promoted, and if you have a few minutes to spare, you're welcome to meet her right now!" (Be smart and take him up on the offer.)
Red Flag: He silently rolls his eyes up into his lids where they appear to stay glued as he says, "Trust me, you don't want to know."

4. "Can you describe your management style?"
Hint: Slip into the role of a shrink on par with Freud: can you identify your interviewer’s m.o.?
Is he "hands on" or more of a delegator? If he's a delegator, are there people under him to whom you'll be reporting? (If so, take care to meet them before signing on. You may also want to delicately probe about their management styles. Did your supervisors-to-be pre-date your boss or start after he arrived? Is he the one who promoted them? How solid is his relationship with them?) Try to get a feel for how your own performance will be judged and who will do the judging. What is the boss's philosophy about promoting go-getters?
An A+ Answer: “I'm basically a hands off guy, unless someone actually requests my guidance. Then I'll bend over backwards to accommodate him."
Red Flag: "I'm very hands on. If it gets to be too much, all you have to do is tell me so." (Yeah, right. Good luck with that!)

5. "Would you be open to me meeting one of my peers at this company?"
Hint: If your interviewer says "no," it's probably a bad omen unless the company is miniscule.
The only reason to meet a peer (when it's not company policy to do so) is to find out his impressions of the team. Your mission is to discover whether he's happy or unhappy at the company, and if so, why. What, if anything, would he like to see changed? Where did he work previously, and how does this company compare? Never ask a peer directly about the boss. Instead, allow his insights about the boss or other team players to bubble to the surface by casually probing about related topics that won't put him on the defensive.
An A+ Answer From A Peer: "Compared to the other places I've worked, things seem fairer here. There is ample opportunity to grow, and I'm in it for the long haul."
Red Flag From A Peer: "John (the boss) has sort of a short trigger, but after awhile, you'll get used to it."

6. "I'm really interested in working here. What are my next steps?"
Hint: If your interviewer hems and haws, it's unlikely that you'll hear back from him.
Best case scenario: at the end of your appointment, the person with whom you've just spent the last forty minutes actually volunteers what your next steps are. Listen for sentiments such as, "I think this could really work out. Let me do what I can to get you back in here within the next week so that you can meet the other players." If you hear something that sounds like a next step, repeat it back to your interviewer, verbatim. For example, you could say, "That's fantastic, Ted. I really look forward to hearing from you next week." (Then follow up with him in precisely seven business days if he doesn't call you first.)
An A+ Answer: "You seem like you'll fit right in. I can't wait to have you meet the rest of the team."
Red Flag: "We're just at the beginning of the hiring process. We are going to be interviewing at least thirty-nine people for this job."

Conclusion:
Abusers come in all shapes and sizes but they are relatively easy to spot if you pay attention in your initial interview. The only reason that you might not is because you've probably been programmed to think of a job interview as an "exam" where you'll be graded on your ability to sell yourself. But considering that you'll spend more time at that job than you do with your spouse or significant other, it's smart to also use the job interview to interview your future boss to see if you are interested. A good interview is a conversation. Get into a dialogue and see what you uncover. If you happen to be out there pounding the pavement right now, recognize that finding a job has some uncanny similarities to dating. Chances are, you would never advocate dating an abusive partner. You also shouldn’t wish for anyone to work for an abusive boss: least of all, yourself!

About the Author: Vicky Oliver is an award-winning copywriter with several years of experience at brand name, top tier advertising agencies in Manhattan. As a freelance writer, Ms. Oliver has written extensively about unemployment and the job search, appearing on the front page of The New York Times Job Market Section, in Adweek magazine, and on Crain's New York Business website. She is also the author of three books, her most recent, Bad Bosses, Crazy Coworkers and Other Office Idiots, was recently featured on a two page spread in Metro NY. She lives in New York City, where she helps people turn around their careers and their lives.

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Filed Under: Workplace Issues

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