Avoiding Bad Bosses: How to Spot Poor Leadership at Interview

Avoiding Bad Bosses: How to Spot Poor Leadership at Interview

Have a job interview lined-up and want to know if the employer is right for you? From punctuality to what questions they ask, we tell you how to spot a bad boss in an interview situation

So you’re looking to get yourself back into employment, or you’re seeking out a new challenge in the working world. The first hurdle of perfecting a bespoke CV and covering letter has been completed and now you wait for the congratulatory invite to interview or the dreaded future-endeavour generic email.

At long last, the former arrives and now ‘all’ you need to do is prepare to impress to nail that new position down. But is impressing a prospective employer the only thing a candidate should be thinking about?

Perhaps not. We’re conditioned to think that way to get the job of our dreams, or the one providing income that should help with those rising mortgage payments, credit card bills, Christmas presents, and holidays. But that is not all. Yes, you want to impress those who are interviewing you. But a very pertinent question is are they impressing you? 

During the week, we spend more time with the people we work with than we do with our friends and family. Do you want to spend that time working for somebody who makes your life miserable? Clearly not. How, then, can you spot the signs of a bad boss during an interview and raise the red flag over future employment at that company? Well Agency Central is here to help.

All staff want to feel that they are appreciated by their organisation so it’s crucial that companies actively recognise the efforts and talents of their employees.

The importance of a good boss

Having a boss that is understanding of you, your strengths and your needs is of paramount importance. Of course, earning a living generally comes first and foremost but who wants to go into their place of work every day to an employer who isn’t compatible with them and causes friction? Therefore, it is important that you’re alert from the first moment you walk through the doors of a company for an interview. 

I must admit that I have been guilty previously of being so single-minded about securing employment in an interview that I have ignored actions that were clear warning signs about the person I would be working for (and have come to regret it).

A recent interview raised so many red flags that it was obviously not a place I wanted to work. It also opened my eyes to just how much valuable information a candidate can gather by being observant during an interview.

It was an error on this writer’s part in the past and seems to be a trap that others have fallen into all too often. This is plainly apparent with the various employee surveys that have been published in the past year. At the start of 2015, the Institute of Leadership & Management (ILM) conducted one such survey of more than 1,000 workers in the UK to find out whether they plan to stay in their jobs or not. 

ILM is the UK’s leading provider of leadership, coaching, management qualifications and training and 37% of the respondents from its survey said they were making plans to leave work in 2015. This is up from 19% and 13% who thought the same in 2014 and 2013 respectively. 

The chief reason for people wanting to leave work according to this survey is the opportunity to go somewhere with better chances of progression. However, almost a third of respondents put their desire to change jobs down to wanting better management, while 25% say they are under-appreciated by those in managerial positions. 

Charles Elvin is the Chief Executive of ILM and following the survey, he said: “All staff want to feel that they are appreciated by their organisation so it’s crucial that companies actively recognise the efforts and talents of their employees.”

Therefore, it shows that employees commonly find management is a block on their happiness at work. If a person was more vigilant though, could these signs have been detected at the candidate stage during the interview? If they can, it would make a candidate’s life much smoother. 

The survey from ILM isn’t the only one with this trend. In August, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) – a professional body committed to people development – published results from another survey. It seems to confirm that people leave managers rather than jobs, given that 42% of the 1,374 respondents said they have left jobs because of what they deem to be a bad boss.

In addition, 30% of people said that they currently work for a bad boss – again, this is something that could be negated at the interview if the candidate is looking for the signs. 

Conducted by B2B marketplace Approved Index, the survey is interesting because its findings show exactly why candidates should look for signs as to the type of person they will be working for at the interview stage. In the survey, 41% of people said that lack of recognition is the reason they do not like their boss. Meanwhile, 40% of respondents said they feel overworked by their manager. Industries that fared poorly for bad bosses include Entertainment, Food, Architecture and Fashion

The Editor of the Approved Index, Tribly Rajna, spoke of the importance of a working environment that is positive for employees: “The relationship between bosses and their employees is an interesting concept and it’s really important to have a good working environment. It’s something that we really pride ourselves on so we just wanted to see how people are feeling in their jobs with their relationships with their boss.”

CIPD’s own research into management quality suggests candidates would be wise to gain as much information about a potential boss as possible during the interview. The report is called ‘Are UK organisations getting better at managing their people?’ It follows on from 2003’s Porter and Ketels report which expressed how important management quality is.

Worryingly, the report shows very little improvement in the quality of UK management in the last 10 years, despite a change in practices. Within this, there is the feeling that management processes are not applied consistently, which breeds an environment where employees do not trust those higher up. Indeed, only a third of people said they trust senior management at their company. 

 It is clear to see that a key driver for people leaving a job is if there is a poor working relationship with a manager. All of these surveys and reports point to this issue and it begs the wider question, how can this be eradicated? In truth, complete eradication is nigh-on impossible, and although organisations will try to address the issues, an employee can save themselves hassle if they are able to detect the warning signs when they are a candidate at an interview. 

Being laser-focused on getting the job can sometimes cloud your judgement.

Spotting a bad boss

Before you go into any interview, it goes without saying that you need to be prepared. Make sure you know the ins and outs about where you are applying, and think of questions to ask too. If there’s a company website, coming up with little critiques of it and suggestions of improvements will show you’ve done your homework and have an interest in the company. 

Up to this point, everything is great. But an imperative element of the interview is to remember this; an interview is a two-way street. Yes, you want to impress, but they have to impress you too. Are you paying attention to idiosyncrasies during the process, or any habits from your interviewer?

What you see and hear can give you all the clues you need, so it’s important to be alert to any warning signs. What can you spot during the interview to suggest this boss is perhaps one that it would be best to avoid?

We’re conditioned to feel as though we – the candidate – have to impress and that is the only purpose of an interview. The vast majority of us feel that way because, put simply, we can’t afford to be picky. Everybody would like to get on in their career but even if an interviewer or boss gives a bad vibe during the interview, it is often ignored because the security of income and a place on the job ladder overrides this. 

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review touches on this. The author raises an interesting point that everybody is guilty of: “Being laser-focused on getting the job can sometimes cloud your judgement.” Because of how prioritised this is, candidates overlook the warning signs of a bad manager. This article encourages candidates to ask themselves after each stage of the interview, whether they would want to work for this manager.

Understandable as it is, candidates should be able to work where they feel comfortable, yet challenged; appreciated, yet pushed. The first place to give a clear indication of whether or not this can be expected is, of course, the interview.

Imagine getting to an interview early, ready and prepared, only to find yourself waiting around. What sort of message does that send out?


How often have you been told before attending an interview that first impressions matter? I’d imagine this is a common theme, going back to careers advice at school. As well as dressing in smart attire, the best way to make a good first impression is to arrive for your interview in good time. Only a small thing, granted, but it sets you off on the right path, and will most probably mean you are not nervous to start off with.

What if the shoe is on the other foot though? Imagine getting to an interview early, ready and prepared, only to find yourself waiting around. What sort of message does that send out?

Not a great one. Indeed, it gives the distinct impression that the general standards of the company are not high if they are willing to leave people waiting around, and more importantly, it shows a lack of respect for the candidate or the time they are spending to secure the job.

Imagine if you are unemployed, do not have much disposable income, have to pay travel costs to get to your interview to find that impression waiting for you. Disheartening to say the least.

The writer has experience in this field – an interview started almost 30 minutes late – with no apologies given. It immediately raises red flags, and that’s without touching on the interview structure.

Of course, a caveat is that unforeseen circumstances can result in tardiness. If addressed early and relayed to somebody else in the organisation to inform you on your arrival, leeway can be given. Unfortunately, in the above scenario, the ‘unforeseen circumstance’ was lunch. Candidates would rightly ask if this is a person they would feel comfortable working for.

I had a terrible one (interview) at a well-known university where the main interviewer spent the first half checking his emails and the second half checking his mobile. I nearly walked out.

Focus during the interview

Even if the boss who is interviewing has turned up on time – which should be the bare minimum of expectations – more vigilance is needed on the part of the candidate. There are tell-tale signs throughout the interview that, if they manifest, should raise serious questions about the type of boss you would be working for. 

Remember, the whole point of the interview is so the company can ascertain if you are suitable for the role you are applying for. Do you fit the competencies? Will your personality fit into the office environment? How then, can a manager be certain of this if their focus is not on the job in hand?

They cannot, is the simple answer and you as a candidate need to be mindful if this strays.

What is the interviewer’s concentration like? Is he/she engaged in what they are asking and what you are saying or are they distracted by something else? If the candidate finds the latter is the answer, there is a serious problem. It is not uncommon for this to be the case, as Agency Central have discovered. 

An employee at a university in England told us about an interview years before, where he outlined the poor practices of the interviewer at a ‘well-known university’. He said: “I had a terrible one (interview) at a well-known university where the main interviewer spent the first half checking his emails and the second half checking his mobile. I nearly walked out.”

Undoubtedly, there are huge warnings in this scenario because the interviewer can’t possibly have known everything about the candidate in question as he/she simply wasn’t paying enough attention.

And if he doesn’t pay enough attention regarding an important decision like this, what other mistakes does he make during work? Alarm bells are ringing loudly here and there are huge reasons why a candidate would not want to work for this organisation.

The candidate in question, who asked to remain anonymous, told Agency Central he came second in the interview process but was later asked by the interviewer if he would take the job if negotiations with the first choice fell through. Unsurprisingly, it was not an offer he took up. 

He made his disappointment with the attitude during the interview known, adding: “I obviously said I felt uncomfortable working for that person and would decline at that stage anyway.” 

It is a clear case of how the candidate valued who he would be working for ahead of actually securing employment. The reason for this was the number of red flags the employer’s behaviour had raised in the interview. 

These are not the only signs that can be picked up. What type of questions are you asked in the interview? The average candidate can experience interviews that include competency-based assignments, questions that drive to the heart of whether your skill-set suits the job, along with interaction with the company decision makers. The same candidates can also have interviews where they are asked their favourite gigs and their hopes and dreams.

Are these entirely useless questions? Probably not, but they barely scratch the surface of suitability to the role. It can also point to poor preparation from the interviewer.

A Huffington Post article from last year says a staggering one in five hiring managers have asked questions that they should not in the interview. 

Types of questions

As well as gauging your suitability to the role, the interview process is commonly used to find out about the candidate. This should not take precedent over competencies, as outlined above, but there sometimes will be occasions where the interviewer tries to find out more about the person they are interviewing.

However, some questions are strictly off-limits. Moreover, it paints a poor picture of the potential boss if they are asking something they should not be, indicating they are at best not experienced enough to hold the position they do, or at worse, completely unethical.

A Huffington Post article from last year says a staggering one in five hiring managers have asked questions that they should not in the interview. Even more worrying is that many didn’t seem to know that they couldn’t ask such questions.

Asking such questions, the article says, “could ruin a job candidate’s chances at getting the position, and the hiring manager could be putting the company at risk for legal action.”

A page gives a list of protected characteristics that candidates should not be asked about during an interview. Despite this guidance, there is no guarantee that the questions will not be asked so you need to be guarded.

Employers should not be asking you, as a candidate, whether you are married or not, nor should you be quizzed about your health, unless reasonable adjustments are needed for somebody to carry out the job. It is also an absolute no-no regarding questions about whether you have a family or plan to start one. These can clearly lead to discrimination and if you are asked any in an interview, you should understandably be wary.

Indeed, if they do, candidates will understandably feel they are not being judged on their competencies. Additionally, it shows a lack of knowledge if your potential employer does not realise these questions cannot be asked. Again, this sets alarm bells ringing and you have every right to ask yourself whether you want to work for a person like this. 


There are signs throughout the interview process that candidates must pay attention to. These will help, along with your gut instincts during proceedings, to help you decide if the employer sat opposite is one you want to work for. Their interactions with the rest of the office or interview panel should not be ignored either, and should be used by a candidate as nuggets of information about the person in charge of the company. 

It is important not to sell yourself short in an interview. While this means you should prepare thoroughly for the challenge ahead, candidates should also make sure they are not sold short by taking a job that involves being employed by somebody they are not comfortable with. If you pay attention throughout in order to make sure the interviewer is as engaged as you are, the chances of you working for somebody who will be the boss you always wanted are much higher.