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Advice / Job Search / Interviewing

How to Spot a Good Boss in an Interview

When you’re sitting across from your potential future boss at an interview, it can be easy to feel like that time is all about impressing him or her. And while that is a top priority, you should also be sniffing out whether the company—and especially this person—is one you’d like to work for.

You might only have a short 30 minutes to meet your would-be manager in a job interview (and most of that time is spent talking about you), so you’ll have to work fast to determine whether he or she is someone you would want to report to. The following are some things to look for to help you make the right decision.

Look Around the Office

One of the first things to notice in an interview with a possible boss is his or her workspace. Is it sterile and uncomfortable, or are there pictures of smiling faces on the desk? Most managers with families will feature their spouses and kids, but some are more revealing than others—if your interviewer has family shots on a ski holiday, not just posed school portraits, for example, you’ll learn there is more depth to her than just her day job. You might also look for displays of office toys or funny awards from past team building efforts. These objects indicate your potential boss enjoys her job, likes her team, or has a sense of humor—all good qualities in a manager.

Read Between the Lines

Sometimes, interviewers’ questions can reveal more about themselves than anything they could tell you. For instance, if your interviewer asks questions not directly related to work, he is likely to care about you as an individual when you’re working together. A manager who highly values teamwork might want to hear about your volunteer organization, your weekend running group, or how you work among your current co-workers to figure out if you are a good fit. And a manager who is insightful enough to consider the mix of his group when he’s recruiting will likely be a good boss.

You can also get a good idea of whether your prospective employer is a control freak or a delegator by the questions he asks. As you discuss your resume, does he inquire about your past duties and responsibilities more than he asks about extra initiatives you took? If so, he may be seeking an employee who can fulfill his requests precisely. On the other hand, interviewers who are eager to discuss your creative initiatives or who ask for your opinions on strategies might be assessing leadership abilities. Those types of bosses will be delegators, seeking employees who can take assignments and run with them.

Mind the Interviewing Style

Your potential boss’ style in the interview probably reveals more about the way he or she manages direct reports than anything else. Consider the power of body language: If she smiled and walked around to your side of her desk to welcome you, she’s likely to be more of an inclusive manager. She’s trying to make you feel at ease and assess your true character. Or, if she stayed on her side of the desk and jumped right into the interview, she may be trying to demonstrate the type of manager-subordinate relationship she expects.

That being said, some managers—even more relaxed ones—employ pressure interview tactics to see if you can hold up to stresses in the office. Just because your interviewer is asking sweat-inducing questions, doesn’t mean she’ll be a nightmare to work with. But if she never lets up during the entire half hour, then there’s a good chance she’s showing not just her interview style, but her real personality.

Choose Your Questions Carefully

Think of your brief interview as a speed-dating exercise with your future boss. You want to figure out if you share the same values to see if it’s a match. Some of the questions you can ask include: “Why did you pick the career you did?” “What do you like most about your job?” and “What are your frustrations with work?” The answers will tell you how much passion your prospective employer has about his job and which values are most important to him in a career.

But don’t only pay attention to your potential boss’ answers to these questions; look at how he answers them. Chances are, he’s conducted a number of interviews for your position and may be tired of the same questions. Nonetheless, he should answer them with respect and interest. The way he responds will tell you something about his ability to be patient with subordinates’ ongoing requests for help.

As a side note, if you’re able to interview or meet with other members of the team, use the opportunity to ask what it’s like working for your potential boss. No one’s going to really give you the bad news, of course, but you can tell when people are really singing their manager’s praises—and that’s a good sign.

As Malcolm Gladwell said in his acclaimed book, Blink, “But there are moments, particularly in times of stress, when haste does not make waste, when our snap judgements and first impressions can offer a much better means of making sense of the world.” Although Gladwell wasn’t writing specifically about an interview with a prospective boss, he could have been. If you pay attention to cues from the person sitting across from you, your snap judgements and first impressions should hold a lot of weight in whether he or she would be someone you’d like to work for.

Photo of interview courtesy of Shutterstock.