One of the best ways to avoid being damaged by a bully boss, and to avoid becoming a workplace jerk yourself (recall that asshole poisoning is a contagious disease), is to do a little homework: find out if your future boss is a known asshole.
Last year, Guy Kawasaki and I worked together, along with the folks from LinkedIn, to develop a list of 10 warning signs that you are about to go to work for an asshole boss. Essentially, the idea here is, just as a smart employer does reference checks on you as a potential employee, you would be wise to do check-up on your potential new boss (and his or her company too). You can use this list whether you are moving to another organization or changing jobs inside an organization.
1. Kisses-up and kicks-down: “How does the prospective boss respond to feedback from people higher in rank and lower in rank?” “Can you provide examples from experience?” One characteristic of certified assholes is that they tend to demean those who are less powerful while brown-nosing their superiors.
2. Can’t take it: “Does the prospective boss accept criticism or blame when the going gets tough?” Be wary of people who constantly dish out criticism but can’t take a healthy dose themselves.
3. Short fuse: “In what situations have you seen the prospective boss lose his temper?” Sometimes anger is justified or even effective when used sparingly, but someone who “shoots-the-messenger” too often can breed a climate of fear in the workplace. Are co-workers scared of getting in an elevator with this person?
4. Bad credit: “Which style best describes the prospective boss: gives out gratuitous credit, assigns credit where credit is due, or believes everyone should be their own champion?” This question opens the door to discuss whether or not someone tends to take a lot of credit while not recognizing the work of his or her team.
5. Canker sore: “What do past collaborators say about working with the prospective boss?” Assholes usually have a history of infecting teams with nasty and dysfunctional conflict. The world seems willing to tolerate talented assholes, but that doesn’t mean you have to.
6. Flamer: What kind of email sender is the prospective boss? Most assholes cannot contain themselves when it comes to email: flaming people, carbon-copying the world, blind carbon copying to cover his own buttocks. Email etiquette is a window into one’s soul.
7. Downer: “What types of people find it difficult to work with the prospective boss? What type of people seem to work very well with the prospective boss?” Pay attention to responses that suggest “strong-willed” or “self-motivated” people tend to work best with the prospective boss because assholes tend to leave people around them feeling de-energized and deflated.
8. Card shark: “Does the prospective boss share information for everyone’s benefit?” A tendency to hold cards close to one’s chest—i.e., a reluctance to share information—is a sign that this person treats co-workers as competitors who must be defeated so he or she can get ahead.
9. Army of one: “Would people pick the prospective boss for their team?” Sometimes there is upside to having an asshole on your team, but that won’t matter if the coworkers refuse to work with that person. Use this question to help determine if the benefit of having the prospective boss on your team outweighs any asshole behaviors.
10. Open architecture: “How would the prospective boss respond if a copy of The No Asshole Rule appeared on her desk?” Be careful if the answer is, “Duck!”
Please let me know if you have more ideas about other warning signs that a future boss is likely to be a demeaning creep. And if you have stories about how you’ve been able to spot these creeps in advance, that is even better. As my Stanford colleague Chip Heath (of Made to Stick fame) likes to say (to paraphrase), “statistics show that people remember and act on stories a lot better than statistics.”