Finding the Right Boss

By Advice for Twentysomethings
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 13, 2006

New jobs are always risky. Even if you hated your last job, there's a chance that this one, somehow, could be even worse. And there's nothing you can do about it.

Except there is. It's called the job interview. While we spend most of our interview energy worrying about how to be the candidate of choice, we forget that we have a choice of our own to make: our next boss.

"Too often, we get caught up in an attitude of 'pick me, pick me, pick me,' when we really should be giving more thought to whether a place is right for us," said Bill Pullen, a career coach in the District.

Few things have more impact on your happiness at work than the person you answer to every day. And while experienced workers might feel they have more leverage to be discriminating, it's really the younger ones who should be most careful. "Your first boss, if they are a good mentor, is worth the biggest salary in the world," said Robin Ryan, a career counselor in Newcastle, Wash.

Here are a few signs to watch for during your next interview to help you find a boss you respect:

· Meetings with all the right people. If you don't have an interview with the person who will be your direct supervisor, watch out. "I would never take a job if I hadn't met the person who would be my boss," Pullen said. It doesn't matter if the employer gives a seemingly innocent excuse for why your prospective boss isn't on the interview schedule, such as an illness or vacation. Offer to come back and meet with her when she returns. The not-so-innocent scenarios include a boss who has just been sacked, or worse, one who the human resources staff is afraid would scare off prospective employees.

· A willingness to talk about himself. It's not appropriate to grill the interviewer about his qualifications, but it's perfectly acceptable to ask about his education and experience, and how he wound up in his job. You're trying to get a sense of whether you can learn from this person, Ryan said. Also, ask about his management style and what kind of employee he works best with. Weigh that against what you know about your own personality.

· A positive vibe about the person who held the job before. Ask your prospective boss what happened to the last person who held the position for which you're applying. Did he get promoted? Leave the company for a competitor? Head back to grad school? Does this trajectory match where you would like to go? Also, what's the prospective boss's attitude about this person? Does she seem proud of her former charge? Did she help him move into the new job? If the last person was laid off, consider that a major red flag, Ryan said. "If the company is replacing someone who had 10 years of experience with someone fresh out of school, that's a sign the business is in trouble." Be wary.

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