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July 8, 2011
Bad Boss, Bad Boss: Watcha Gonna Do When They Come For You?
I received an email from a recruiter with a blind job posting for an advertising agency in Florida. It read like a great opportunity for an Associate Creative Director and the money was in the six figures. I had no interest in moving south, so I passed the email on to a friend who I thought would be interested. He replied that he knew of this gig and when he mentioned the name of the company, I knew who they were, too. I had been advised in the past by colleagues that the place did not have a great reputation as a place to work, especially for creatives. My friend wasn’t interested in the position even though he would like to live in Florida and the job seemed to be written with him in mind. The agency is very successful and it made me wonder: why wouldn’t a company care about employee well-being and high turnover rates, especially when the company’s bread and butter — their clients — crave stability from their vendors and service organizations? Was a bad boss leading the organization?
Look, I know that there are many successful companies with managers that respect their employees and work hard to make them happy. I also know that there seems to be an equal number of companies and bosses that chew up and spit out workers on a regular basis, from the “MegaMarts” to the mom-and-pop widget maker. They built their success on the backs of their employees and they know that they can replace them at any time. I’d like to blame the present economy that’s put millions of workers out of work, but bad employers have been around for centuries. The pyramids were built with slave labor and yet we look upon them now as monuments to great achievements. Fictional Bob Cratchit took the abuse of his employer just so he could keep his family warm and fed. Unlike Scrooge, however, most bad bosses don’t receive visitations from three spirits warning them to mend their evil ways.
I’ve heard horror stories about bad bosses from many colleagues and I’ve experienced firsthand working with both the good and bad. I’ve also made my own judgment errors when it comes to determining what kind of superior I’d be working with and how they could potentially make my working life a great experience or a hell on earth. By the way, this isn’t advice on how to work with a “bosszilla” but how to avoid one in the first place. So, based on my mistakes, here’s what I would advise for the job seeker:
Do some research beyond the company’s website by looking for those “Top 100 Places to Work” lists and see if the company is on it. Every town has a business journal with similar lists online, and many local newspapers have articles on businesses. Search for any positive or negative press.
Similar to the previous statement, check the company’s job postings. I’ve seen some companies post the same job opening every six months. Whoa…something is wrong there. Either they’re making bad hiring decisions or the place is a nuthouse to work in. I’d go with the latter.
If you interview with the boss, pay careful attention to their demeanor. During one interview, I went to dinner with my potential boss and as we were crossing the street in front of the restaurant, a homeless man asked us for some change. The boss whirled around and literally screamed at the startled man to “back off” and leave us alone. That should have been a bright red flag lit with floodlights. Is that how he acts when asked for a raise?
If you’re at the company’s offices, take a look at the other employees and, if possible, talk to a couple. They won’t say anything negative, but by their body language, clipped conversation, or deer-caught-in-headlights look they may want to run screaming from the office. Or they might appear to be genuinely happy, friendly, and well adjusted. Either way, you get a rough idea about what it’s like to be an employee there.
This may sound goofy but drive by the company’s offices a couple of times during the week after hours and see how many cars are parked and if the offices are lit up. If it seems frequent, then either they’re super busy (good) or super mismanaged (bad). At least you’d have a couple of good questions to ask at a second interview.
This is all very unscientific, of course, and even if you do the best of due diligence, you may end up at the wrong place at the wrong time. I did and I wish I had paid more attention up front when my 20/20 vision wasn’t so blurry!

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Steve James owned and creative directed an advertising and design studio in Buffalo, NY with the un-snappy name of SteveJamesDesign, Inc. Steve and his family now live in Indianapolis where he worked as a Creative Director and he is currently in transition, flux, metamorphosis, segue, or whatever looking for work is now called.

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