Ask Avery: How Can I Avoid a Toxic Boss in My Next Job?

There is a difference between individual behaviours and patterns of toxicity
Avery Francis (photo: Erin Leydon)

Welcome to CB’s work-advice column, Ask Avery, featuring Avery Francis, founder of workplace design consultancy Bloom. Each month, Francis will answer reader questions on topics that affect our ability to thrive in our jobs, and she’ll offer her real-world insights on how to handle even the most rock-and-a-hard-place conundrums. Have a work-related question? Send it to [email protected] with the subject line “Ask Avery.”

Question: I am doing a bunch of interviews right now as I try to secure a new role. I want to make sure the next team I join is the right fit for me, culture-wise. In my last job, I worked for a toxic boss who would constantly steal my ideas, send me passive-aggressive emails and expect me to work overtime without compensation. I don’t want to walk into a similar situation, as it had a serious impact on my personal and professional well-being and I had to quit. How do I spot the red flags in a job interview and avoid getting into another toxic workplace? — Anxious Interviewee

Answer: First of all, you’re not alone. Nearly all people—93 percent—feel anxiety at some point during the job interview process, which makes sense since many of us have faced the unfortunate reality of working for a narcissistic boss or have dealt with gaslighting at work. Any toxicity at work can impact you. According to job site Monster, a lack of honesty or ethics in a workplace, distrust in senior leaders and unhealthy culture are among the main reasons why people walk out the door. It’s no surprise that you felt you had to leave your toxic workplace, too. 

Interviewers will often be looking to see if you’re a culture fit at a company, but you’ll want to use that time to see if your potential new boss and workplace is the right one for you as well. To start, you need to figure out what toxic means to you, work-wise, and then reverse-interview your would-be manager. 

What does “toxic” mean, anyway?

A boss with toxic behaviour will usually have three traits: disrespecting people, directly damaging you and your ability to do your job, and repeating this behaviour regularly. It’s important to note that being toxic is not the same as having flaws. As humans, we are all deeply flawed and these flaws occasionally come out at work. For bosses, this might manifest as being short-tempered, irritable, or rude on occasion. This is not toxic behaviour unless it becomes a pattern. 

It’s also important to note that you can’t necessarily avoid toxic workplaces throughout your career. It’s not always easy to get straight or honest answers in your interview to questions about whether the workplace is fair, inclusive, and productive; hiring managers will almost always say yes. Instead, you have to look for subtle signs and cues that suggest a workplace might be toxic while you learn more about the opportunity, and ask for examples. 

How to reverse-interview your next boss

Think of an interview as a way to not only sell yourself, but to gather more information and suss out the reality of a workplace. To start, look for patterns throughout your interview. Pay attention to subtle behaviours such as people cutting each other off, dismissive commentary or snide remarks. This type of behaviour could be indicative of a toxic environment or boss. 

Keep in mind that it’s easy to see dismissive comments during the interview and instantly label that person as toxic; it’s neat and gives us a sense of satisfaction for having “found them out” or having “avoided a toxic workplace.” But again, there is a difference between individual behaviours—which might be due to a bad day—and patterns of toxicity. Focus on patterns—something that’s easier to do if you have multiple interviews with your potential next boss.

Ask specific questions

Ahead of an interview, clearly identify the behaviours that, over time and consistently, make a workplace toxic for you. Your job is not to identify every possible toxic behaviour, but to identify what creates real barriers to you having an affirming workplace experience. Ask yourself, what’s toxic in terms of hurting your ability to do your job versus an irritation you can live with? With this list, you can ask specific questions in your interview such as, “Can you explain your process for valid employee complaints?” or, “What’s your policy on emailing outside of business hours—are people expected to reply at all hours?”

You can also ask your future boss questions that will help you understand how they manage. This is key, as you’ll want to get a hint of what your day-to-day will look like. Ask questions like: “What does success look like on your team?” and “Will we be able to have regular catch-up sessions or one-on-ones?” Use their responses to help you understand if you’ll get the type of boss-employee relationship you are hoping for. If you dealt with a boss who was passive aggressive in the past or limited your advancement, you might want to ask, “How do you provide feedback and support employee growth?” 

If you’ve had a bad experience with workplace bullying or a lack of inclusivity, ask, “How does X company support diversity and inclusion in the workplace?” That question can help indicate if a boss prioritizes the well-being of their team and values a safe working environment for everyone.

Importantly, be sure that when a boss or hiring manager is answering your questions, they give you real-world examples. For instance, if a boss says, “We never email after 5 p.m. unless we have a project deadline. This happens about once a month when we work with a certain client that often has a heavier workload than most, and requires us to put in some overtime,” you’re getting a more accurate response based on the reality of the workplace. Put differently, examples and real stories help show you how much you can trust their words—they’re not simply telling you to trust them without backing them up. 

Use “I” statements to clarify your understanding

A common misunderstanding is that once you have a job offer, that’s it—you take it or leave it. The reality is you can still ask clarifying questions that only make sense post-offer, for instance understanding the offer to see if it matches your expectations. I recommend sharing past experiences where you’ve found yourself in a toxic work environment, for example working for a boss that expected email responses at all hours. Communicate that this is a boundary that you don’t want to cross again. Then explain that you want this job opportunity to work for everyone, and clarify with the question, “Based on the experiences I’ve shared, do you think my expectations are aligned with the workplace experience you offer?” By asking about the overall workplace and clearly stating this is a boundary you don’t want to cross, you are asking about ongoing patterns—whether it happens at all, is a rare occurrence, or is the norm. If this happens rarely, they might say so and warn you. But if it’s a frequent situation, the answer might be that the role isn’t a fit after all.

Interviewing can often feel one-way, but remember you have power in the situation, too. You can (and should) ask questions throughout the hiring process. It’s better to understand what you’re potentially getting into ahead of time, as much as possible, rather than walking into a new job without considering workplace culture.