Erin was in her early thirties (and, four jobs into her career) when she came to me with a not-so-simple question:

"How can I tell if a hiring manager will be a total micromanager?"

A string of bad experiences with bosses she felt had been overbearing and checking her work too often had left her frustrated and doubtful she could ever find a job where she could work independently. As we unpacked her career story, we found she had been drawn to her previous employers because they talked in-depth during the interview process about how they like to make sure each employee is successful. Lots of "training and on-going support" were marketed to her as part of the job opportunity. Unfortunately, as she got established in each role, she realized this was code for what she believed was excessive checks and balances. This is something I encourage every professional to understand about themselves when seeking employment. While that type of environment is great for some people. Others, like Erin, don't enjoy it. It's up to you as the job seeker to try to figure that out before you accept the job - or suffer the consequences.

How Can You Tell If A Boss Is a Micromanager?

Truthfully, the single best way to know for sure is to speak to current and former employees of the hiring manager. However, that's not always simple to do. Especially, when you're being put through a confidential hiring process. You may not have easy access to those individuals. And, you may not be in a position to spend time reaching out and trying to connect with them.

That said, here's one question you should ask in the hiring process that will help you tell if your potential boss is a micromanager.

"Tell me about a time when someone you hired really failed you. What did the person do wrong and what can I learn from his or her mistakes?" 

When you ask this question,  you give the hiring manager an opportunity to tell you what he or she doesn't want in an employee. At the same time, you're able to hear how they interact with employees they're frustrated with. For example, which of these two responses would indicate this hiring manager is a micromanager?

ANSWER A: I had an employee once who never updated me on his progress on projects. I found myself having to email or stop by his desk constantly to make sure he was on track. Often times, I would review his work and realize he wasn't following our strict processes. I would either have to coach him to start over or do the work myself. I eventually let him go because I could never trust him to deliver the work properly.

ANSWER B: I had an employee once who struggled to take ownership. Each person is paid to do a job and I trust they will be resourceful and get their work done correctly and on time. If they need help or feedback, I expect them to seek it out proactively. In his case, deadlines would hit and we'd find out he wasn't done. I eventually let him go because I could never trust him to deliver the work properly.

See the difference? Asking an open-ended question about someone who didn't succeed under their leadership will reveal all sorts of important information in terms of expectations. And more importantly, what they're like as a manager.

P.S. The quality of the questions you ask in an interview matter!

Being good at answering interview questions is important, but don't forget to consider the quality of the questions you ask. The more strategic you are in your line of questioning, the more you'll be able to determine if the company and the hiring manager are a good fit for your career goals. Today, smart job seekers are actually job shoppers. They do their homework and pursue opportunities they know will make them happier. Career satisfaction comes from knowing you had control over the process. Learning to assess a job opportunity is key to finding greater professional happiness.

Published on: Jan 15, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.