Bad Bosses: 5 Telltale Signs

In most cases, managers can make or break a career. How to know if your boss is merely frustrating or truly bad.


It’s a common refrain in talent management: People don’t quit companies—they quit bosses. 

The Great Resignation may be over, and the talent pendulum may have swung back in favor of employers, but recent data suggests workers aren’t getting what they need from managers. One recent study found that employees are turning to AI for mentoring or career advice because they feel managers don’t have the time or interest to guide them. More than 40% of employees in another study described the performance-review process as “disappointing,” and said that it failed to help them understand how to improve their work. 

Korn Ferry Advance career coach David Meintrup says it’s an accumulation of behaviors, rather than one overarching issue, that typically leads employees to quit managers. “Blind spots can turn a good manager bad and cause a bad manager to force people to leave,” he says. Some warning signs, such as micromanaging, are both common and obvious. Here’s a list of red flags from our experts that will help employees recognize a bad boss. 

They avoid face time.

A byproduct of remote work is that managers, like employees, can be hard to find. They may send emails, texts, or messages in internal chatrooms, but when it comes to face-to-face contact, they seem to always be unavailable. Korn Ferry Advance career coach Stacey Perkins says one of her clients went three months without having a conversation with her manager. Granted, managers are as overworked as anyone else, and some may take the position that more autonomy is better than less. But not making time for employees is a major red flag, says Perkins. “People need to see their managers to feel supported,” she says. 

They obsess over appearances.

Beware of managers who frame every decision, whether it is good business or not, according to how it makes them look to their bosses. Meintrup describes managers of this type as “credit stealers” and “blame shifters,” depending on what the situation calls for, and says that they can cripple engagement, trust, and credibility. “Managers who are obsessed with how they appear to their bosses usually don’t care about how you appear to them,” he says. 

They block you from meeting your goals.

A close relation of the appearance-obsessed manager is the boss who holds employees back, often out of fear of losing a productive worker. To be sure, nearly 60% of employees who have turned to AI for mentoring say they are doing so because their managers rarely or never help them pursue opportunities outside of their current department. Tiffinee Swanson, a career and leadership coach with Korn Ferry Advance, says one of her clients’ biggest complaints is that their managers aren’t helping them grow. “If managers aren’t asking about your goals, they likely aren’t interested in helping you achieve them,” Swanson says. An employee should consider it a warning sign, she says, if a manager won’t make time to help guide their career with additional opportunities, stretch assignments, or even networking opportunities. 

They’re gossipmongers.

How would it feel if someone shared something your spouse told them that was entirely different from what they said to you? Employees feel the same way when they hear something from other employees that their manager has never mentioned before, particularly if relates to their performance. “It’s an authenticity killer,” says Meintrup. And, like most gossip, it eventually will get out. In an era where employees expect transparency and communication, it’s a bad sign when managers tell their team or employees one thing and other people something else.

They don’t respect boundaries.

A random call from your boss on the Sunday evening before a big presentation is one thing. Dozens of regular after-hours messages featuring mundane requests are something else entirely. Whether unconsciously or purposefully, a manager who doesn’t respect healthy work-life boundaries is one of the biggest causes of employees leaving. “It’s a signal to the employee that their time is not their own,” says Perkins. 


For more expert career advice, connect with a career coach at Korn Ferry Advance.