December 18 2007: 9:37 AM EST
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When the prospective boss is a mystery

If the company you're interviewing with hasn't introduced you to the manager you'd report to, what should you do? Fortune's Anne Fisher has advice.

By Anne Fisher, Fortune senior writer

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(Fortune) -- Dear Annie: Due to a merger between my employer and another company, I've been job hunting for a couple of months. (I still have a job, but opportunities are limited in the new combined entity, so I figure I'll move on.) With almost 20 years in financial management experience, I'm considered a "catch" by companies who are beefing up their compliance teams, and I've had two very attractive offers.

Here's the problem: At the company I'd really like to work for, I feel I'm getting the runaround. Despite three rounds of interviews so far, all of which went really well, I still haven't met the CFO, the person I'd be reporting to directly. During my last visit, I came right out and asked when I'd be meeting him, but was told he's "very busy right now." Then someone in the room changed the subject, so I never really got an answer. What do you make of this? Should I insist on meeting with the CFO before I accept the position? -You Can Call Me Ray

Dear Ray: Here's what I make of it: There are at least two distinct possibilities here. The first one is that these folks want to sack the CFO but he doesn't know it yet, in which case they are hoping to keep you (his replacement) under wraps as long as they can. The second possibility is that the CFO is such a dreadful person, and so lacking in those everyday social graces we usually call "people skills," that your interlocutors are afraid you'll have one quick chat with him and bolt for the door. So I'd say what's going on here is likely something sneaky or scary, and neither bodes well for you.

But don't take my word for it. Ken Siegel, Ph.D., is president of the Impact Group (www.theimpactgroupinc.com), a Los Angeles-based firm of organizational psychologists who consult to senior management at giant enterprises like Black & Decker (BDK, Fortune 500), IBM (IBM, Fortune 500), and Melville Corp.

"If a company won't let you have in-depth discussions with your prospective boss, you don't want to work there," says Siegel.

Why not? Because, he notes, reams of research demonstrate that the most common reason people quit their jobs is to flee a terrible boss.

"People quit people, they don't quit companies," he says. "All any company really is, is people interacting with each other. So, if you don't know the people you'll be dealing with, you really don't know anything about the job."

As for the notion that the CFO is too busy to meet with you, that's likely a smokescreen (see Possibility #1 above) or an alarming sign of things to come (as per Possibility #2).

"If he can't find time to meet with you now, when the organization is trying to put its best foot forward, what's going to happen later when you work with him and you need his input or his support?" Siegel asks.

"These days, everyone has to take responsibility for his or her own career, and that means you need to pick your boss even more carefully than [hiring managers] are picking you," Siegel adds. "You and the person you report to don't have to be exactly alike and see eye-to-eye on everything - in fact, it's usually better if that's not the case - but you do need to identify potential sources of conflict and decide whether this is someone you can communicate with."

As long as the company where you're interviewing is keeping the CFO behind a curtain like the Wizard of Oz, how will you know?

So yes, do insist on a meeting - and if you get more hemming and hawing, move on.

"There are lots of other opportunities out there, so be selective," says Siegel. "Go into interviews with the attitude that they're lucky to have you as a candidate, and choose where you'll allow yourself to work."

Incidentally, you're smart to keep on with your job search right through the holidays. This can be a great time of year to find a new job - while hiring managers are feeling jolly, next year's budgets are still a bit flexible, and potential rivals are taking time out to party.

That may be especially so this year. A whopping 91% of hiring managers report it's harder this year than last to find qualified professional candidates, according to a new survey from staffing firm Robert Half International (www.roberthalf.com). Meanwhile, about 60% of job candidates polled say they expect to negotiate a better pay package now than they'd have hoped to get a year ago. Happy hunting!

Readers, what do you think? Did you meet your current boss before you started working for him or her? Were your first impressions correct? Post your thoughts on the Ask Annie blog. To top of page