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Eight ways to talk about a terrible former boss during an interview

Whether you were a good leaver or a bad leaver, whether you got fired or laid off or left for a better job or are in fact still employed, it never pays to talk smack about a current or former boss or employer in a job interview. It simply never makes you look good as a candidate.

You should always be positive, or at least present a difficult situation through rose-colored glasses, anytime previous positions and former bosses come up during an interview. Otherwise, interviewers will always think you were the problem – even if that isn’t the case.

1. Don’t lie!

Roy Cohen, the New York based careers coach and best-selling author, warns first and foremost against stretching the truth.

“If the boss’ reputation precedes him or her… and you're not honest, your credibility can be challenged,” he says. “If you are leaving an organization because of a boss that has been challenging, to not be somewhat honest, is you potentially risk sounding dishonest yourself.”

“Because bitterness is really not called for an interview - but honesty, for the most part, is.”

2. Rather than focusing on conflicts, quantify your accomplishments

Dwelling on conflicts with former bosses in a job interview is never a good look for the candidate.

“If an interviewer asks about previous positions, mention the accomplishments you produced for your previous employer and quantify them, if possible,” Connie Thanasoulis-Cerrachio, career coach and co-founder of SixFigureStart said.

3. Talk about the fit or lack thereof rather than attacking

Don’t ever bash your former employer or the company. It is OK to say that your last job was not a fit, but leave it that, according to Hallie Crawford, the founder of Career Coaching.

“If your interviewer probes further and really presses you, have a good way to explain the issue without making it sound like you are a problem employee,” she said.

For example, if your boss is the reason you’re leaving, you could explain that the management style was not ideal for you.

“The goal is not to sound broken or angry,” Cohen says.

“Whatever the reason is for your leaving, even if it wasn’t voluntary on your part, keep the tone as positive as possible, focusing on the future and what’s next for you, including what’s next for you at this new job,” Crawford said.

4. Force optimism 

This is one of the most basic pieces of advice career advisers give – you must always speak positively about old positions and old bosses. That’s why it’s so surprising that so many people do not abide by it.

Even jobs that ended badly will have some positives, and the important things are to talk about what you've learned from the experience, according to Janet Raiffa, an investment banking career coach, the former head of campus recruiting at Goldman Sachs and a former associate director in the Career Management Center at Columbia Business School.

“You can definitely talk about a job not being stimulating enough, or not allowing enough growth, but that should be coupled with how the job at hand can offer something better,” she said.

5. Spin a bad management style into a positive

If an interviewer asks about the style of your previous boss, always talk about it in a positive light.

“If your manager was a micromanager, say the truth but in a good way,” Thanasoulis-Cerrachio said.

For example: “We had a very tight working relationship. He/she liked to be kept up to date on even the minutest details and that was fine with me. After the first few months, he/she knew I was doing a great job so the confidence was high, but we continued to check in because no time was wasted when I knew I was going in the right direction.”

If your manager was a non-communicator, say the truth but in a good way, she suggests: “We agreed upon our goals up front and then because she had faith in me, I got the job done meeting minimally. That was great because we wasted zero times in meetings and everything was really efficient.”

6. Tell colorful anecdotes

To keep the response from turning negative, prepare stories about challenges you have faced and overcome, problems you’ve solved and clients you have made happy in your previous job. Some Wall Street jobs are best-suited to extroverts, and in general, recruiters and hiring managers like candidates who can spin a good (yet relatively concise) yarn.

“This will help to highlight your character and show your prospective employer why you are a good fit for the job,” Crawford said.

7. Realize that trash talk will backfire

It's also imperative not to speak badly of a previous boss or colleague, even if the interviewer seems sympathetic or baits you with leading questions.

“While they very well may have been terrible, you don't want to suggest that you are a malcontent who has trouble getting along with people,” Raiffa said. “Complaining is also not a positive thing to do in an interview and shows lack of judgment.”

8. Avoid the topic – if you can

If you’re asked about why you left a role and can avoid bringing up a bad relationship with your boss, try to.

“I'm now advising people to explain the reason they have left a job on their resume if it has something to do with a large layoff, merger, business decline - essentially anything that doesn't have to do with their performance or dissatisfaction with the job,” Raiffa said.

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Photo credit: JackF/GettyImages

AUTHORDan Butcher US Editor
  • jo
    22 November 2016

    I never speak bad about any company or boss, however...
    why a manager / boss can`t be bad?
    is any manager great at what he does, just because he is a manager?
    how do we mitigate all the managerial mistakes or inefficiencies?
    are all the company organisational models so good not to consider that managers make lots of mistakes?

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