I think this is one of the toughest questions to answer when preparing to look for work.
Let’s be honest now. From my years of experience as a Recruitment Consultant I’d estimate that over 70% of the candidates I saw were quitting their job due to bad experiences with their boss or the company. That’s not to say it was the only reason they were leaving, but it was a contributing factor and as often as not, was the reason that had finally pushed them out the door!
But is it terribly wise to mention those negative reasons for leaving when we often have at hand any number of positive and perfectly valid reasons we can “dress up” as the truth?
I don’t think the answer to that question is ever a simple yes or no, because every circumstance of leaving is different. Often the reasons are multifaceted and quite unique.
So perhaps the wiser approach then is to ask ourselves “should I be completely honest,” every time we undertake a new job search and then be ready to get a different answer each time!
Let’s look at some examples of what I’m talking about.
Scenario One: a fairly extreme and unfortunate example may be someone who has done something illegal at work such as being caught stealing or sexually harassing a colleague.
I think it’s a no brainer that this individual should never give this as the reason they left.
However, I’d also suggest that before they embark on a new job search it’s essential to do some soul searching about their negative behaviours. They shouldn’t take on a new job until they’re confident they won’t reoffend! Getting to that place may involve some professional help. It may be time to think laterally and look at volunteer work to provide some recent positive references and work experience. My previous blog post, Volunteer you way into your Next Job! may help.
Scenario Two: most people once they’ve been working for a few years can think of some pretty negative experiences they’ve had working for a bad boss! It’s unfortunately one of the most common reasons we leave a job. Maybe your boss had a habit of being very indiscreet and talking about your colleagues work performance problems (I had a boss that did this all the time), maybe they had an anger management problem and had verbal fights in the office or verbally abused staff (I’ve also had this occur). Or maybe they’re a boss who doesn’t delegate effectively or consistently over promises and under delivers.
So it pays for us to have a really good think about how we’re going to deal with it at interview. We may have no choice. The interviewer may ask us about our experiences with our most recent manager (eg “what did you learn from them?”). You need to be prepared so make sure you give it some advance thought. You’ll at the very least probably need to explain why you’re not using them as a referee.
But we need to get back to discussing all this as a reason for leaving your job.
Many recruitment professionals will tell you to never speak negatively about your previous employers. The danger is that you’ll look disloyal and the interviewer will be worried that you’ll say negative things when you leave their company. Personally I think this is a rather simplistic view of the issue.
The examples above of poor management are valid reasons and most potential employers would completely understand your need to leave (it’s quite likely they’ve had similar experiences).
The far more critical aspect of this issue is how you’re going to explain your reasons.
If you can demonstrate your professionalism in how you tried to manage what is a very tricky situation you can really impress the interviewer. To effectively manage a problem boss you must have demonstrated excellent communication, negotiation and problem solving skills and be emotionally intelligent (even if the outcome was that you ultimately still had to leave).
It’s also a fantastic opportunity to show your level of self awareness and maturity by expanding your answer into what you learnt about yourself, team dynamics and what’s important to you with future organisational moves.
It may also provide you with an example of how you have improved upon a previous weakness, demonstrating that you learn from your mistakes. At the same time it shows how you recognise that work problems are rarely on-sided and that you’ll be an asset to any future employer.
And be certain to mention how much you value loyalty in yourself and others.
These are all good messages to a new employer and I’d go so far as to say……
Who wouldn’t want to employ you?
It’s also important to have already dealt with any feelings of anger or bitterness that you may still harbour because you don’t want to get emotional during your explanation. If you didn’t leave on good terms you need to make sure you work through your negative feelings before you’re in front of a potential employer. Don’t be afraid to seek some help if you find you just can’t move on emotionally.
Some other important points to consider when deciding how smart it is to be totally honest:
1. Every situation is different so give it a really good think before you decide to open your mouth about negative work experiences.
2. Use people whose opinion you respect as a sounding board and get several opinions before deciding what is and isn’t wise to say. Ultimately though it’s your decision so trust yourself. Your gut will often be a great indicator.
3. It’s easy to say too much when nerves get the better of you at interview and when you’re discussing a sensitive issue – so practise, practise, practise your responses. And say what you have to say and no more. Resist the temptation to “fill the silence” in interviews.
4. Watch the interviewer closely for any signs of negative or positive reaction in their body language as you’re providing your reasons for leaving and be ready to respond accordingly.
5. Remember your reasons are often multifaceted so don’t focus on just one. Talk about other reasons like the need for a career shift, your enthusiasm for new opportunities and the need to relocate etc.
6. I’d also suggest don’t be too disheartened if you get a negative response from the interviewer. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it wasn’t a smart decision to be honest. Maybe they’re just giving you a good indication that this new company and you are not a good match. And that’s a good thing to determine early on, after all you’re trying to avoid a repeat of your last experience!
Finally as always be ready to be flexible, adaptable and to think on your feet and I’m sure you can turn a potentially negative experience to your advantage!