The Hardest Part of Any Job Interview: Don’t Trash The Old Boss.

This is a guest post from Ron Haynes who writes for The Wisdom Journal, a blog about Wise Choices, Improved Finances, and a Better Life. A partner in a regional lumber and building materials company, he has a bachelor’s in Human Resources Management and an MBA with a marketing concentration.

Putting a positive spin on what (at the time) felt like the worst day of your life is the easy part. Volumes have been written about how to spin your layoff, or handle a termination, or explain away that annoying gap in your employment history. No, those are easy. What’s far more difficult is resisting the urge to trash your former boss when deep down you know he or she really deserves it. Yes, it’s the hardest part of your interview, but it’s also the most critical.

All bosses hate to see an interviewee criticize their former employer. Even if you work for an ogre who deserves to be fed to radiated vampire cockroaches, the thoughts of hiring someone who is willing to unload a truck of bitterness — even if it’s warranted — on a former manager is unsettling at the least and an immediate interview killer at its worst.

When asked about a situation where “things just didn’t work out,” always seek the balanced approach. Try saying, “I learned a great deal at XYZ Company but I felt that I needed a change.” If the interviewer presses you, continue with something like, “There were a lot of really great people at my level and the prospect of any professional growth was slim.” Or “I was growing professionally, but not in the direction I really wanted.”

Sometimes those will work, but if they don’t and the interviewer seems to be goading you for more information, lay it out there: “My boss and I didn’t see eye to eye on some matters. It was really no one’s fault but I like to be happy in my job and I want my boss to be happy, too.” Once you say that, don’t keep talking about it. Turn the interview into one that’s focused on the position and the company’s needs in the future by asking, “So, how does my experience and education stack up for this position?”

Remember that not all interviewers are very experienced in drawing information out and some will actually want to test you to see if you’ll take the bait to trash your boss. Don’t take that bait. There’s a better than average chance the interviewer knows something or knows someone in your former organization who has spilled the beans about your situation. By keeping cool, you’ll communicate that you’re not there to play that game.

And one more thing, make sure you find someone with a title at your former job who will be a good reference for you. He or she doesn’t have to be a former superior, just the fact that someone is willing to vouch for you will help you land on your feet and nail the interview.

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Comments (3)

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  1. Miranda says:

    Great advice. You don’t want to burn bridges at your old company, and you don’t want the new company to think that someday you will do the same thing to them. It’s all about showing that you are a mature professional who is ready to focus on the task at hand.

  2. Amphritrite says:

    It’s always best to remain positive in an interview; however, I disagree on the part of trashing old bosses in ONE particular instance…

    …if you worked for a boss that is now or has previously and repeatedly been in litigation for bad business, make it known that you cut ties with them because you didn’t want to do bad business too.

    This is an extreme edgecase, but trust me, new employers do look at the caliber of your former businesses, especially if you’re looking for a new job in the same sector. They’ll know the bad apples, and it’s likely that the bad reputation that your former workplace has will rub off on you.

    If you manage to secure an interview despite that reputation, and they bring up, specifically, your time at the Bad Business company, be honest. They’re looking for someone who will be honest with them about previous bad experiences.

  3. Kate H says:

    Staying positive and friendly in a job interview is truly integral. Excellent article. I find that in high pressure situations, people who haven’t prepared thoroughly frequently say things they hadn’t intended to say (whether it’s trashing their boss or accidently slipping in an expletive). By practicing dealing with tough interview questions, you’re much more likely to stay cool, calm, and collected.