Interview Trap: The Bad Past Employer

Written by Stephen Cornwell

Bad work experiences are unavoidable, but ranting to an interviewer about them is a quick way to lose a new job opportunity.  Even if your last employer truly was horrible, stupid, or incompetent, these are all words that should never be used to describe a previous employer.

Criticizing previous employers makes you appear to be a negative person or one who cannot work with others. Discussing others' failures or weaknesses makes it appear that you are not taking any responsibility for the success or failure of the projects you are assigned. Additionally, the world can be very small, and your interviewer may know or be friends with the supervisor or coworker you are discussing.  Even if the interviewer does not know the person, they do not want to hire someone who may say similarly, negative things about them or their company in the future.

What is the best way to respond when asked about a job you left because of a bad employer? Remember, interviews are about getting to know you. Discussing how someone else was incompetent or unpleasant wastes the interviewer’s time and makes you look bad. Instead, follow these three steps:

1. Take responsibility

Problems are almost never one-sided.  No matter how incompetent or rude your past employer may have been, you also could have done some things differently.  Taking some responsibility for what happened shows the interviewer that you do not push the blame off on others and are humble enough to admit when you are wrong.  It is very possible to take responsibility without making yourself look bad.  For example, instead of saying an employer had no idea what he or she was doing, say something more like, “I failed to establish a clear set of goals at the beginning of my employment which led to us struggling to reconcile our different visions for my role.”

2. Explain what you could have done differently

Discussing what you could have done differently shows that you are able to be self-reflective. It is easy to want to discuss what everyone else should have done, but talking about ways that you could have changed will make you stand out.  For example, if you felt underappreciated you could say, “I should have scheduled a meeting early on to discuss the issue instead of letting it become a serious problem.”

3. Discuss how you will avoid similar problems in the future

This step is the most important.  Interviewers do not want to hire candidates who may have problems in the future. Outlining proactive measures you plan to take to prevent a similar situation demonstrates that you are trying to learn and grow and helps alleviate the interviewer's concerns.  For example, if the problem stemmed from your boss expecting you to do more than you were able you could say, “In the future I will make sure to discuss early on what the supervisor’s expectations for me are so that a similar problem does not occur.”

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