You left a job on bad terms…now what? What to say to a potential employer

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I have written before about reasons not to leave your job and why job hopping could be a bad thing. However, the reality is that sometimes leaving is unavoidable. Sometimes, it isn’t your decision. And even worse, sometimes you know you could have left on better terms.

There are many less-than-favorable ways to leave a job. In my line of work, I sometimes feel I have heard every story in the book. “You see, what happened was…”  And so it begins. Maybe you got fired.  Maybe you had a fight with your boss. Maybe you quit with less than two weeks notice. Maybe you felt the organization was awful and feel the need to tell everyone you know.  Maybe you simply burned out and stopped doing your job to the best of your ability.

So now you’re back in the job market and wondering: How do I bring this up on an interview? What do I say if they ask to call my employer? Am I doomed to never find work again because of that bad experience?!

Talking about previous employment experiences, especially negative experiences, requires a certain amount of political thinking and good judgement.

Before you begin any conversation with a recruiter about a former employer, here’s some advice.

  • Separate the personal from the professional. If you left a job because of a personal disagreement or issue, don’t bring it up in your interview. Work is work, and no matter how much we identify what we do with who we are, I want to know if you can maintain your professionalism in my company.  Bringing a personal issue into an interview, even if you feel completely justified, is a red flag.  Keep me focused on what you are capable of doing as a professional, and the ways you can help my organization.
  • Don’t bad-mouth your former boss. Yes, I have heard this more times than I care to mention. “My boss there, she was a total B*****” or “He was so horrible I can’t believe anyone still works there.” Speaking badly about a former boss makes you look unprofessional, and does not help make that situation better. Here is the basic logic from the recruiter’s desk: What happens if you don’t like your new boss? People are people, and managers often make mistakes, too. When you spend significant negative energy talking about a former boss, I anticipate you could feel the same way about your boss anywhere. Stay professional and keep it respectful.
  • Keep your emotions in check. It’s true, leaving a job on bad terms is inevitably emotional. Usually you feel angry: you had a right to leave, they can’t treat you like that, etc. Those feelings bubble up when we begin to talk about a negative work experience. I have even had interviewees cry in these conversations. Before you go into the interview, practice speaking with a friend about why you left your job. Keep your answer professional and respectful. The emotions are inevitable, but don’t let them control your future opportunities.
  • Always steer the conversation back to a positive. If the interviewer asks the right questions, you may have to talk about some negative former employment experiences. Don’t dwell on the negative. Focus on the things you learned in that situation and the skills you built in that position. The ability to bring the conversation back to a positive point says something about you as an applicant: in spite of hard times, you have a great attitude!

Keeping these general guidelines in mind, here are my quick responses to a few FAQs I get about those awkward conversations:

  • Should I list my former employer as a reference if I left on bad terms?  No, I do not recommend it. In any company you interact with multiple levels of people: clients, co-workers, colleagues from another department.  List someone who can speak to your virtues and strengths.  You choose your references, and we anticipate you will choose someone who will speak about your strong points.
  • Should I tell the interviewer that I got fired? There are diplomatic ways to talk about getting fired (or better put: dismissed). First and foremost, we will ask why you got fired. Even with background checks, HR departments do not have access to your performance records or reasons for dismissal.  Unless the cause was criminal (e.g. stealing from your company), it will not show up on your background check.  Choose your words wisely and be diplomatic in how you talk about your dismissal. “I was let go after a change in management.” Or “I was not a great fit for the position as _____ because my strengths are _______ (steer back to positive).”
  • Should I talk about why I quit my last job? The Q-U-I-T word is a four-letter word to many human resource managers.  Even if you had every reason to leave, we don’t want to risk investing in a new employee who may turn around walk out the door.  Again, be diplomatic in how you talk about leaving your job.  “I left because I had no potential for future growth in that company.” Or “I left because I felt the need to invest my career in a company whose mission was in line with my passion.”

Have any questions or advice to share? Add them in the comments.

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Photo Credit: Eugenio Marongiu, Shutterstock

About Author

Ashley has worked for 5+ years recruiting staff for domestic and international organizations aimed at finding effective solutions to poverty. She currently serves as Fellowship Director for The Work First Foundation, where she manages a program that connects recent graduates with work in urban poverty and public policy. Ashley began her work in career counseling at America Works, where she counseled low-income clients on resume writing and job search in New York. She later worked as Community Engagement Manager for Mercado Global in Guatemala, where she organized internship programs and oversaw private fundraising. Ashley graduated from Barnard College in 2006 with a B.A. in Anthropology. Read more of Ashley’s career tips and advice at www.savetheworld-careers.tumblr.com or follow her on twitter @AshleyAPutnam

25 Comments

  1. I would add one point to this excellent article, and that is to understand the employer’s concern that quitting or being fired might be a pattern. A one-time unworkable situation in a history of positive employment experiences is easily understood, whereas a pattern sends up a red flag.

  2. Ashley, you did not seem to mention how to address quitting a job because a former employer or boss acted inappropriately, unprofessionally, unethically, or illegally towards you. How does one diplomatically express that during an interview?

    It would also be great to hear suggestions on how to screen potential companies to work for. There are good companies out there, even a few great ones. However, there is also a rapidly growing number of undesirable companies one would want to avoid. Knowing those red flags to look for when researching companies would be very helpful!

  3. Pingback: Eight common mistakes to avoid when job hunting | Idealist Careers

  4. Ashley Putnam on

    Great point Patricia! This is very true. @Ideal- that’s a great question, but potentially one for another blog topic. If the reason for leaving your job was something like sexual harassment, a job interview is not the arena to discuss a former employer’s unethical behavior. If you have cause for concern based on something that happens in an interview, you may ask the interviewer about his/her company’s policies on the topic, without bringing up your prior situation. Remember there is always a time at the end of the interview for you to ask questions. I also recommend visiting the site where you will work (try to visit during the busiest time) or speaking with current employees to get a better feels for the company.

    • Hi Ashley,

      I am commenting on the point that @ideal spoke about. I am currently in a role where I am being harassed on a bullying level but also a little sexual harassment. Not only do I know how to approach the situation to my HR but if I do choose to leave, what do I tell new employers on an interview? I don’t want to sound damaged but I also don’t wait it to look like I am a “jumper” (moving around so much). Do you have a blog topic on this? or any insight? Thank you.

  5. I am a mature job seeker still stuck in a recession position below my interests and abilities and trying to play catch up to get back into my field . What amazes me in tuning into the job search discussion after decades of self-employment is how little things have changed. Are bosses still gods and employees always the problem? Really? In today’s market people are moving from one job to another more than ever. If necessary, as in a divorce, there should be a box labeled irreconcilable differences when it comes to reasons to leave a job. Business successes are built on personal relationships which can matter as much as work well done. We all want the same thing: respect, interesting and challenging jobs with similar-minded coworkers and bosses. I am now getting so much old and bad information that hasn’t changed in decades on how to “snow” the new boss, fib on resumes and falsify information on interviews. Really? How about we claim honesty and start to change the paradigm? And the shift in honesty will eventually change H.R. and hiring practices. I look up to people with integrity and who are looking out for themselves. I would hope that would be an asset new employers would see would benefit their businesses and relationships with employees. It’s not sweeping professionalism under the carpet, it’s redefining it.The world will benefit from change to honesty vs playing games in the jobs market.

    • I agree very much so with Sheila. It’s true that we should not be discussing personal matters or bad-mouthing a previous boss. However, it shouldn’t be frowned upon if that is truly the reason as to why an employee resigned. Surveys and experiments have shown that motivated people are the ones with innovative ideas, and those sad dreadful souls due to toxic work environment will never amount to anything (and it’s not even their fault).

    • I totally agree and have experienced this first-hand. My former employer’s managers were ruthless and used the legalese and “corporate speak” to blanket themselves from any wrongdoing. Their expectations were placed way at an unattainable level and micromanaging was out of control. Every single manager who “messes up” is able to somehow make it the employee’s fault. Bullying in the workplace by a supervisor and other team members are never talked about! long long , boring story. nonetheless, I don’t understand why once you’re a manager you can do whatever you want to people! WHY???

  6. Pingback: So you Left on Bad Terms… | Carpe Diem...or Die!

  7. I agree with you Amy. Employees that let go are the once that works hard and honest for the company. Not to bad mouthing the Boss
    during the interview chances are getting hired, unless, the Boss got called from any hiring managers and giving you a bad impression. Explain how to battle the situation if co-workers you know and co-workers who believe they have the right to work legally(actually violating the law working without SSN) are supported by former employer.

  8. I need advice that your article did not cover. The circumstances of my dismissal have a long history of abuse by my employer and the newly hired manager who abused everyone on the team. Many people went on stress leave because of her. She also played favorites and basically didn’t care about giving preference to someone who she didn’t consider “important”. (This is the truth). This is the situation for my most recent employment: I had had a week’s vacation approved and on the calendar for 6 months. I had told my manager months ahead of time that my mother in law was staying with me and I would need to take my vacation at that time. It was approved, done deal. Well, 2 weeks before my vacation was to come up my supervisor tells me, “oh so and so wants this day off but only one person at a time can be off work so you’ll have to let her have it or share the day with her”.
    I wasn’t given the choice to say ,”no”. So, I agreed to work a half day and when the time came, I had forgotten since my time off had been approved for 6 months. Well, HR gave no mercy to me. They sided with the supervisor who was not a nice person to work for. I am not the only person who has said that. I worked there for 5 years. 3 of those years were with her. I was bullied and other team members were allowed to shun me and treat me badly and she did nothing about it. 5 people went on stress leave because of her. I’m not exaggerating. So all that is to say, how do I tell a prospective employer or recruiter my “reason for leaving” without making myself look bad. As you said, employers are outside of the situation and while my reasons may have been valid, they won’t see it that way. What I usually say is, “no room for advancement, wanted a better opportunity”. can you ever tell them that it was “stressful”?

    Also, if you have an employer who let you go for attendance issues, how would you address that also? (this was for a job when I was in my 20s and stupid lol).

  9. Hi Deann,

    I was in a similar situation just a couple of months ago. I was aggressively bullied by my manager and a few colleagues to the point that I was unable to do my job. I wen’t to HR and officially complained and also brought copies of emails where my manager in correspondence to the whole group or other parties within the company intentionally did not capitalize my name. I was bullied in writing and verbally. However the HR rep and the only rep on site let me go on a paid leave for 2 days while she was ” investigating” then called 3 days later and said that I was terminated for “insubordination” She tried hard however and even figured why my manager didn’t capitalize my name, she said it because in (the 2 most emails that I had shown to her) i was mentioned in the middle of the sentence where as all other people at the beginning or the end of the sentence. I worked at the fortune 500 company. I am too sure what to recommend because I don’t know how HR at your company operates and whether they are competent or not. Just wanted to share this. Now I am in a situation where i have to explain why I was terminated and I don’t know whether I should mention it at all .
    Maybe its best to just leave.

  10. Parker Brown-Nesbit on

    I too, left a job under less than ideal circumstances–long story short, I was axed over the phone for something I had said which was totally not a firing offense. I turned around & said that I quit. Just to prove that someone up there has a sense of humour, my supervisor got fired six months after I did. The front-line staff & volunteers were very sad to lose me, as I was considered the “go to” person for everything.
    The funny thing is now I have been commissioned by the new supervisor (who is also the potter & the volunteer coordinator) to weave some fabric samples for them.

  11. Rhiannon Hutchinson on

    Here’s the problem with this kind of mindset: it puts all the responsibility on the shoulders of the employee and none of it on the company. Yes, employees have to be careful what we say in interviews about previous employment. But this writer makes many false assumptions that reflect employers’ arrogance and inhumanity. I’m old enough to have seen a seismic shift in how employees are viewed by management, and for those of you who aren’t–there was a time, back in the 1980s and 1990s, when senior management tried to empower its employees. The focus was on hiring the right person, giving them the right training and resources, supporting them when they needed it–and then stepping back and letting them do their jobs. Once, when our CEO of our multi-national company asked me if our technology could do something, I started to explain the details, and he interrupted to say, “Whoa! Yes or no?” I said yes, and he said, “Then go do it. That’s what I hired you for.” Contrast that empowered way of working with my most recent manager, who insisted on reviewing every single email I wrote to a manager before I sent it–and who would never take any action if even one person anywhere in the organization didn’t like it. I know from talking to a career coach that this is now typical behavior of managers, and I want to ask the writer of this article to reconsider how any employee can truly thrive when employers have embraced a culture that actively punishes autonomy, initiative, creativity, and empowerment. If you’re worried a new hire who left a previous job will Q-U-I-T, you should put half of the responsibility where it belongs: on the company, who, if they want to keep good people, ought to treat them like competent adults, reward them for good work, and stand back and let them do what they are able to do. If we leave, don’t blame us entirely; take a look at how you treat us.

    • I agree 100 %. I have been in many work environments where racist comments have been made. At one employer, I had a boss go into a long speech about my “people”. At another I had a boss bragging about his connections to the KKK. There were other examples, too. It seems we are in an age where bosses want to treat employees like cattle since the economy is depressed. My most recent experience has the owner fooling around with the manager, so the manager ran the place as she saw fit. This included letting female employees get away with being rude to customers and not learning their jobs, while male employees we’re put on written warning for every little item the boss could think of. It will all be exposed when I file my EEOC charges against them.

  12. I take charge of the issue by bringing it up and shutting it down as quickly as possible. When interviewers ask me to tell them about myself, I explain something along the lines of, “I was doing X but the position was not the right fit for me and when I started looking for new opportunities in that area, I realized that (different but somewhat related area of work that I was interviewing for) would be a better fit for me as a career.” When they ask about what was a bad fit, I give examples of what I want to do or how I want to work in the next job: more/less collaborative work, more/less work with data, etc. I basically try to present the narrative of “I was not fulfilled in my old job because it wasn’t the job I’m applying for now.”

    Was my boss a petty tyrant who took out every mood swing and pique on the staff? YES. Did I start getting nauseated at the thought of going to work to the point that I always had a bottle of pepto handy? Yup. Does explaining this to even the most sympathetic HR person sound good? Nope. It leaves open the possibility that maybe I was the problem and there are dozens of qualified applicants who haven’t raised this possibility.

  13. What if your work history is bad due to being in an abusive and controlling relationship for 16 years? I had times where I would get away and be doing great, then I would be pushed into going back. Please do not speak ugly about this, if you have never been through it then you could never grasp how difficult this is on someone who is always in fear of what could be.

    • Your situation deserves no negative comment. Your not alone. I had gone through several jobs due to a jealous abusive relationship and although many dont understand how we can let another control our lives, unless they live it they can not know how difficult it can be. I am no longer in those types of relationships and I have since went back to school and continue to search for a career. It is very difficult to have wonder how to block out so many years of wasted life and talent and explain the reasons for the chunk of my life that should of been filled with career choices and job experience but I stay hopeful that someone will see me for the smart, ambitious, dependable professional I am today. Keep your chin up.

  14. justshill@yahoo.com on

    I was wrongfully discharged from my employer of six years. I have an attorney, etc. What do I say to a prospective employer? At this point, they’ll think I’m toxic.

  15. The company I last worked for has terrible reviews on Yelp…I am trying to find a new job and I need to show that I have experience. Honestly it is the owner and how she does business etc…that is the problem, but its hurting me and my job search….Any advice?

  16. I was fired after 7 1/2 years of employment .the company I worked for had been trying to get rid of me since 2007, because I sued them for discrimination,when I was brought in the office I was told they didn’t have to let me go but they were.I think that their bad mouthing me.how do I avoid putting that company down as a employer to call that’s a big gap?

  17. Unless you acted like a total a$$hole, stole something from your employer, or cost the firm a huge client or a lot of money somehow, as long as you did the job to the best of your abilities, generally you will get a positive (or at least neutral) recommendation.

    I have left jobs on bad terms for reasons outside my control, but those incidents have never hurt my track record or caused my future employers to suspect me of any foul play or not hire me in the first place.

    All I had to do was call the employer who initially perceived some kind of wrong-doing and speak with him honestly about what went on. Most bosses aren’t out there to screw people out of the chance to be employed and we all know how sensitive the interview / hiring process is in this crazy economy and all the hoops you have to jump through just to make it to that interview table.

    If you had a bad experience at work and your boss got upset about it, call him up immediately and share with him what you think went wrong, then have a civil conversation for 30 minutes or so about your career, about how you enjoyed working for him, are sorry that the horrible event took place, etc.

    People want a human connection. They don’t want to be threatened by lawyers and complicated documents purporting to sue and cause the former company harm.

    Do the hard thing, pick up the phone, talk to your boss, admit where you were wrong, ask his forgiveness, and usually it will work out OK.

    I had to do it twice in my career for circumstances that were truly out of my control but that made me look like a terrible human being. Once we talked the issues out, all was well and therefore all blemishes on my record were erased.

  18. Pingback: #HRInsider: What you need to know before your next job interview | Idealist Careers

  19. Leila Nottingam on

    Out of work for about 9 months is it better to say you left for personal reasons, or due to org restructuring, or for growth opportunity? I’ve heard that if you put that you were laid off for any reason on an application, it’s a sure way to get your application/ resume tossed in the trash. Prospective employers will think that if you were a good employees, you would have been one of the ones that they kept

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