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. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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?

  6. 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?

  7. 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.

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

  9. 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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