Ask Victoria | How to Address A Negative Job Experience on an Interview

Man sitting at office desk

Hi Victoria,

I have a question about how to discuss a negative relationship with a previous manager when interviewing. Long story short, the job I was doing was way different than I thought it would be, and I was miserable.

It was a small office where everyone was very friendly with each other and I was close with my boss. So, when asking for more responsibility, I was quite candid and ended up being let go. I take responsibility for what happened, but I don’t want this one bad experience to ruin the rest of my career.

I take responsibility for what happened, but I don’t want this one bad experience to ruin the rest of my career.

Specifically, in the last couple months of working there, my relationship with my boss turned very negative; it felt like I couldn’t do or say anything right and it turned out she had been telling the ED things that I had said in confidence. It was basically a mess and really upsetting, so when I was let go I actually felt relieved! She even lied to the unemployment office about why I was let go (and said I was bullying her!) and I was initially denied unemployment benefits.

My question is this: how on earth do I talk about this in a job interview? I have positive relationships with other staff members who have offered to be a reference, but how do I explain why I don’t want my interviewers contacting my previous supervisor? I know to never bash a previous employer in an interview, but how do I talk about why I left my previous job without lying or sounding as though I have sour grapes?

Thank you for any help you can give!

Rebecca

Dear Rebecca,

Yikes, your supervisor lied to the unemployment office?! That’s some serious ire. However, you’re right; it’s not the greatest idea to “bash” a former employer. Rest assured though, there are some ways around this pesky problem, without lying, avoiding the question, or sounding bitter.

I would suggest sharing a bit of the story but keep it neutral in tone, particularly in regards to displaying your emotions about the situation. Mention that you were hoping for more responsibility in your role (most employers love it when employees show initiative) and had a conversation about it with your manager. Share some details about the ways in which you felt you could contribute more to that organization. If there’s an opportunity to support the hiring organization in a similar way, even better! Take the focus off any sense of lack or negativity, and keep your abilities at the forefront.

Take the focus off any sense of lack or negativity, and keep your abilities at the forefront.

Next, mention that you maintained positive working relationships with many of your colleagues, who are more than willing to serve as references. If they press to speak with your former supervisor, I would simply say that despite your best effort to have an honest, positive, and solutions-based dialogue, ultimately, your manager wasn’t interested.

Will this new employer attempt to follow-up with your former supervisor in spite of leaving her off your list of references? Perhaps, but remember that most organizations’ policies allow only HR managers and direct supervisors to verify your dates of employment and job title. Given your manager’s history, I would say it’s fair to assume that she may discuss your performance in more detail, and won’t be honest in her assessment of you. Unfortunately, it may become a matter of your word over hers. To combat this, ensure that the rest of your references are glowing and reiterate your positive contributions to the organization.

Finally, you may want to consider reaching out to your former employer- particularly the HR department, if they have one- as suggested by Ask a Manager. Mention that you are concerned your manager won’t give an accurate assessment of your work, would like to know what the organization’s reference policies are, and what type of reference to expect from them.

Remember also that your situation stemmed from something that most employers would find admirable: you wanted to take on more responsibility and accomplish more at your job. Keep that at the forefront of your conversation with any potential employers.

Rebecca, I wish you much luck in your job search. Please do keep us posted on how things go!

To your success,

Victoria

Have you been in a situation where you suspect a former supervisor gave you a bad reference? What did you do to get past it? Share it with readers in a comment below!

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I became acquainted with Idealist in late 2000 while working in the career development office at a private liberal arts college in NYC. I used it almost daily to help students and alumni find meaningful careers. After a 12-year stint in higher education, I worked as a career coach for professionals in various industries (and still used Idealist). During one of those many searches, a listing really caught my eye- the one for the newly-created position, Careers Program Coordinator. So... I jumped at the opportunity. Since then, I took on the role of Manager of Career Content for Idealist Careers, creating career content for job seekers, leaders, and other nonprofit professionals. Understanding the roles that a positive outlook and holistic self-care play in career success, I've shared with our readers time-honored methods for improving confidence and productivity. Now, as Manager of College and Professional Development, my focus is on lifting the advice from Idealist Careers "off the page". Drawing from my experience in career development, I propel job seekers and career changers towards taking control of their searches with confidence and removing fear, uncertainty, and other blocks to success via in-person workshops and seminars, webinars, and conference programming. My great loves are cooking (preferably without a recipe, otherwise I doctor it up), dancing, live cultural performances, identifying the tasting notes in a good cup of coffee, exploring neighborhoods for hidden gems, and anything else that sparks the senses and allows me to experience all the beauty, dynamism, and intrigue that vivaciously living in a remarkable world offers.


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Comments

    • Juniper
    • February 13, 2017

    I experienced something similar and I am convinced that my honest approach and the manner in which I described the unfortunate set of circumstances was critical to securing my next position. I decided not to include the job on my resume and planned to discuss the omission in an in person interview if granted one. I brought a revised copy of my resume with me to the interview and gave it to the interviewer after I explained the details.
    It is a crap shoot though because a lot is riding on the interviewer’s objectivity and ability to see past the fact that the situation has a negative overtone. I got lucky because my interviewer listened and I mean really listened. I kept my emotions level and shared with my interviewer that I took ownership of not addressing specific concerns and actions early on for fear of being seen as a new hire troublemaker. I explained that my intentions were to help improve the workflow and the process. My manager saw it as a way for me to undermine her management. True in my opinion she was not an effective manager and I thought I could help by being respectful in approaching her in confidence but when it was obvious that my ideas were not welcome I aborted any future attempts and my manager became almost confrontational with me on a daily basis. Her behavior and lack of professionalism was affecting my productivity.
    Things worsened and I began documenting everything I could and this came in handy when I needed to file for unemployment benefits. I forwarded related emails to my personal email, made copies of documents and processes that supported my concerns and took them home and I kept a journal of daily encounters. Being uncertain about how bad it was going to get I also purchased a small digital recorder and was prepared to bring it with me to meetings with my manager but that never became necessary. I was able to provide UE with this supportive material which enabled my being able to receive my benefits in a timely manner. In the end I landed a wonderful job and the employer expressed their appreciation for the courage it took for me to tell my story. They appreciated how I remained respectful, did not bash and accepted the outcome as a bad fit.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing with our audience. It sounds like you made a great choice to be honest with your interviewer in a way that was respectful and allowed you to build rapport and trust. To your success, Victoria

    • sheila
    • February 18, 2017

    I would like to offer a simple truth that woman manager issues are common — we, women, probably each have a story to tell. Often it is in a small employment setting without an HR or impartial company representative to intervene. The employee generally loses.

    I think that women softly abusing women as well as women feeling they can confide in a woman manager have long under-minded careers of honest, talented women – of any age. Women are not necessarily good at nurturing and advancing the careers of other women. What is a career/work issue can becomes a personal one about feeling threatened, about trust, allegiance, paying dues, etc. etc..

    Women hire women who they hope will be a confident, or work outside their role while the manager claims credit. It is nearly impossible for the employee to try to block or change this pattern once you’re in it.

    But, why try to sweep it under the rug?
    Why are we perpetuating a cover-up of poor corporate/company practices?
    Why are “they” always right and we, the employee at fault? Why lie at interviews?
    That advice seems so 1960s.

    A company worth working for knows and should expect everyone experiences a negative career issue — call it a sign of growing, or finding your path, or learning the rungs of corporate/business. They know poor management exists and women’s issues can often outweigh career ones. And that there are really few career “trouble makers” , but only only a missed opportunity to work on issues that matter.

    Hiring agents, must hear the truth. Give them an honest assessment of the issue, briefly.

    “It was not a good fit.” and here you can give reasons why: as time went on I had hoped for advancement or a change in my responsibilities; I was asked to work outside my original duties without compensation; There was a misunderstanding with my immediate manager and no avenue to discuss it… And then my work became underappreciated and I was dismissed.

    Or, how about, “I experienced an unprofessional manager.”

    It was unfortunate and that you could have resigned but didn’t, hoping for change.

    Don’t be defensive. Chances are you did nothing wrong, and if you did, learn from it.

    I believe it is important to demonstrate that you have a stake in your career, that you are able to assess a bad situation, take responsibility for it and that you are resilient, honest, and hard working . Be bold. We are moving in time when it matters.

    In fact, I’m contemplating changing my LinkedIn employment record to reflect my experience.

      • Jay
      • February 21, 2017

      Sadly, you sound very young and it’s attitudes like yours that hamper most women. If you think female bosses are bad, wait until you learn just how cut-throat and back-stabbing male bosses are to anyone and everyone who gets in their way. Think “Republican Senators and Congressman in Obama’s 2nd term on steriods”.

        • Esther
        • February 23, 2017

        I would like to know how one handles an interview when the hiring manager actually knows your previous supervisor or ED? I was interviewed for a position at a ‘sister’ agency and the hiring manager let me know that my name came up in an ‘organic’ conversation before my immediate supervisor left our organization and that he knew the other ‘higher upper’ and wanted to contact them before my second interview. Needless to say, its been 6 weeks since I last heard from him, even though I have reached out to him, letting him know that I was still interested in the position. The organization eliminated my position after hiring me only four months ago, due to a reorganization. I’m in another interview process where I am faced with the same situation. I don’t I have the option of leaving this employment off my resume because of the nature of the position and field. I am in agreement with the previous post regarding being honest about the reason(s) why you left or being terminated because of not ‘being a good fit’. I think terminology like these are ‘code words’ and if ‘they’ can use them, why can’t the employee use similar ‘code words’ to describe ‘them’? It is so frustrating when these hiring managers have these ‘offline’ conversations with each other that results in prospective employees not being hired.

        • Jamie
        • February 23, 2017

        Why do you claim to know anything at all about this person? You can’t tell through text whether someone is young or old, and someone’s age shouldn’t be a means of dismissing their comments or advice. It’s disappointing that you ignored the real substance of what they were saying, and instead focused on the negative connotations of a few small pieces of the post.

    1. Thank you for sharing. It was needed.

    • Jay
    • February 21, 2017

    Leaving that employer off of your resume is absolutely the best policy — unless you’re applying for a government or military position. Often, a prospective employer will call all of your prior employers no matter what you say; sadly, you’ll usually loose the job offer. Very early in my career, an interviewer told me that all of my previous employers and references were stellar with one exception — I knew who, a boss who not only fired me for refusing to rip-off a church group, he even chased me to my car and started pounding his fist on the hood (after I’d gotten in), demanding the keys. The interviewer, my would-be new boss, told me the he really, really wanted to hire me anyway, but his company had a policy whereby all candidates with a bad review — even a single one — were prohibited from receiving job offers. The interviewer told me that , based on all of the praise my other references and employers heaped on me, he knew that the — lets call the bad boss the “Fist Pounder” — Fist Pounder was lying, but his hands were tied.

    My career was stalled and it took me nearly five years to get over and past that single bad work situation, so don’t suffer like I did; just leave that bad boss off. I was completely on my own financially, so when I say I suffered, believe me I really suffered. [Like your boss, he lied to Unemployment Insurance, and I kinda starved for a few months in order to pay utilities and rent.]

    Whatever you do, leave that bad boss off of your resume.

      • MG
      • February 23, 2017

      It’s not always possible to leave a job off of a resume. I worked at a company for 3 years, for an extremely toxic boss who was openly abusive to many of his employees, especially women. He had been successfully sued for wrongful dismissal and gender discrimination by a previous employee, whose ‘reward’ was to have her job reinstated.

      The man was so awful to me, but my job was almost entirely focused on my clients and the team that worked under me, so thankfully I rarely had to deal with him. I also was very ‘flavour of the month’ to him for a long time because I was performing very well in my job and was making him a lot of money. That is why I lasted so long despite his behaviour. I loved my job, I loved my clients, I just had issues with the way he treated people.

      Eventually he did turn against me, as everyone eventually gets their turn as the target of a person like that, and he was so abusive to me that I finally left the company.

      I know that I was performing exceptionally well in that job, and that he would have no justification to give me a negative reference. The only thing he has ‘against me’ is that I left without much warning and didn’t return despite his attempts to get me to come back. I suppose he could try to paint that as me ‘abandoning my post’ in some way, and leaving him in the lurch. But I did handle my leaving in a very professional manner, and tied up any loose ends I could, and offered to be available to answer any questions if anything came up. But I drew the line at ever working for him again.

      He knows he’s in the wrong, and he knows why I left, but if given the opportunity to ‘get revenge’ on me for leaving, I don’t know if he could resist. But I worked there for 3 years, leaving the job off the resume is not an option – that is too long of a gap to have on a resume, and it would need to be explained. Explaining it by lying isn’t an alternative I’d be willing to consider. Also, because my position was a management position, I directly reported to him. There’s no one else who I could get a reference from for that job.

      I do have a couple of suggestions:

      1] If at all possible, call the previous employer and ask for a meeting. Sit down with them face to face and discuss what happened. Apologize if necessary, and try to clear the air. By far, this is the best thing you can do. Sometimes all it takes is a re-establishing of connection for both sides to find closure. Confide to them that you felt you handled things poorly (if you did) and say you have learned a lot and hope to find a second chance with a new employer.

      Ask them what they intend to say about you if called for a reference, and let them answer. Listen to their answer carefully and if you think it’s too damning, try to negotiate a different approach. If they are too vague or evasive, then ask them point blank if you can count on them for an endorsement. Be sure to define what exactly you mean by that. If you handle the situation in a mature, constructive manner and show them your professionalism through that meeting, they will feel on better grounds to give you a positive reference.

      2] If you find you are unsure of a fair reference from someone, test the waters by getting someone you know to call the person posing as a potential employer, and see what they say about you. Yes, it’s a bit deceptive, but I think it’s pretty important to know what you’re dealing with. It is important that the person calling has done hiring in the past, or at least knows what to ask and how to deal with the call appropriately and professionally. If the reference starts asking a lot of prying questions, your friend can simply respond “I’m afraid I’m not at liberty to disclose that.”

      Once you have a clear sense of what the previous employer will say about you, you can better prepare for how you plan to handle them as a reference, what you might want to say about that job in an interview, etc. You may also decide on the basis of the call, not to use them at all.

      3] Be honest. Always be honest. But do so in a way that shows integrity and maturity, not in a way that demonstrates obliviousness or lack of professionalism. Scrupulously avoid talking negatively about your past employer or your previous company. Instead, focus on talking briefly about the unfortunate situation, and more extensively about what you learned from it. Show that you are the sort of person who learns from past mistakes – even if that past mistake was working for someone who didn’t respect you. Show that you have grown from the experience and are grateful for what you learned from it. Show that the experience makes you more of an asset to future employers. Talk about it as an important career step that taught you valuable information.

      4] One job opportunity is just a blip in your life. Sometimes it might feel like everything hangs in the balance, but really – it doesn’t. If you don’t get the job, you will survive, you will move on. Remember that. If there is one thing that I view as the MOST IMPORTANT thing to bring to any job interview, it is a sense of detachment from outcomes. Be at peace with whether you get the job or not. Simply view it as a two-sided interview – you are there to interview them just as much as the reverse is true. If the job isn’t a real fit, you should be willing to walk away. If you find yourself heavily invested in whether you get the job or not, you are not going to be showing your true self.

      When I am in a job interview, I focus on talking and acting toward the potential employer as I would if I were already working there. I want them to see who they’d be dealing with on a day-to-day basis. If you get a job interview, they’ve already decided you are qualified. They just want to meet with you to see if you’re going to be an interpersonal fit within the social dynamic of the team, and within the culture of the company. The best way to demonstrate that is to just relax and be yourself, and talk to them as if this is a work meeting and you already have the job.

      Good luck!

        • Esther Rogers
        • February 24, 2017

        Very sage advice! I am wondering thought, as I had posted previously, how do overcome a hiring manager knowing your previous employer’s supervisor or ED? My last supervisor had brought up my name in a supposedly organic conversation in a meeting before he left his position and wanted to contact our director before the 2nd Interview in the hopes of bringing out more questions. Once again, I’m faced with the same situation in a different interview. My previous employer hired me for only four months in order for me to create a training manuals for new staff because they didn’t have one and to help them hire a team. Once that was done, they decided to eliminate my position. The whole time I was there, I received numerous praise about my work, how impressed they were about my knowledge and how quickly I got my feet under me in the workings of the agency and was told on numerous occasions that they wished I had started 6 years ago and they are seeing me being there for a very long time. Were they gaslighting me or being disingenuous the whole time. Why would they not give me a good reference, regardless if it’s at a sister agency? Why have offline conversations about me to give a negative reference? I saw this first hand during interviews when my director had reached out to her contacts with an employer to find out about a candidate and what she heard from them had her not wanting to move forward with the candidate. Did we dodge a bullet? Maybe…but why the backroom conversations? That’s what I’m grappling with right now and I’m unable to leave them off my resume because I was in a management position and have a four month gap of unemployment before being hired. Any suggestions? Thanks!!

          • MG
          • February 24, 2017

          I’m not sure I 100% understand your situation, but if you think you were being treated unfairly by the previous organization and now you’re in the running for a job at an organization that has deep social connections to the previous organization – it doesn’t sound like a wise path to take. If I were you I’d try to find employment in an organization or area that has a different social/work culture.

          In one of my previous jobs I found myself in the midst of a social environment where certain people gossiped a lot and spent more time on their social relationships than they did on their work. They were socially connected to the manager, so almost encouraged in their behaviour. Those of us who were more work focused and more task focused were ‘othered’ and treated as outsiders. It was a tough work environment as a result, and frankly a bit of a mind-bending, crazymaking situation. I didn’t realize just how much it was affecting me until I finally got out.

          If you think you’re being gaslighted, and if you’re concerned that this type of dynamic is at play with regard to the new position you applied for, then I’d run – not walk – in the other direction. If you aren’t being dealt with in an ‘above board’ manner now, then it’s not going to stop once you get hired. It will only get worse – but by then they will have much more influence over your livelihood and daily experience of work than they do now. Walk away.

          And as for whether to use them on your resume for other jobs moving forward – I’d say follow the steps I listed and see what comes out of it all. Once you have a clear understanding of what’s happening, either through direct conversation with your previous employer or through having someone pose as a potential employer, you will have a much, much better idea of how to proceed.

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