How to Discuss a Former Employer in an Interview
METHOD 1: ACCENTUATING THE POSITIVE
1. Sell yourself.
Questions about your previous job are more about you than about your former employer. The interviewer is trying to gauge your skills and professionalism, not the virtues or vices of your previous boss. The goal of any answer about a previous job should be to make yourself look good, not your previous position look bad.
• Answer questions about previous jobs by discussing your accomplishments in those positions. Consider key phrases from the description of the job for which you’re interviewing, such as “strong supervisory skills,” and consider how you can frame your experience in your previous job to emphasize that you have what it takes for the new position.
• Whenever possible, go beyond buzzwords and give examples from your previous job. Pivot from a generality, such as “self-motivated,” by saying, “I know you’ve probably heard that before, so let me give you an example.” Then have a brief two-to-four sentence anecdote from a previous job prepared that demonstrates your self-motivation.
2. Don’t badmouth.
It’s not a good idea to be negative in a job interview about anything, and that’s especially true when it comes to discussing your former employer. An interviewee badmouthing his or her former employer raises a red flag in most human resource departments. You should cast even the worst previous employment experience in a positive light.
• Negativity raises questions about you, not your previous job. If you say bad things about your old boss, the interviewer will wonder:
a. What the other side of the story is,
b. Whether you will be a “whiner” or a “complainer” in your new job if they hire you, and
c. If you will speak ill of them if you eventually leave their employ.
• No matter how much you disliked your old job, find something positive to say about it. Think of the office environment, training seminars, break room, flexible hours or anything else that appealed to you. Make the positive aspects of your old job the focus of your answer.
Ultimately, speaking ill of your previous employer just makes you look unprofessional.
3. Pivot to the present.
The one time that it’s okay to say something less-than-positive about your previous position is in comparing your fit for your previous job with your fit for the one for which you’re interviewing.
• If, for instance, you were promised an exciting, challenging position at your last job and instead found yourself in a boring, repetitive desk job, you may want to mention this to the interviewer. Make sure that your description of your old job draws out the distinctions between that position and the one for which you’re interviewing.
• More generally, it’s okay to tell an interviewer your old job was a bad fit because you wanted more of a challenge, wanted more or different responsibilities, or wanted more opportunities for advancement. The key is to pick the phrase that best describes the job for which you’re interviewing.
• Finish your comment with a phrase like “I’m excited about this opportunity because…” that will allow you to further outline the opportunities in the new position that were lacking in your past position and why you’re excited for the new challenge.
4. Keep it simple.
Brevity is often the best way to avoid negative or unprofessional answers. Answer the questions you are asked, but be careful not to volunteer too much information. This tip should be applied to all aspects of your interview, but especially to any references to your previous employer. The shortest answer is usually the best answer.
• Leave emotion out of your answers. No matter how personable the interviewer may seem, a job interview is a business interaction, and your language and conduct should reflect that fact.
METHOD 2: REFRAMING A SETBACK
1. Don’t be a quitter.
“Quit” is “four-letter word” to most employers. Instead, use more neutral language and emphasize the positive reasons you left a job.
• For example, when describing a transition from one job to another, simply say “I joined another company.” Never give unnecessary detail unless asked. Saying too much might prompt the interviewer to follow-up with uncomfortable questions that would be better left alone.
2. Use generalities strategically.
If prompted for more detail, explain your departure from a previous job in general terms that don’t cast you or your old boss in a bad light.
• For example, saying you left a job to spend time with family or reevaluate your priorities before choosing your next career move are acceptable reasons for leaving a job in the eyes of most interviewers.
• Only offer more detail if it can cast you in a positive light. For example, you might want to talk about how a change in culture or management at your old job caused you to leave if it allows you to highlight how you’re a good fit for your new job. You might say, “After some management changes, it became clear that the company was moving in a direction that didn’t align with my strengths and goals.” Continue by talking about your strengths and goals and how they align with the position for which you’re interviewing
3. Steer clear of office politics.
If personal conflicts in the workplace caused you to leave you previous job, don’t discuss them. Your new employer wants to know you can be a professional.
• The interviewer doesn’t want to hear why you didn’t get along with your old boss or coworkers. Instead, if a personality conflict with your old boss was at the heart of your departure, simply say you had “differing professional attitudes.”
4. Don’t be afraid of fire.
People get fired every day. Employers understand that it’s part of business. If you were fired from your previous job, be honest and try to frame the reason in as positive terms as possible.
• If a force beyond your control – reorganization, change in management, merger, downsizing, recession, etc. – caused you to be let go, be sure to explain that as simply and straightforwardly as possible.
• If you were fired because of your performance, minimize your discussion of it. Unless the reason was criminal, it will not appear on your background check. When in doubt, say that you “were not a good fit” for your previous position, then explain why you’re a great fit for the new position.
• Always emphasize your positive attitude in response to the setback. In many cases, you can even turn the reason you were fired from your previous job into a discussion of the skills you developed. Make yourself, not your old employer, the focus of your response.
• For example, if you couldn’t work the inconsistent hours that your previous job demanded, say so. Then add that the situation helped you improve your time management and explain how what you’ve learned will help you succeed in the position for which you’re interviewing.
METHOD 3: PLANNING AHEAD
1. Prepare your responses.
Always plan exactly what you will say about each of your former employers if asked by the interviewer. Never let yourself get caught off guard, resulting in a potentially inappropriate or insufficient answer.
• Begin by taking notes on all of your previous jobs. Think back and analyze each carefully. Think about your responsibilities and the skills you developed, along with any awards, accolades or recognition you may have received.
2. Write a script.
Use notes on your previous jobs to develop a response “script” for each job. The goal of this script should be to clearly and concisely convey what you gained from and accomplished in the position in a few sentences. Practice your job scripts until you have them memorized.
If possible, have a friend or family member pose as your interviewer, rehearse your response scripts with him or her, and ask for feedback. If no one is available to rehearse with, you can record yourself. Try to put yourself in the shoes of an interviewer while you listen to your answers. What can be improved?
3. Select your references strategically.
Don’t list someone who won’t say good things about you. If you’re not sure what a former employer will say about you, ask. It’s better to have an awkward conversation with a former boss than a bad reference.
• Pick the boss that liked you best. In most companies, there are several supervisors who can legitimately be called your “boss.” Whenever possible, choose the one with whom you left on good terms.
• Even if you’re forced to list a boss with whom you parted on less-than-positive terms, you should be reassured to know that most bosses are not anxious to badmouth you. Not only do employers fear defamation lawsuits, they also want to keep the interaction professional in order not to harm their own reputation with their peers in the industry.
4. Contact your references.
You should always alert a former employer that he or she is listed as your reference. Contacting your references as soon as possible in the job application process will allow for any potential delays in their response and give them time to think about what they will say if contacted by your potential employer’s HR department.
• Giving your references advanced notice works to you advantage, too. If a former employer is caught off guard by by a phone call from your interviewer, he or she may unintentionally provide a reference that isn’t as positive as it would have been if he or she was prepared.