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I applied for a job. After applying I was asked to respond to a short survey. I can't remember the exact wording but one of the questions was "What advice would you give your current/most recent employer and what would you change?"

My most recent job was really good and it would be hard to pinpoint a certain area that I think could be improved upon without discussing a lot of background (and possibly confidential) information. Especially considering this was a written response at an early stage of the hiring process. What's a good way to answer? What is the intent of such a question?

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    If they were so good that there's nothing you can think of improving, why are you no longer with them?
    – Aida Paul
    Commented Jun 21, 2023 at 8:26
  • 6
    Not enough work/laid off.
    – Avenstoro
    Commented Jun 21, 2023 at 9:53

9 Answers 9

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+200

I disagree with ItWasLikeThatWhenIGotHere's answer. There is a clear difference between badmouthing and constructive criticism.

An answer that just says "yeah, everything was super good" could seem like evading the question, because rarely things are truly perfect. Good employers should be aware of that and might test you on your ability to formulate constructive criticism and your overall awareness on processes. Bonus points if you could provide an actual example like, "oh I actually did this and pointed out that by doing ABC we could accelerate our build process, which resulted in XYZ". (Remember, saying you did something great only matters if you can also point out the result).

On the other hand, as said in the introduction, don't take this as an invitation to trashtalk your former employer and don't be too specific nor talk about any confidential stuff.

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    I'll grant that I laid it on a bit thick with the dialogue. Hope the edit pulled that back a bit. Worth mentioning that answering instead the unasked question "Tell me about a time you resolved a problem" is another way of evading the question "What advice would you give your former workplace", but it's a good way and I'd have taken it as a good answer when I was on the other side of the interview table. Have an upvote. Commented Jun 22, 2023 at 8:40
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"It's a trap!"

Admiral Ackbar, Return of the Jedi

Most people know that bad-mouthing a previous employer tells an interviewer more about the candidate than it does about the employer, so they've spun it so it looks like a positive question. It will be taken (by the interviewer) in exactly the same way as an answer to "Tell me what your previous employer did wrong".

It buys into the idea that people leave a company to get away from a company. True, some people do that, but those are generally the ones who are less successful in interviews : if this candidate is willing to criticize their previous employer, what are they going to find to criticize us?

You could reflect it back at them. "Nothing I can think of. They were a great company and I loved my time there. I suppose I'd say "Just keep doing what you're doing"." [Though don't say all of that if it's not true - stop after "Nothing I can think of."]. If what the interviewer really wanted to know is why you left, that'll prompt them to ask that directly. This is your opportunity to talk about the positives in the company where you're currently interviewing. "They were great. But you're better."

People change jobs for better opportunities, interesting work, more pay and different responsibilities. The ones who emphasise the positives at the new place will come across better in an interview than those who consider the old place stagnant, boring, cheap and stressful.

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    Stone walling isn't much better than bad-mouthing. Actually, it may be worse: the interviewer knows you are lying and no one likes a liar. If you really want to stone wall say something like "I don't feel comfortable discussing that"
    – Hilmar
    Commented Jun 21, 2023 at 13:10
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    @Hilmar - no one's suggesting either stonewalling or lying. My sympathies if you've left a job and didn't like your time there, but it's not that way for everyone. Commented Jun 21, 2023 at 17:16
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    @Hilmar - I've thrown in an edit to avoid people tripping over that idea. I was wrong that no one was suggesting stonewalling - you were - but as an interviewer I'd be suspicious of "I don't feel comfortable discussing that". Commented Jun 21, 2023 at 17:34
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    Everyone knows that a smart candidate will answer strategically. It's fine & demonstrates some ability to be diplomatic when you're frustrated with a situation if nothing else. It also is a trap for some candidates. I like to ask people if they could design their dream job, what would it look like? I only ever got one wrong answer, which was "I would get paid to do nothing"(I think the candidate had already decided halfway through the process they didn't want the job). It's fine to be sincere if you can be constructive about it. Saying nothing also tells me something about a candidate though.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Jun 21, 2023 at 19:31
  • You don't want to play 'answer the question fairly'. You want to give a highly-filtered only positive answer. People don't like negativity in a job interview. Usually, they don't like it at all. Commented Jun 27, 2023 at 22:00
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I would pick something that has an element of truth to it and then articulate it in a positive manner - for example:

"I would encourage there to be more delegation of responsibility so that the team on the ground can make decisions quicker and more efficiently"

or

"I'd tell them that they have an amazing depth of talent in their workforce and should consider investing in their staff to upskill them"

or

"I think that they should review their performance metrics, to make sure they are as closely aligned with productivity as can be"

All of those, written another way would be:

'The Management sucks, every time I have to do something I've got to go through a million layers of beaurocracy'

or

'They never provide any training for staff, they are tight-arse cheapskates'

or

'People game the system by meeting their KPIs without doing any real work'

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"I think my answer would violate company confidentiality, so with all due respect I'm withholding it."

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  • Pretty good answer, but probably in real life "they were fine" is all they want to hear. After a first review, if good, some "lessons learned" can be instituted, but that too could be risky... Commented Jun 27, 2023 at 22:02
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    I think it's worth indicating "and I'll be just as respectful of your operating practices." YMMV.
    – keshlam
    Commented Jun 28, 2023 at 0:50
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  1. Keep it general. You've already identified that you don't want to give away trade secrets, and the recruiter won't know anything about the details of a specific product or process anyway. Think about ways in which the company as a whole could improve. (For example, if they have laid you off, then more marketing would be one possibility).
  2. Keep it positive. It's about improvement, not having a rant about everything that was wrong with your old employer. Employers don't want to recruit people who will complain all the time.
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There's one sleazy way to avoid saying anything negative while saying a lot of nothing that sounds like something. If you'd essentially give a pep talk, eg:

-And what advice would you give your previous employer?

-One advice I could give my former company is to never give up. Over the years that we've worked together there have been times we've faced new challenges that no one could predict the outcome of and we overcame every single one of them by working as a team. No matter what comes next, keep your head high, work together and you will surpass your goals.

Ok maybe I overdid it, but you get the gist of it. I think this kind of answer could look nicely coming from somebody looking for leader positions.

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I would mention something where I believe that it is known to the educated observer reading the media. That could be something like: They should make sure that the image they present to the outside and the employees does not create unneeded negative press. (e.g. in my company bigger lay offs were communicated and perceived much worse than they actually were).

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    This only works if you left a really big company. For the vast majority of companies, an educated observer reading the media wouldn't even know the company exists.
    – Erik
    Commented Jun 25, 2023 at 8:06
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I'd suggest building something between what @ItWasLikeThatWhenIGotHere and @infinitezero said.

Throughout the interview, you would be able to evaluate the space you are interviewing with.

If it seems like a trap, then say something along the lines of "As an employee in X department and Y job level, I find that XXX is a great company aiming at helping the society in XYZ ways. [and then pitch back to why you are moving out gently]." Be mindful that this is a trap scenario and you must keep the positive spin - as it is suggested in general.

If it is about evaluating your critical thinking, then add a spin about "improvements of processes." Something like: "As I was working on X project, I noticed that Y area could be improved. I'd propose to perform A survey and B method to evaluate the area and confirm potentials." That leaves the room for more questions showing your ability to analyze the environment and own the business. It also help to avoid going to the minutia of the background.

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    Welcome to the workplace SoFar67! Keep in mind that as mentioned by the original poster this came up as a survey question, not something asked during an interview.
    – Lilienthal
    Commented Jun 27, 2023 at 19:02
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I would start by saying I find this question quite intriguing and valuable. It would be even more beneficial if such inquiries were directly posed by either my current or previous employer. This level of involvement would make me feel more connected to the company and deeply invested in its growth and success, instilling a sense of pride. I believe incorporating periodic discussions like these would provide an opportunity for me to contribute ideas that have the potential to enhance revenue and drive demand. My approach would involve respectful constructive criticism, emphasizing my profound respect for the company, its people, and their future accomplishments. Moreover, I express a genuine desire to engage in learning opportunities beyond my current role, as acquiring additional knowledge and skills could ultimately benefit the organization as a whole.

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    This is shockingly low quality answer likely generated by an AI LLM like ChatGPT
    – Donald
    Commented Jun 26, 2023 at 20:13

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