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My life is miserable at the company I work for. I'm in the tech industry in an organization with one of the best companies in the world, yet the workplace I'm in is completely toxic. People seriously dislike each other here. My boss is a manipulative clown who often boasts about how he takes advantage of other folks for his own gain at the expense of others' goals. He literally laughs this off without any regard for how the other person may feel. His social skills are so incredibly bad, it's often cringe-worthy to just have a normal conversation with him.

I'm now on the hunt for something new, and I'm feeling pumped about it because I'm finally exiting a terrible relationship. I've come to learn that no matter how good your individual job content and the things you do a daily basis may be, if you're in a place where the relationships make you feel pissed off everyday, you'll never "advance" yourself in the short and long term.

Before I started thinking seriously about job hunting actively, I've asked myself often: is it me? Is my perception just off? Can I adjust it? Am I in control of this department's culture? Can I make sacrifices for the betterment of my career? These questions have always circulated my head for past year, and I've felt like I've put up with a lot of this baggage for way too long. I'm ready to move forward, but my question is this:

When interviewing with new employers, the inevitable question always arises: Why did you choose to leave your position? Candidates often have some canned response, simply following the textbook advice: never badmouth a previous employer. But why not? Seriously. The textbook advice advises against it simply because it puts you in a negative light, people don't want to hear about your old baggage...but I want to express myself honestly, and portray the gravity of such a suicidal career I embarked on for the past year. I need some cathartic explanation without diluting the honesty in my answer.

15 Answers 15

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Because you may be perceived as scapegoating your former employer for your own possible shortcomings since your former employer is not present there to rebut any of your claims.

The company may perceive you as a potentially divisive influence, who when the going gets tough may fall back to your established habit of blaming you employer first, potentially spreading negativism and harming the morale of your coworkers.

By blaming your past employer you reveal yourself as a gossip, not an admirable quality unless you are applying for the job of a police informant or a tabloid reporter.

By blaming your past employer you are showing yourself as not being able to resolve problems with your manager through negotiation and basic diplomacy thus you may be perceived as possibly a cause of needless headaches, and wasted hours spent on mediation between you and co-workers/management.

Also you will more than likely be perceived as someone too ignorant to even take into account or comprehend any of the above concepts to complain about your past employer anyhow.

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    I'd perhaps temper this answer down to "You may be seen as someone who may be a divisive influence, can't take responsibility, etc".... it's not an automatic assumption that if you have a problem with an employer, it's your fault and you're scapegoating: but it's adding an extra risk to you as a future employee. You may have very valid reasons, but by bringing them up in the interview you add doubt and swing things in a negative direction. Keep it positive, and the impression of you will be positive. – Jon Story Mar 2 '15 at 9:51
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    Not to mention that it sends the signal that you're not actually that interested in working for this potential new employer - you're more interested in getting somewhere, anywhere other that where you are now. – Carson63000 Mar 2 '15 at 10:40
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    I would temper this answer down to "this is how you will come across from the POV of an interviewer who can only make assumptions and judgements without any of the facts, even though this isn't actually how it went down for you at your current company". Otherwise it kind of just sounds like a diatribe at the OP, which I'm sure wasn't intended! – Lightness Races with Monica Mar 2 '15 at 12:05
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    Generally speaking when I start an interview, the more they bad mouth their past employer the more I think they are more interested in not being there than working here. I want you to be here because you want to be here, not because it's better than someplace else. – RualStorge Mar 2 '15 at 18:58
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    @RualStorge Interesting point. I never thought in those terms but it makes sense. Similar to a dumped partner in a relationship immediately finding a replacement 'on the rebound' , still fixated and angry about the breakup more than the new relationship. – NickNo Mar 3 '15 at 3:46
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Why is it not a good idea to "badmouth" a previous employer?

Well, at one point, your prospective employer might become your previous employer. And if he knows that you have a tendency to badmouth previous employers, why would he want to hire you? You're probably going to badmouth him later.

Diplomacy is key. It's OK to say that you've had disagreements with your boss and/or coworkers. If you badmouth them, however, you come off as the badmouthing type. This is not ideal.

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    "If he did it before, he'll do it again" - Harvey Specter ;) – Radu Murzea Mar 2 '15 at 7:59
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    "You are probably going to badmouth him later" implies that the prospective employer treats his employees as badly as the previous employer. I wouldn't even bother working for such an employer who has no confidence in themselves, and cower in fear at the slightest criticism. – Masked Man Mar 2 '15 at 15:31
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    @Happy, it doesn't imply that because your new employer doesn't know what an asshole the previous one was. For all he knows, the candidate is simply badmouthing a good person. Two sides to every story, etc. – Alec Mar 2 '15 at 15:39
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    If the previous employer wasn't an asshole, the candidate wouldn't have badmouthed him. I don't know why so many people have a problem in understanding such a simple thing. What is this urge to assume that when a candidate badmouths the employer, the candidate is always the one wrong? Why not think this way, "Alright, this guy is so brutally honest. The previous employer must have put him through some really tough time. If he accepts my offer, I take it as a challenge that he will be happy when he leaves us." Aren't there any optimistic people left in the world? – Masked Man Mar 2 '15 at 16:52
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    It's not about assuming the candidate is lying. It's about not making the assumption that the candidate's view is the only view. – Alec Mar 2 '15 at 18:03
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The bottom line is, there must be "something" wrong or you wouldn't leave. You're going to have to find something, but:

  • Don't make it personal
  • Don't make it emotional
  • It can't be something you have control over, but failed to fix it.

Your team and manager are dysfunctional, so you may have to say, "There is no room for advancement." The company isn't growing fast enough. You want to expand the technologies you work with and want to be challenged because your current project is treading water.

You can't say, "I don't like my boss and he is a fool." No one cares what your opinion is of the company, but if you bad mouth them, they'll think less of you. Remember, most of your interviewing will be with management. No one wants to hire a disgruntled employee. Anything you say against management, they'll take it personally. Sorry, but that's human nature. Everyone else who has a bad boss will feel sorry for you, but they're not hiring.

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    I think this is the best answer. Getting emotional about it will make it seem the problem is you and not them. I would add something like "staying there would no help me with my long term goals. – Ronnie W Mar 2 '15 at 14:31
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    +1 Don't be personal and keep it simple - "the working environment became a bit of a drudge" and "you didn't feel like you were progressing anymore" (above all, avoid the word toxic). – HorusKol Mar 2 '15 at 23:00
  • I don't like the bullet points, and here's why: I left my last internship because I went to college. Even though I had control over this decision, and it's inherently personal, and the leave was emotional, It's still a very valid and respectable reason for leaving a company. – tuskiomi Jun 14 at 17:47
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Basic idea:

If you are going to talk bad about him to me, why wouldn't you talk bad about me to someone else?

You might have personal bad feelings about your current employer or a specific member of your team because of the situation you were in. But from a professional point of view it is good to brush it away and focus only on the value you are bringing in.

Here are a few other reasons:

  1. Nobody likes complainers.
  2. Your new employer may know people at your current work place. You do not want to risk it, after all it's a small world.
  3. Forgive and forget: Even if they had really troubled you.
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    +1 "Nobody likes complainers" is a big part of it. Make your negative positive: instead of "My workplace is toxic, my boss is a clown who takes advantage of colleagues..." try "I'm keen to work for you because in my research, your workplace seems to be a much more positive environment. I like that your company maintains higher standards of professionalism than my current workplace, and I thrive best in a co-operative working environment like this". You're making the same points, but you appear driven and positive, not bitter and negative. – user56reinstatemonica8 Mar 4 '15 at 18:32
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I agree with most of what's already been said, but let me add this.

Remember that the person interviewing you does not know what your present job is really like. It MAY be that all your complaints are completely valid, your boss is a total jerk, etc. But it is likely that they will also wonder, Could it be that it is this person I am interviewing who is the problem? Maybe he's just a trouble-maker and a malcontent? Surely we have all, at one point or another, heard a friend complain about a problem with another friend, and you think, Wow, Bob is really being a jerk. Then you hear Bob's side of the story and you think, Wow, if he's telling the truth than Alice is the one being a jerk. People with some life experience start to consider the possibility that a person is slanting the story to make their side look better. Sometimes when I hear someone complain about another person I find myself searching for holes in their story.

And bear in mind if you're complaining about your boss, the person interviewing you is also a boss, and is likely to see things more from the boss's point of view. He might well be thinking, Is the boss really domineering and manipulative, or is this guy someone who just insists on always getting his own way and can't take direction or be part of a team?

Even if the interviewer accepts that your complaints are justified, they want someone on their team who solves problems, or at least copes with them, rather than just complaining about them and/or giving up. They know that there organization is also made up of fallible humans and that their work environment is not perfect either. When you find faults in their company, will you complain and stir up trouble there also? Or quickly quit?

Note I'm not saying that there is anything you could do to fix the problems at your present job or that quitting is not the best option. What I am saying is that a prospective employer can't be sure if you are being totally reasonable or over-reacting. And if you get all emotional and whine and complain or yell and scream, it makes you sound less rational and more emotional.

The purpose of a job interview is not to prove that you are in the right in your disputes with a previous employer. Certainly not to provide a cathartic release of your frustrations -- if you need that, vent to a friend or see a psychiatrist. At a job interview you want to convince them that you are the best candidate for the new job.

  • Yeah, exactly. My first reaction when someone complains to me about someone else and I don't have any independent information is to be suspicious of the complainer. If you bring it up, it becomes your burden of proof to show that you are not actually the one responsible. In my experience, it's more often the fault of the complainer than the complainee. – Olin Lathrop Mar 4 '15 at 22:15
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A lot of negative (i.e. "Don't say such and such") interview advice is given considering the possible assumptions that an interviewer could make about you based just on the interview.

In this case the possible assumption is this.

More often than not your interviewer probably is a boss, or a HR person or someone who's had to deal with staff. She doesn't know you're a perfectly reasonable person in an unfortunate situation. She just knows that you have had trouble with a boss before and despite your protests that your boss was the bad guy and not you, from her point of view it's possible that you're the problem and you just have difficulty getting along with bosses.

"People seriously dislike each other here." You may be speaking the truth, but your interviewer may think, "or do people just not like you?"

You want to give the impression that you're a positive person who is enthusiastic about your work place. Badmouthing your boss does the opposite.

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If you need to give a cathartic explanation, then explain to a therapist or someone else you trust to keep confidentiality. It is not appropriate behavior for a professional setting, or even a public setting, unless you believe that the situation actually poses a threat to the public.

Your boss certainly sounds like a toxic character, at least from your descriptions. But ultimately, it's not relevant to your (prospective) new job: they're hiring you, not him. You've carrying a lot of self-doubt, which isn't surprising for someone coming out of an abusive work environment, but advertising your self-doubt invites others to share in it. That makes interviewers nervous, for the same reasons that it makes you nervous, only they're the ones who have to decide whether or not to hire you.

I agree that you need to express this stuff in a full and honest manner. But an interview is not the time or place for it. I am sorry to hear of your situation, but you sound like you could benefit from a few sessions with a professional. Aside from giving you a safe place to vent, it may also help with your self-doubt.

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This is a difficult one.

As an interviewer it's important to me to determine why a candidate is leaving, because that reason may very well be relevant to my choice of whether to now hire him or her. In the same vein, it's in your best interests to make sure the interviewer has that information: if you dodge the question, that's suspicious, and I'm going to start wondering what you're hiding. Hiding the reason you're leaving a company is not something that is going to endear me towards taking a risk on you.

On the other hand, you don't want to come across as a gossip, a rat, or a moaner.

I can't tell you precisely what to say, but I wouldn't dodge this entirely: I'd try to find some way of indicating the real reasons that you're leaving, but without accusing individuals of any specifics.

  • I also think same way. I want to be honest about why I left. If I left because of jerk boss, then let the new employer know that and if he is a jerk, then let he not hire me at all. Different story is - when you are desperate for job. THen you want to get a job even if the boss is a jerk. THen it makes more sense to hide. But since most answers tell to not badmouth, I will have to try. And I tried, but I failed some of times I guess, because it feels like the interviewerrs want that I badmouth bossess by asking those questions. – Will_create_nick_later Jul 31 '16 at 10:27
  • @Will_create_nick_later: Something like "I was growing unhappy with the culture and had developed a desire for change in my day-to-day life" would probably handle it well. – Lightness Races with Monica Jul 31 '16 at 13:31
  • then we have to be prepared to question - why you were unhappy, and what do you want to change. WHich is difficult again. – Will_create_nick_later Aug 1 '16 at 11:57
  • @Will_create_nick_later: A good interviewer will pick up on the hint and not push too much. – Lightness Races with Monica Aug 1 '16 at 12:14
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Why should you badmouth an obstacle you can't shape, but only avoid? Moreover, you should be fair to your previous employer: even if people in your team were unpleasant, that does not necessarily apply to the whole company.

A job change is all about you. You got yourself in a situation where no career improvement was possible, so you move on. The only thing you are in control of is yourself. You can't change the company someone else owns.

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Is it me? Is my perception just off? Can I adjust it? Am I in control of this department's culture? Can I make sacrifices for the betterment of my career?

You must remember that you will always be you. You can try to change your views, but to drastically and you may end up just hurting yourself. Unless you are designated to be in control of a department, it's not your job to keep it "clean". Just avoid trouble and you usually end up fine. Sacrifices meant to better your career is a double edged sword. You need to make sacrifices to succeed, the question is what you want to sacrifice, and if you do the right ones.

Why did you choose to leave your position?

Textbook answers are common, but everyone knows them, and thus it can lead to sneaky questions trying to peel the exact reason why you left to begin with. The cards you can play here heavily depend on what you carry to begin with. If you need to move house, and the new job is closer\more available, that's a start. Got kids? Maybe the area has better schools. See where I am going here? Just don't lie.

Never badmouth a previous employer. But why not?

Easy, if your old job is similar to the new one, and maybe even close in a geographical setting, your previous boss and potential new boss MAY know each other. Slim chance, but it's a trap you DON'T want to step in. Besides, you'd want some papers from your old boss, to show your new, and likely they will end up talking on phone regarding you.

Lastly, as mentioned, you don't want to seem like the asshole. Not like your new boss can know if your old boss actually was a douche, or it was you who were the douche all along.

In short: If you badmouth your previous boss, you only badmouth yourself.

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If you left your old job because it was a "toxic work environment" it is ok and right to say that. That is not "badmouthing your employer".

What you want to avoid is an unsupported, subjective criticism, like "My boss was a jerk" or "My coworkers were assholes." Subjective judgements, especially negative ones have no place in an interview. If you stick to the facts, you are fine.

One way to phrase your previous situation is: "My previous workplace was very politicized and success at the company had nothing to do with performance. I wanted to find a place where my work performance would be appreciated."

  • Morally, it is ok to say one's past environment was a toxic one if it is true. However, an interviewer doesn't know anything about us and has no way to measure the value of our word. Then, that by itself becomes an unsupported statement. Better just to say "work wasn't interesting anymore" or "I like the type of work you <interviewer> do", leave it at that, and re-focus the interview into other matters that are easier to measure or validate from a neutral POV (skills, ability to work in teams, past contributions, etc.) Don't say to strangers things that can be used against you. – luis.espinal Mar 4 '15 at 16:42
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    @luis.espinal I kind of see the problem with the "toxic" statement is not so much the factuality, but that it is vague. Even if it is true, what does it mean? There is an argument that you want to stick with very specific, concrete statements that are not vague. – Socrates Mar 4 '15 at 16:48
  • Correct, it is better to stick with specific, concrete statements. I would also go further than that, and say that we want to stick to statements that are not only true, but that further one's agenda. The whole objective of an interview is to get the job (a job that we can do to the employer's benefit.) That will mean omitting ugly truths - past employer's or ours (hopefully if ours, ugly truths we have learned from/improved upon.) Here we enter into the realms of politics and personal branding (an ugly necessity of living in an imperfect world.) – luis.espinal Mar 4 '15 at 16:54
  • Saying your current work environment is "toxic" is badmouthing your employer. To me, there isn't much difference between that and saying your boss is a jerk. Both are just whines that I have no way to know how true they are, so the only message I get is that you're a whiner. – Olin Lathrop Mar 4 '15 at 22:20
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    @OlinLathrop You sound like a jerk. Do your employees complain that your work environment is toxic? – Socrates Mar 4 '15 at 22:24
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Bringing baggage from your previous employer into an interview is career suicide. Plain and simple.

Just put yourself in the interviewer's shoes. When I'm hiring someone, I'm looking for positivity and enthusiasm. Being positive and enthusiastic about the job is way more important to me than credentials.

I already know there are a lot of jerk bosses out there -- I've had my share, too. BUT: I also know that there are a lot of employees who are basically immature babies who can't work under direction and make their bosses' lives a living hell.

If someone came into my office for an interview and started going off on their previous employer, I'd tend to put them in the second category. Not a place you want to be.

Consider saying things positive, like "I am looking for a place where I can much better apply my talents." Better yet, do some research on the company before you interview and say positive things like "I'm excited to have the opportunity to work on project xyz with John Smith."

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    Career suicide, not really. Bad interview etiquette certainly so. – CGCampbell Mar 2 '15 at 15:59
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The way you have described it to me, you had a truly terrible experience at your previous job and want to escape it as quickly as possible. That's completely reasonable and understandable.

You still should not say your boss is a terrible person, or even dwell excessively on this previous position while applying for a new one, especially during an interview.

"Conflict of Interests" Is usually the code word prospecting employees use to say "I hated my previous job", and leaving it at that is usually acceptable. If you know for a fact your boss and co-workers hated you, or as you said that they would 'take advantage of you at the cost of your own personal goals', you can add that it was a toxic work environment that you wanted to leave, but do not name names, do not refer directly to your boss or the terrible things he did, and don't expose any of the previous employer's dirty laundry.

Regardless of how good the next job you have is, they will be looking at you as an employee, and how you will represent the company, during your interview. If they think you are going to represent them badly, they won't hire you. And holding onto a grudge against your previous company is exactly the kind of thing that they do not want to see.

You hate this previous company, and that's fine. Let them know you left for personal reasons to find a better work environment, that is also fine. But do not hold onto that grudge. Both because it will make you look bad, and because it is really bad for you personally in the long-run to hold that grudge. You're out of that company. You do not need to drag out your grudges in front of a new boss.

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During an interview, it's your word against the company's reputation, and unless your employer has already been sullied by proven allegations of misconduct, you'll just make yourself look bad even if what you described is true (but neither proven nor alleged in a court of law).

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    I've just put it more nicely and concisely. – Cynical Employer Mar 2 '15 at 19:34
  • Not sure why "Cynical Employer"'s post was neg-repped. +1 from me, because he/she is making a valid point. – luis.espinal Mar 4 '15 at 16:33
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All answers till now have harped on 'diplomacy', 'dont complain' etc which I sum it up as 'politics'. You can choose to be political - 'work' with your manager even if it can shoot your blood pressure up, say nice things to him though you have a different opinion in mind etc or you can choose to be honest. You can decide based on the choice that you have - say in another company, how likely is it (not) to have a similar manager? Generally, 'honesty' doesnt work - if you say 'it was difficult to work with my manager', even if it is the truth, no company will see you in a favorable light.

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    I think you're wrong. There's always a way to explain what happened without being rude and talking behind people's backs. Having disagreements with your peers/boss is completely common, and not something that disqualifies someone who is in every other aspect a good candidate for the job. – Alec Mar 2 '15 at 11:14
  • 'always a way' is my point. Here of course the candidate is talking behind previous/current company/manager's back and previous/current company/manager doesnt get the chance to 'clarify'. Since the candidate is giving some reasons, the onus is on the candidate to give a reason which has to look 'convincing' to the interviewer. – Raghuraman R Mar 3 '15 at 5:58
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    Raghuraman has a point. In any career, it is a good idea to know when and how to be political without involving in back-stabbing. Choosing carefully how to tread politically is valid if it helps the person survive a bad situation (in this case, a bad manager.) There is always the case that we leave one bad manager just to encounter another one down the road. Is the solution always to throw the hat right off the bat? Of course not. We need to learn how to choose our battles and how to shape our departures to our advantages. That involves playing a little bit of politics. It's just life. – luis.espinal Mar 4 '15 at 16:37

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