Talking About Former Employers in Interviews

In one form or another, readers often write to ask what to say about former employers. Just how far can you go to let the interviewer know it’s not you, it’s them?  On that topic, I want to share a recent Q & A from a comment by Lisa on  How to Answer Why You Left Your Last Job When You Actually Quit:

Dear Ronnie Ann,

I have quit my job after 7 years due to having a bad manager as a boss and a bad work environment. When the interviewer asks me why I left my job (especially without another job), is it OK to say that the work environment was negative. I want to be honest as possible. Is it a bad response to give the interviewer?

~ Lisa

 My response (with a few extra points added):

Honesty is one thing, Lisa…but you don’t want to shoot yourself in the foot! Especially since you stayed there 7 years; it would only raise more questions and put the focus on you back then and not you in the future, where you want the focus to be.

When we say negative stuff about a former employer or workplace, three questions (among many others) enter a typical interviewer’s mind:

(1) Did she do something to contribute to the problem?

(2) Will she spend most of her time thinking about negatives and hurts in the new job, rather than helping solve problem?

(3) After she leaves this new job, what will she say about us?

Since you have such a nice long work history at your last job, I think it’s better for you to focus on your accomplishments and strengths where possible in your interviews. Stay away from blaming or putting them down in any way. As I say in the post:

…stay positive about the last job – never ever talk about how awful they were or how badly they treated you or how you didn’t get what you deserved. That’s all sour grapes to a potential new employer and would only brand (you) as high maintenance.

Instead, look for reasons why you wanted to move on that are about you wanting more for yourself – and be prepared to speak to why this new job is exactly what you’re looking for.

If they ask why you quit without another job (not the best idea in this market that has been especially tough on unemployed job seekers), you can simply say you realized that it was time to move on and wanted to have more time to focus on finding the right job. Reasons for your realization can include things like: you need new challenges; you want different responsibilities; or something else that makes sense for the job you’re interviewing for.

And in the meantime, if you can volunteer or take on a project quickly (they like to see that you aren’t just hanging around), you can talk about that and maybe even tie it in to the new job – and then move on with your answer, keeping the focus on the new job as best you can.

Hope that helps. Good luck, Lisa!


About the author…

Ronnie Ann, founder of Work Coach Cafe, bases her real-world advice on her many years as an organizational consultant where she helped interview and hire people, added to a certificate from NYU in Career Planning & Development and her own adventures as a serial job seeker. She can also be found on her new blog, and on Google+.


  1. How did I miss this??!!! This is great advice. When I left the union I was blessed that I walked right into another job (no matter how short lived it was LOL). I can relate to being on a job 5 + years and feeling trapped. Its a bad feeling and sometimes you have to get away before you explode. My almost year of unemployment is better than the 5-10 I would be serving had I stayed with the job that I left LOL LOL

  2. I had particular trouble with this question too, and during one interview, the interviewer caught on to my discomfort on the subject and refused to let go. Needless to say, I didnt get the job even though I didnt say a word against my employer.

    Not that it matters because the same employer I refused to trash talk about is now giving me the boot for ridiculous reasons. Oh well.

    • Oh Joanne! I’m so sorry. Gotta say you may have lucked out not getting that other job, especially if they really found it so important to push for dirt. It’s still best for your sake not to give details that make it look like you’re saying it’s all them. That will only come back to bite you. Although right now, I bet that will be hard!

      Before your next interview, you might want to practice answering some version of this question. See if you can come up with ways to address what they asked without looking like you’re hiding anything. Or maybe something you can give them that didn’t work about that job but does work about the one you are interviewing for. Good to think of something like that ahead of time.

      I wish you much luck finding a job and employer that treat you right. You deserve a job where you are appreciated and where, when you put out good honest effort and help solve problems and improve things, you are clearly shown that you’re valued. From the beginning, it helps to set up feedback mechanisms so you both know what is going on. Also helps to build supportive work relationships.

      Best of luck!

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