should I not tell interviewers I left my last job because of bad management? — Ask a Manager

A reader writes:

Can you help me with an appropriate response to future employers as to why I resigned from my previous position? It took a lot of guts and months of build-up to do it, but I resigned from my position earlier this summer. The work culture was beyond toxic and I truly felt that I had done all I could to try and be happy. My mentors and close business connections supported the decision (especially after hearing about the shenanigans that were going on and some of the actual words that came out of our leaders’ mouths).

I’ve found that in most of my recent interviews, hiring managers are sympathetic and don’t focus too much on the reasons why I left. However, I also have not received a job offer in the four months since I left. I’m freaking out. Here’s the response I’ve given when asked why I left. I think it’s good enough, but perhaps you can offer some advice on how to improve it?

Interviewer: “Why did you leave your last job?”

Me: “I pride myself on being supportive of outcomes, but some of the business decisions being made didn’t align with my interpretation of our mission. There was a lack of direction from leadership, which in my opinion was breeding chaos and fostering a toxic work culture where no one trusted or supported anyone. I would be best suited for a work culture where open communication is valued and collaboration is encouraged. That seems to be a key theme in the job description for this role, which is why I’m excited to pursue this opportunity.”

Too much? Not enough?

Too much. This is way more critical of your previous employer than what’s normally heard in interviews, and without any real prompting to do that. I know it feels like the question is prompting it, but most interviewers won’t see it that way.

When interviewers ask this question, they’re just looking for some quick context to understand what’s going on with your career and how their job opening might fit in with it. Most of the time people’s answers to this question are pretty bland, but interviewers are watching for signs of things like: Were you fired or otherwise pushed out because of problems on your end? Did you leave on not-good terms? Do you have unrealistic expectations that they won’t be able to meet either (because you get bored with all your jobs after eight months or chafe at being managed in a reasonable way, or so forth)? Is there other context that is relevant to them?

But again, typically people’s answers to this question are pretty unremarkable: they’d been there five years and were ready for something new, or they moved to a new city, or their whole team was laid off. And that’s what interviewers are usually expecting when they ask it. So when you answer with “leadership was toxic and chaotic,” you’ve just thrown a bit of a grenade into the usual order of things and now their ears are perking up.

And it’s not that interviewers don’t know there are terrible, toxic workplaces out there. They do. But rightly or wrongly, there’s a convention in interviewing that you shouldn’t badmouth previous employers. It’s often considered indiscreet and tacky, and a lot of interviewers will be really put off by it.

Plus, interviewers don’t know you, and they don’t how reasonable or objective you are, what the other side of the story is, or if you were part of the problem. (And most of us have seen situations where one person’s take on a culture is … a real outlier.) With an answer like the one you’re giving, they don’t know if anyone in your shoes would have been horrified or if you have unreasonable expectations of work. But what they do know now is that you’re willing to blurt out unusually negative things about that employer in a situation where that’s not usually done, so one of the few data points they have about your judgement already feels questionable.

Now, to be clear, it’s fine to say things like “I was hired to do X but ended up doing Y” or “the company was having financial problems and I was concerned about its stability.” Those might not be especially flattering to the company, but they’re relatively objective facts. “Toxic,” on the other hand, leaves too much room for subjectivity.

So you need a blander answer. If you were at that job a few years, then it’s easy — you can just say you were looking for the next step in your career and wanted to take on something like ___ (some piece of the new job that appeals to you). No one will blink at that.

But if you weren’t there very long, you can’t say that; you’d look like you get bored with jobs too quickly or like you’re covering up the real reason you left (like being fired). In that case, you’d need a different answer. Ideally you’d be able to honestly say something like, “I was hired to focus on X, but it’s turned out that that they really need someone to focus on Y” or “The hours/travel/work turned out to be very different than what I was originally offered.”

But if nothing straightforward like that is true, then at that point, yes, you’d need to allude to it just not being the right fit for you. But not with the wording you’ve been using! Tone that way down. Use an answer that sounds like it wasn’t the right place for you, not that you’re condemning them across the board. For example: “I’ve always worked places where I was happy to stay a long time, but I got it wrong this time — this organization has a lot of strengths, but it’s not as collaborative or mission-driven as I was looking for, and I realized it was the wrong fit for me. So I’m taking some time to find the right culture.” (I pulled those details from your statement, but there are probably better specifics to use.) They might ask you a follow-up question or two about what didn’t work for you, to make sure their culture wouldn’t be a similarly bad fit for you, so be prepared with a couple of factual, unemotional details. (To come up with the right language, think of what you’d say if you really believed this was just a blameless mismatch, rather than toxicity and incompetence.)

But that’s really it! Your goal is for your answer to this to be fairly unmemorable. It can’t be so vague as to invite skepticism, but you’re going for easy and uneventful in your reply.

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