How to discuss a former employer in an interview

How to discuss a former employer in an interview

Before interviewing a potential employee, the interviewer should take some time and plan ahead. All interview questions are not created equal, and some interview questions are illegal. It is a good idea to become acquainted with the types of questions that should never be asked, like those pertaining to marital status, age, disabilities and pregnancy.

The Best Type of Interview Questions

Questions that require only a yes or a no answer will not give the potential employer much information about the candidate. On the other hand, open-ended questions that leave the door open for a full response can reveal all kinds of interesting and pertinent facts about the interviewee.

Introductory Questions

A key question to ask a potential employee at an interview is an introductory question. The introductory question is generally something like “What are your hobbies” or “Tell me about yourself.” A good answer to this question will reveal the skills, accomplishments and traits of the candidate that relate to the position. If the answer is long-winded and unfocused with negative comments about a previous job, you might decide that the candidate is not a good match for the position. On the other hand, if the candidate tells you that he leads a band as a hobby and has written a book about your company’s industry, you can surmise that he has leadership abilities, is focused, and has good communication skills and a broad range of knowledge that can be applicable to the job at hand.

Teamwork Questions

Many positions require the employee to work with a team, and the employer will want to know ahead of time if the candidate is skilled at teamwork. Instead of asking “Are you a team player?” which will probably elicit “Yes” as an answer, you might ask “Tell me about a time when you worked with others to accomplish a task.” The answer should reveal if the candidate showed leadership, took the initiative, followed instructions and met deadlines, which may be crucial for the position.

Handling Conflict Questions

Conflict is part of life at home and life on the job. As an employer, you might want to find out how the candidate handled conflict. As the interviewee to describe a creative solution to a problem encountered at work, or how they would improve upon a process at her current job. Another way to find out how the candidate handles conflict is to ask if she ever had a problem with another employee and how she handled the problem. You may learn that the employee was able to convince the coworker to come around to her way of thinking, or that she addressed the issue and reached a compromise they both were able to live with.

Career Path Questions

Another key interview question to help you discover how the candidate will handle the open position is to ask about how the candidate progressed so far in her career. A good question would be “Tell me about your most significant accomplishments” on the job. If you ask the candidate to describe a situation when he felt he could have done better, you might find out that he took a failure as a “teachable moment” and will probably learn from his mistakes in the future.

Closing Question

Many interviewers close with the question, “Do you have any questions for me?” This can reveal how much the candidate knows about your company and the open position.

Whether you were a good leaver or a bad leaver, whether you got fired or laid off or left for a better job or are in fact still employed, it never pays to talk smack about a current or former boss or employer in a job interview. It simply never makes you look good as a candidate.

You should always be positive, or at least present a difficult situation through rose-colored glasses, anytime previous positions and former bosses come up during an interview. Otherwise, interviewers will always think you were the problem – even if that isn’t the case, according to Connie Thanasoulis-Cerrachio, career coach and co-founder of SixFigureStart.

1. Rather than focusing on conflicts, quantify your accomplishments

Dwelling on conflicts with former bosses in a job interview is never a good look for the candidate.

“If an interviewer asks about previous positions, mention the accomplishments you produced for your previous employer and quantify them if possible,” Thanasoulis-Cerrachio said.

2. Talk about the fit or lack thereof rather than attacking

Don’t ever bash your former employer or the company. It is OK to say that your last job was not a fit, but leave it that, according to Hallie Crawford, the founder of Career Coaching.

“If your interviewer probes further and really presses you, have a good way to explain the issue without making it sound like you are a problem employee,” she said.

For example, if your boss is the reason you’re leaving, you could explain that the management style was not ideal for you.

“Whatever the reason is for your leaving, even if it wasn’t voluntary on your part, keep the tone as positive as possible, focusing on the future and what’s next for you, including what’s next for you at this new job,” Crawford said.

3. Force optimism

This is one of the most basic pieces of advice career advisers give – you must always speak positively about old positions and old bosses. That’s why it’s so surprising that so many people do not abide by it.

Even jobs that ended badly will have some positives, and the important things are to talk about what you’ve learned from the experience, according to Janet Raiffa, an investment banking career coach, the former head of campus recruiting at Goldman Sachs and a former associate director in the Career Management Center at Columbia Business School.

“You can definitely talk about a job not being stimulating enough, or not allowing enough growth, but that should be coupled with how the job at hand can offer something better,” she said.

4. Spin a bad management style into a positive

If an interviewer asks about the style of your previous boss, always talk about it in a positive light.

“If your manager was a micromanager, say the truth but in a good way,” Thanasoulis-Cerrachio said.

For example: “We had a very tight working relationship. He/she liked to be kept up to date on even the minutest details and that was fine with me. After the first few months, he/she knew I was doing a great job so the confidence was high, but we continued to check in because no time was wasted when I knew I was going in the right direction.”

If your manager was a non-communicator, say the truth but in a good way, she suggests: “We agreed upon our goals up front and then because she had faith in me, I got the job done meeting minimally. That was great because we wasted zero times in meetings and everything was really efficient.”

5. Tell colorful anecdotes

To keep the response from turning negative, prepare stories about challenges you have faced and overcome, problems you’ve solved and clients you have made happy in your previous job. Some Wall Street jobs are best-suited to extroverts, and in general, recruiters and hiring managers like candidates who can spin a good (yet relatively concise) yarn.

“This will help to highlight your character and show your prospective employer why you are a good fit for the job,” Crawford said.

6. Realize that trash talk will backfire

It’s also imperative not to speak badly of a previous boss or colleague, even if the interviewer seems sympathetic or baits you with leading questions.

“While they very well may be have been terrible, you don’t want to suggest that you are a malcontent who has trouble getting along with people,” Raiffa said. “Complaining is also not a positive thing to do in an interview, and shows lack of judgment.”

How to discuss a former employer in an interview

Talking about a former bad boss/employer can sometimes be a very stressful subject. Because, let’s be honest, we’ve probably all had a terrible boss or poor working experience. And if you get asked about it during a job interview, it can be somewhat of a nightmare that you don’t know how to navigate through. But with these tips, you’ll be able to answer this question with flying colors and not feel like you ruined your chances.

Avoid Giving Information Unless Asked

First things first, if they don’t ask about it in a job interview, don’t put this information out in the open. If you’re able to avoid this conversation altogether, that’s awesome! And obviously, not having to discuss this will help you feel confident instead of nervous about your interview when it’s over.

Make everything as positive as possible

If this conversation does come up in an interview, which it most likely will, being prepared to answer it as positively as you can is necessary. The worst thing you can do is start bad mouthing a former employer or boss. Keeping your answer positive will give the impression that you’re a great person to work with. Even when bad things happen.

Don’t Bring up the Details

Unless they ask you details about why things were bad, try to avoid giving them. If they aren’t inquiring for details, it’s probably not a big deal to them. And if you bring it up without prompting, it may look like you’re not wanting to move forward from the experience and that you hold onto things. Even though, this very well could not be the case.

But if they do inquire more about the experience, make sure to keep things light and simple. You can do this in a few ways. One is explaining the way their management style was and how it just wasn’t a fit for you and your working style. Or if it’s about the company, stating that you were working to move up the ladder, but sadly, they had no opportunities which meant you had to make a change. This still gets across your problems without adding any emotion you may have had that helped you make the decision to move on.

It gives them a sense of who you are. Someone who is level-headed and trying to move forward.

Talk about what you learned

Another way to approach this interview question is by talking about what you learned at your old job and how it will make you an amazing candidate for this position. Twisting it around to again focus on the position you’re applying for today, will again reiterate you’re want to move forward and use the experience you’ve had to make you better, not bitter.

Explain what you’re looking forward to

And lastly, you should tell the interviewers how excited you are to start a new journey. Whether it’s with their company of someone else’s, you know all the things you’ve experienced have been for a reason. And that reason is to move you forward and make you more successful.

If you can make this impression when answering this question, you’ll win over those who are interviewing you. And nailing the interview won’t be a problem at all!

Being terminated can happen to any of us, unfortunately. It can occur at any time and even when it’s not your fault. There could simply be a personality conflict between you and your supervisor. Your idea of what the job was going to be like might be different from what the employer had in mind. You could have simply made a mistake. It happens … and you’re not alone. Each year, workers are fired for cause or unjustly fired (known as wrongful termination), but regardless of the circumstances, you’re left wondering: What should you do if you’ve been fired? Where do you go from here?

Getting fired
First and foremost, don’t beat yourself up. And don’t dwell on it. Instead, focus on what you are going to do next and how you are going to find another job. There are ways you can address this issue and put it in a neutral &mdash if not a positive &mdash light by focusing on your strengths and the direction you want to go. According to the encouraging words of Eckhart Tolle, “Whatever you fight, you strengthen; and what you resist, persists.”

Legal matters
Before you actively begin your job search, consider where you legally stand. Was your firing legitimate or could it be considered wrongful termination? Are you eligible for unemployment benefits? If you were fired for misconduct you may not be eligible, but don’t assume that is the case without investigating. Check with your state unemployment office, especially if you have a different opinion than your employer does about how you parted ways. In many cases, if there is a discrepancy between the two perspectives, the unemployment office will lean toward the unemployed job seeker rather than the employer when making a decision on unemployment compensation benefits. Also, many employment law firms offer a free initial 15 to 30 minute consultation to ensure that you know your rights and to guarantee that those rights are protected.

Résumés and cover letters
Your job-search communication and your approach must be positive. There is no need to mention that you were fired in your résumé or cover letters unless the application asks specifically. If it does ask, acknowledge the termination aspect in your cover letter and make sure it addresses the proactive steps you are taking as a result. Be brief; save the full explanation for a phone screening or in-person interview.

From the first application to your final interview, be honest but avoid being negative. The truth is bound to come up in one way or another so practice phrases such as “job ended,” “dismissed” or “terminated.” If the application specifically asks if you were fired, you need to answer yes. Lying on a job application may cause you to lose the opportunity and it may be considered grounds for dismissal at any time in the future, which could potentially cost you future unemployment benefits.

How to discuss a former employer in an interview

Don’t get burned during your first interview after getting fired.

Your first job interview after being fired can be intimidating. You probably think you have no chance of getting the job — who wants to hire someone that has just been canned? You are probably nervous about how to answer when the recruiter asks about it. Being asked about why you were terminated is one of the most challenging and intimidating interview questions to face.

First off, don’t panic and don’t be embarrassed; people get fired every day. These people go on to find new jobs, and you will find another job, too. So, don’t beat yourself up or doubt you’ll be getting a job after being fired. Remember all of the good you have accomplished in your career.

You will (without a doubt) be asked to explain being fired so be prepared to discuss it during an interview. If you were the recruiter, wouldn’t you want to know? Don’t worry; you got this. Your answer could even help you land the position if done correctly.

So, what is the best way to respond? These tips will help you maneuver through the dreaded question and help you with getting a job after being fired.

Honesty is the best policy

There is no easy way to explain to a prospective employer that you were fired from your previous job. The best approach is simple: Be honest. Tell the truth and be transparent with all of your answers. The worst way to handle the question is to lie about it.

Lying is like a forest fire; it spreads, with one lie leading to another and another. There is a chance that your potential employer will find out about the lie — and no one wants to hire a dishonest candidate. Truth has a funny way of always coming out, so don’t let it cause you to get fired again.

While you should absolutely be honest when you explain why you were fired, you do not have to give every nitty-gritty detail about the situation. Keep your answer high level, explaining the circumstance briefly and moving on. The last thing you want is to draw extra attention to the situation.

Here’s an example of how to answer honestly:

“After some personnel shuffling, the job was no longer working out. So, my boss and I agreed that it was time for me to move on to a position better suited to my skills. I’m excited to get back to it.”

Leave emotion out

Resist the urge to badmouth your previous employer. Even if you believe you were wronged, remaining objective and not placing blame are key. As much as it may pain you, stay positive and avoid saying anything negative about your previous boss or company; it will only make you look distasteful and defensive.

The recruiter and hiring manager are more likely to side with your previous employer if you start to play the blame game, as well. Start and end the conversation on a good note. The employer is evaluating if you will be a positive addition to his team, and no one likes a whiner.

Here’s an example of how to answer:

“In being let go, I have certainly found some silver linings. I am excited to have the opportunity to find a job that’s better suited to my qualifications and interests.”

Show that you’ve learned

Take responsibility for your part of the situation; there are always two sides to every story. Even if you feel as if you were the victim, your actions had something to do with it. Remain mature and professional by showing how you grew personally and professionally through this experience. By answering in this fashion, you will demonstrate strength, self-confidence, and character. The hiring manager will love to hear that you turned a negative situation into an asset.

Nobody is perfect — not you, not the recruiter, and not a single employee at the prospective company you are interviewing with. Perhaps even one (or several) of the people you talk to during the hiring process have been fired in the past. The hiring manager does not expect you to be perfect; they realize that you have made mistakes. The important part is that you have learned from them. Share how much you have grown since being terminated and how you will approach similar situations in the future, using the learning experience as an advantage for your next job.

Here’s an example of how to answer:

“When I initially accepted the job, I was desperate for work. After some time and evaluation, I realized I had jumped into the wrong position, and I won’t make that mistake again. I now know that I prefer an environment that is team-oriented.”

Know your former employer’s policies

Before you even start interviewing, speak with your former employer’s HR department to get a clear understanding of how the company will be representing the separation. What can you say and what can’t you say? Some companies have strict policies about disclosing any information beyond the dates of employment. Violate these policies and your former employee could sue you or take back your severance.

Practice makes perfect

If you are at all nervous about answering questions on your termination or explain being fired, the best thing you can do for yourself is to practice what you will say. Getting fired is an emotional experience, and it may take some practice to talk about it openly and objectively.

Write down your thoughts, practice in front of a mirror, videotape yourself, or ask someone to give you a mock interview. You can even work with a professional interview coach to master your response. Sites like TopInterview specialize in helping you prep to ace this question. They will also watch your body language and confidence level, helping you practice until you like what you see.

Remember that people get fired all of the time. It does not mean you are a bad employee, and your interviewer will not think poorly of you. It doesn’t mean you’re never getting a job after being fired, either.

Don’t make a big deal out of it, and remember that you are your worst critic. No one is going to judge you for being fired. In fact, most workers will be fired or let go at some point in their careers.

Answer the question with confidence, chalk it up as a learning experience, show the recruiter who you are and what you have to offer. You are a strong candidate. Your termination was merely a speed bump in your career path. Follow these tips and strategies outlined above, and then walk out with your head held high.

Want more help preparing for your next interview? Check out our sister site, TopInterview.

How to discuss a former employer in an interview

Even the best employees can find themselves out of work due to a reduction in force. That’s especially the case in a down economy. That said, hiring managers sometimes have a bias against job seekers who are unemployed, so you will want to prepare to answer interview questions about your layoff.

You do not want interviewers to see a layoff as a reflection of your ability to do the job well. This may be complicated by your own strong emotions about the experience. It is normal to be sad or angry after losing your job.

Learn how to navigate this situation in an interview, and how to prepare in advance to ensure that being laid off does not diminish your employability.

How to Explain a Layoff in a Job Interview

Interviewers will often ask questions to determine the reasons for any length of time that you were not employed. You will need to assure the interviewer that you were performing at a high level and that your discharge was not in any way a result of your productivity.

Be prepared to explain any circumstances at your organization that necessitated your layoff. For example, a merger or acquisition might have caused a round of layoffs to eliminate staffers with duplicate responsibilities. Perhaps there was reorganization and all employees in your category were eliminated. Maybe your company was losing market share and needed to cut costs.

Many layoffs occur mainly due to business-wide decisions, not specific performance issues. If you were laid off as part of a group, mention that in your response. And, if you were laid off during the ongoing public health crisis, you can mention that as well.

Whatever the reason for the layoffs at your company, keep your explanation brief.

Keep it Short

One or two sentences is typically sufficient. Make sure you maintain a neutral or positive tone as you describe your previous employer. Avoid disparaging remarks about former colleagues, bosses, or upper management. As always, be honest in your response, since the company may decide to check with your former employer on the circumstances behind the layoff.

Show How You Added Value

You will also need to share how you added value in your role while you were employed. Make a list of your accomplishments, particularly those that impacted the bottom line for your department.

Explain what you did to increase sales, save money, raise funds, improve quality, resolve operational problems, etc. Emphasize the skills, qualities, and knowledge that you leveraged to generate those results. Provide specific anecdotes, examples, and stories that illustrate how you helped your department to reach its goals.

Fill in the Gap

If you have more than a brief employment gap on your resume, the interviewer will probably ask you what you have been doing while you have been out of work. Emphasize anything positive you have done to upgrade your skills during that time, such as taking online tutorials or doing freelance, consulting, or volunteer work. It can land a bit flat to say, “I’ve been looking for work since I’ve been laid off,” so try to come up with a response that goes beyond that.

If you were laid off in the past and have had other jobs since then, mention any steps you have taken to address weaknesses or enhance skills related to your target job in your more recent employment. Employers value candidates who are committed to self-improvement.

Get References

Testimonials about your performance by others can help offset any concerns by prospective employers about your layoff. Secure as many employment references as possible from former supervisors, subordinates, customers, members of your professional association, and former colleagues.

Provide prospective employers with easy access to these recommendations through your LinkedIn profile or online portfolio.

Showcase Your Past Work

Build a portfolio of work samples from past jobs including the one from which you were laid off. Include samples of writing, design, spreadsheets, reports, case studies, presentation slides, lesson plans, and other projects. Be careful not to divulge any proprietary information about past employers.

Share with employers via a link on your resume to your professional website or LinkedIn profile. Organizations will be more likely to believe that you have the right skills and knowledge for their job if they can see evidence of high-quality work products.

Differentiate This Job From Your Previous Job

If there is any hint that you were laid off due to inadequate knowledge, skills, or job fit, make a case for how your job target is a better fit.

Emphasize skills, knowledge, or personal qualities that will enable you to perform at a higher level.

For example, you might say "I believe your job is an excellent fit because it will tap the journalistic and storytelling skills that I honed as a reporter. My previous position was much more focused on event planning and fundraising."

Use Your Connections

Endorsements of candidates from employees at prospective employers can have a strong impact on hiring decisions. Seek referrals from primary contacts to second level contacts working at the employer and arrange informational consultations to show a face and ask for advice.

If you make a positive impression, these individuals might put in a good word for you that can serve to counterbalance any concerns about your layoff.

This article was co-authored by Melody Godfred, JD. Melody Godfred is a Career Coach, Entrepreneur, and Founder of Write In Color, a full-service resume and career development company that specializes in developing compelling personal narratives and brands. With over ten years of experience, Melody has worked with clients at entertainment and media companies including Apple, Disney, Fox, Netflix, Riot Games, Viacom, and Warner Bros, among others. The Muse invited Melody and Write In Color to serve as one of its 30 trusted career counselors (out of 3,000) to provide one-on-one coaching and resume services to the platform’s more than four million active users. Melody earned a JD from Loyola Marymount University and BS from the University of Southern California.

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If you’ve been terminated from a job, you may be nervous about having to explain the circumstances to potential employers. You want to make yourself look good, but you also don’t want to get caught up in a lie. No matter what led to your termination, it’s important to be honest and confident. You will also need to learn how to turn a negative into a positive so that your interviewer will look right past your previous termination.

As your mother used to say, "If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all." This is the best approach to job interviews when it comes to discussing former bosses or co-workers. But even if you don’t think your former boss has a single redeeming quality, come up with a neutral and creative way to answer the question without badmouthing him. Criticizing a former boss makes you appear unprofessional and might raise questions in the interviewer’s mind about how you’d handle yourself with people you don’t like in the new job.

Step 1

Avoid discussing problems, personal issues or personality conflicts from previous jobs during interviews with prospective employers. Keep your answers to interviewer’s questions focused on the positive as much as possible, particularly regarding your former boss. Interviewers often use questions about how you got along at your previous jobs to assess whether, or how well, you might fit into their corporate culture and how you interact with those in authority.

Step 2

Plan your answers to "bad boss" questions before you go to an interview. This will keep you from having to think of something on the spot, which increases the possibility you might slip up and blurt out the wrong thing. Even if your old boss was a cross between Attila the Hun and Glenn Close’s character in "The Devil Wears Prada," come up with a neutral-sounding comment about his "dynamic leadership" or his effectiveness at getting high levels of productivity from his employees. You don’t have to tell the interviewer he accomplished the latter by screaming threats at the top of his lungs.

Step 3

Prepare a smooth transition to get the interview back onto less dangerous ground. Offer your prepared, "safe" answer to the bad boss question, then use it as a lead-in to something else. "Yes, my former boss demanded a lot of his employees, but this has prepared me to always give 100 percent to every task I take on at work, something that will serve me well in you new accounts division." Hopefully, this will move the conversation back to the job at hand, with your interviewer respecting your artful handling of the question.

How to discuss a former employer in an interview

Job interviews are stressful under the best of circumstances. So if you’ve been fired, your nerves will likely go into overdrive, especially when they ask the inevitable question: “Why were you fired?”

Just as you prepare answers for other common interview questions, it’s important to prepare an answer for this one. Rehearsing some go-to phrases will help you craft a professional answer during your interview.

Here are some tips to help you explain a termination to a potential employer.

Honesty is the best policy
Review the incident or issue that caused you to lose your job with an unbiased eye. Were you let go because of a conflict with a co-worker? Honestly evaluate your role in the clash. Did you fail to meet production quotas? Ask yourself whether it was due to a lack of effort or lack of affinity for the work you were doing. Before you can answer your potential employer honestly, you need to be clear-eyed with yourself.

When addressing your termination with your interviewer, don’t try to position it as a layoff or any other less serious situation. Even if you’ve relocated to a new city for a fresh start, your employer will find out the truth. Be truthful in a way that reflects on you as favorably as possible.

Don’t bash your old boss
You want to portray yourself as a valuable addition to their team. One way to raise an instant red flag is to speak negatively about the last person who offered you a job.

Perhaps even more important, don’t gossip about your last boss, your co-workers or the company you worked for. Besides showing a lack of maturity and discretion, gossiping is a strong sign that you’ll be a divisive employee.

Don’t pass the blame
Along with bashing, blaming is a bad way to go. Your potential new employer wants to see that you take responsibility both for your past actions and for your performance on the job. No matter how unfairly you felt you were treated at your old job, you must recognize and accept your role in your termination.

This doesn’t mean you need to give major details about what you did wrong in your previous position, though. Just make sure at some point you say, “I take responsibility for not performing up to my boss’s expectations,” and move on.

Stick to the point
A big mistake candidates make when answering this question is trying to explain every nuance of the situation. Don’t spend five minutes setting up the circumstances around your termination. Cut to the chase and keep it simple.

If you were terminated because you had an attendance problem, for example, don’t go on and on about your sick grandma, your chiropractor appointments or any other life situation that caused you to miss work. Instead, say something like, “I let personal circumstances interfere with my attendance at work. My situation is stable now and attendance won’t be a problem.”

Don’t sound bitter
You’ll make yourself unattractive to a potential employer if you come across bitter and defeated. Even if you think your previous employer was wrong to let you go, showing bitterness only makes you look bad.

Don’t use language that emphasizes a past failure. Speak in ways that minimizes the impact of your termination.

Explain what you’ve learned
Including a “lessons learned” sentence in your answer shows potential employers you’re aware and adaptable. It turns a negative into an asset. It also demonstrates candor and maturity by letting your interviewer see that you are objective about your shortcomings and learn from past experiences.

Promote your positives
It’s difficult to turn talk of your termination into a way to showcase your skills and experience. Learning to segue gracefully into a discussion of your value to the company is an effective way to keep your interview on track.

Try transitioning with a phrase like this: “I was sorry to leave Company X; I learned a lot about the app development lifecycle there, which is why I thought my skills were well suited to this position.”

Practice makes perfect
Getting fired is an emotional experience, and it’s hard to talk objectively and calmly even weeks or months after the event. Practicing your answer helps you keep emotions at bay so you don’t derail your interview.

Start by writing your response down; put it away, then come back to it a day later and read it again. If you are satisfied with your written answer, try it out on an objective friend or family member. Weigh their criticisms and tweak it if necessary.

Once you’re completely satisfied with your answer, commit it to memory. Practice it in front of a mirror several times. Once you’re comfortable with your answer and you’ve internalized it, you’ll be able to speak naturally about your termination with your interviewer.