There are several gotcha questions that interviewers can and often do ask. One classic is, “Tell me about your weaknesses.” That one is easy enough to sidestep. But when you’re asked to talk about your previous or current employer, or the boss, you must tread lightly. If you answer this question the wrong way, or are brutally honest, it can backfire drastically.
Never go on the attack
There’s a high probability that the reason you’re interviewing for another job is because you don’t like your current one. Even if you were laid off or quit, and it has been many months since you were at your previous company, you may still harbor some severe ill will. None of this should seep into your interview.
The question is going to come up at some point, and you need to get your poker face ready if the answer to, “Tell me about your last job” is, “It totally sucked.” There are ways to turn negatives into positives, and you should focus on those techniques. Phrases like, “Every day presented an exciting new challenge” and, “There were a diverse array of people who all found a way to work together” are better than saying nothing at all.
So, why shouldn’t you go on the attack? Why is it so bad to be honest about your current or previous nightmare experience? Well, for a start, it’s subjective. Your experience may have been terrible, but that’s just one side of the story. Your employer doesn’t know everything, and may think you are just being overly-critical or have sour grapes. If you didn’t get on with the people, especially your supervisor, that can be another red flag to the interviewer. Why didn’t you get along? Are you difficult? Are you unable or unwilling to resolve conflict? Why should the interviewer take a chance on hiring you when you could be the issue?
Even if the interviewer insists on you providing one aspect of your current or previous job that was difficult or irritating, don’t take the bait. Again, think of a positive way to phrase it. If you had a nightmare coworker who stole your ideas and blamed you for mistakes, say something like, “There was a colleague that could be overly critical from time to time, but we always found a way to get to the heart of the matter, resolve those issues, and get the job done.” Leave the impression that you are moving on to find growth and opportunity, not that you’re running away from a horrible situation.
Bring up what you’ve accomplished
Even the worst jobs should have given you some successes. Focus on what you did that was great at your previous company by cherry-picking the highlights of your time with your previous employer. Hopefully, you have recently updated your resume and will know what these are. If you haven’t, now is a good time to make a list of the achievements of which you are most proud.
Now, you do not want to go into boasting mode here. It’s one thing to list work successes, it’s quite another to paint yourself as the star employee that could do no wrong. Just be professional about it. You don’t have to list every single win, either. Pick two to three accomplishments that illustrate a variety of your skills and problem-solving abilities. Then, go into more detail about what you contributed to those jobs, and what kind of successes you had over the course of your employment with your previous company.
Explain why you want to leave without sounding negative
Not everyone who leaves their current employer hates it. Some people leave because they are moving. Some want a career change. Some want more money. Some just want a new challenge.
So, if you’re leaving because you genuinely want a new challenge, or your current position doesn’t align with your career path, you should let your interviewer know. However, if you’re leaving because management sucks, the culture is toxic, or you’re about to go postal over the systems in place, you need to be a little more generous with the truth.
Focus on what you’re looking for in a new employer, and the make the conversation about that. Say that you are looking for ways to expand and grow, and that you believe Company X will be great for that. Or, tell the interviewer that you are ready to move out of your comfort zone and try something that will make every day a learning experience. All of this is way better than answering the question, “Why do you want to leave your current job?” with, “Because my dog could run the place better than the CEO.”
Leave the impression that you are still loyal
There is something admirable about an employee demonstrating loyalty to a current or previous employer, even if there were aspects of the job that were not exactly a joy. As you are discussing your previous employer, inject some of that loyalty language into the conversation.
You don’t have to go overboard, or the interviewer will wonder why on earth you’d ever want to leave (in some cases, people really do go for interviews to use job offers as bargaining chips for raises and promotions). But you can mention that your current boss has taught you a lot, and is a great team builder. You can say that the company values its employees and you always felt like a critical part of the team. You can even say that you built strong working relationships with many coworkers, some of whom have become great friends.
To sum up, you need to find that balance between not coming across as bitter or angry, but also not being so blatantly sycophantic that the interviewer get suspicious. And overall, don’t talk trash about your previous employer, even if the interviewer “knows a thing or two” about the company. Always be running toward opportunity, not away from disappointment.