How to Explain Why You Left a Toxic Workplace Without Bashing Your Old Boss

(Leejay Lockhart/U.S. Army photo)

Interviewing for a job means answering a slew of questions about your past employment and experience, not to mention the potential for a few curveballs along the way. Aside from being asked what color crayon you might choose to be, some routine questions can be difficult to answer.

Explaining why you left a previous employer without having a new job in place, without giving two weeks' notice or leaving an employment gap in your résumé is bound to catch an interviewer's attention.

If your last job was the military, and whether it was a toxic work environment or not, the answer is easy. You were separating. There's no issue there. For veterans leaving a subsequent job and interviewing for a new one, it likely will require an explanation.

The best way forward when formulating an answer is to remember not to trash your former boss to your potential new company. An interviewer doesn't know you, your personal culture and likely doesn't know what your workplace was really like.

It might have been toxic, but if you divulge that information, the person interviewing you will be faced with a choice: either you are a good worker with a toxic workplace, or you are the toxic one and you were working in an average workplace. Don't swing their perception against you by trashing your previous boss.

Hedging your answer by redirecting the topic to something like, "I wanted to look for new opportunities," or, "I want to add value to a team that works in synergy," also will raise a red flag for the interviewer. New hires, résumés and corporate-speak is likely what this person does all day, every day. They will read that you're not only spouting buzzwords, but you're also not saying much of substance.

While it's important to toe the middle line in your answer, not being too negative or too positive, it's just as important to answer the question. The HR professional, headhunter or other interviewer who asked about the event genuinely needs to know, and simply put, you won't get this job without answering.

Conversely, answering honestly means you can face the hard conversations that inevitably come up in the workplace. Answering without trashing anyone means you're focused on the result in a professional way and don't look to place blame. This is the kind of employee people want to work with, and the kind of employee managers want to hire.

So consider a way of stating the real problem at your previous employer. Did you disagree with the way your old boss treated their subordinates? Then tell the interviewer you wanted a position where the employer-employee relationship was one of mutual trust and respect, where taking initiative was rewarded and where you felt you had upward mobility.

An answer like that says that you were unhappy in a dead-end job with an unprofessional boss that you found unreliable. At the same time, it establishes your view on how a workplace should be run, says that you like to take initiative in the workplace and that reliability is important to you. It says all of that without risking the interviewer's perception of you as a candidate.

If the interviewer asks you to elaborate, simply say what you liked about the job. Maybe the training, processes or structure was a good fit for you, but it was simply not enough for you to stay.

In the end, all you want to do is show that you can communicate in a high-pressure or stressful situation with professionalism and clarity.

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