How To Talk About A Terrible Former Boss During An Interview

Josh Didawick

Josh Didawick

HR Professional

One person’s bad boss can be another person’s lifelong mentor. This is important to keep in mind and it is interesting how things work over the course of a career. While no one wants to experience a bad boss; over time, there is a good chance that everyone will encounter a difficult manager or clash with a supervisor in the workplace.

These experiences can make for trying times, but they do not always have to be defeating, and hopefully they will be short-lived. Even when that boss is in your rear-view mirror, it is important to keep in mind that you may have to reflect on that time in your work history in future job interviews. Navigating those waters in an interview can be tricky, but with a thoughtful approach, you can use that experience to land your next gig. Here are 7 tips for discussing a bad boss in an interview.

Highlight Facts and Figures in Your Accomplishments

A good rule of thumb when being interviewed is to lead by explaining your accomplishments through hard facts. For example, “I implemented a maintenance program that reduced factory downtime by 18% in the first 6 months.” Not only are you able to emphasize your contribution, but you are speaking the hiring manager’s language.

This is the direction you want the interview to go in and it will speak volumes more than your reasons for leaving your last job or boss. While you must be prepared to discuss a bad boss, have hard data ready when talking about your past jobs. You may have had these accomplishments with your bad boss, or despite your bad boss, but you can use them so they outshine any discussion about a bad boss.

Offset Negatives with Positives

Many interviewers are going to zero in on your experience with your bad manager. While you do not want the interview to turn into a discussion over one small piece of your career, you do have the opportunity to turn negatives into positives. If you are asked for specific examples of why your boss and you did not get along or were not a good fit, try to offer a positive experience even if it is unsolicited.

Very rarely is someone’s workplace experience COMPLETELY horrible. Most of the time people can find redeeming qualities and silver linings, even in bad bosses. Having the appearance that you have an ax to grind is not a good look. Mixing in positive anecdotes will make a better impact on the interviewers and will show you have good perspective and can find the positive in difficult situations.

Avoid Making It Personal

By avoiding making it personal I mean taking your emotion out of the situation and objectively identify whether the clash was personal, professional, a personality conflict or something else. Sometimes the best thing we can do to frame something is to take a step back and recognize that a boss is playing a role and we, as employees, are playing a role.

There could have been a variety of factors that led that boss to be less likeable to you at that point in time. The company could have been under pressure. Perhaps your boss’s boss was making his or her life a living hell. Maybe you joined an underperforming team at an inopportune time.

You may never know the whole story, but keeping an open mind is helpful. You never know, under different circumstances, at a different point in time, you and that bad boss may have hit it off.

It Is Lonely at the Top

Leading people isn’t easy. If it were, everyone would get promoted and go on to have successful careers in management. As a rule of thumb, try to appreciate what your boss is dealing with and the demands she or he is under. A lot of people are critical of their bosses, but would be hard pressed to do better if the roles were reversed. As you think about a bad boss, and how to talk about him or her, consider what you would have done differently, or what another leader you respect would have done. That may allow you to discuss potential solutions in your interview. As sad as it may seem, sometimes the bad boss was doing the best with the resources he or she had at their disposal.

Show You Grew from the Experience

For many people that have survived a bad boss, it is a traumatic experience. Under bad circumstances, it could have shaken your confidence, made you question yourself or even made you think about exploring other career options. In the aftermath of these types of situations, you must use them to grow stronger and better.

If you have worked with a bad boss, you may now have thicker skin, you may be more resilient, and hopefully you gained confidence in yourself through surviving and being able to talk about it. Now you know what you value in a supervisor and what you want to avoid. You can be clearer about your expectations for your next boss and choose the best fit for you and your career.

Take the High Road

Industries are small. People talk. No matter how you feel, little can be gained by burying your former boss or company. You can get your point across diplomatically. If you are meeting your interviewers for the first time and establishing rapport, they will get a bad impression if you hammer a former supervisor or colleague. No matter how bad the person was, the interview panel rarely has any way of knowing or understanding the whole story.

Be Honest About What Didn’t Work

Think about why the relationship didn’t work out. Keep an open mind about what could have helped to make things better. Be self-critical about anything you could have done to help the situation and you will be able to use the experience to improve your career moving forward.

It would be great if surviving the bad boss was the end of it, but all too often that relationship can haunt people years after in interviews and networking sessions. Knowing how to discuss a bad boss doesn’t have to be daunting. By taking a thoughtful approach going into an interview, even an uncomfortable conversation about a bad boss can help you land your next job.

About The Author

Josh Didawick
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Josh Didawick

Josh Didawick is a seasoned HR professional and consultant with extensive experience creating and guiding organizations’ HR strategies, as well as coaching individuals committed to successful careers. He specializes in taking on complex organizational issues to affect positive change and high performance. For individuals, Josh helps them put their best foot forward when seeking that next career, promotion or milestone in the workplace. Josh has had several articles published and presented at conferences on HR-related topics.

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