Question

I am currently employed full-time and grateful to have a job. I am in the finance department of a small but unethical company which has no accountability, multiple “hands in the pot,” and uses unethical business practices. My suggestions to improve the department and to comply with GAAP (generally accepted accounting principles) are always met with, “That’s just the way it’s done here.” I can’t live with this. I have an exit strategy and the support of my spouse while I seek employment.

How do I approach the issue in interviews with future potential employers when they ask why I left that job and why I’m not working? Although honesty is the best policy, I most certainly cannot discuss the wrong-doings. Suggestions?

Nick’s Reply

unethical companyYou work with bad apples and want to get away from them. That reflects well on you. You just need to say it the right way.

I worked for an unethical company

You could just come out and say it, but that’s not diplomatic. Saying it like that could raise questions about your tact in general. I don’t mean you should play the game of, “Well, you know what that means…”. But how you say you worked for a bad apple of an employer says a lot about you.

How to Say It
“I want to work for your company because you are one of the shining lights in this industry. I left my previous company because as a small, closely held operation it behaved in ways I was not comfortable with. I realized that I want to be in a more progressive company that is run ethically. Fortunately, my personal finances are solid and I can afford to take time to find the right company and job.”

Move the conversation along

That’s all I’d say. The passing reference to ethics will get the message across without you needing to say anything more but that you wanted out.

Say nothing about this in your resume, only in person or on the phone. A buddy of mine likes to say that your resume can’t defend you. This is a perfect example. You need to be in conversation so you can address any questions, and so you can steer the discussion toward what you can do to make this company more successful.

If an interviewer asks for details about the problems at your old company, just explain that you cannot disclose confidential information about a previous employer. That gives you room to discuss only what you want. Any good employer will respect that — and respect you for it.

Count on your references

To compensate for your silence about the particulars of your unfortunate experience, you must have references that will back up your claims about your abilities. They need not be from your unethical employer. In fact, they could be from other professionals outside that company, people you had business with in the course of doing your job.

Don’t be surprised if one of those references spills the beans that your old employer is an unethical company with unsavory practices.

Always remember: When there’s a void in a job interview — that is, when there’s something you cannot talk about — the best way to fill it is to focus on showing how you’ll do the job profitably. In the end, that’s what every employer is really looking for in a new employee.

I’m guessing other readers have faced similar situations. How much should you say about a past employer that wasn’t on the up and up, leading you to quit?

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11 Comments
  1. Unless there is a compelling reason to address issues with your current company, don’t.

    Handle it the same way we do when we leave a company for any other reason.

    Otherwise you sound like a whiner. Nobody wants one of those.

    Legit reasons to be looking:
    Have worked the current role as far as possible.
    Seeking to grow in a new or different direction.
    Uncertainty how your company will do in the looming recession.
    Rumors of a reorganization or acquisition.

    In interviews, every company/boss I worked for in the past was great (I really do not want to explain that I *had* to work for a company that was not great).

    My experience “Why are you looking to leave?” is not an issue. Unless we choose to make it an issue. If we do choose to do that, we get to live with the results (which are rarely good).

  2. I agree with Gregory, only focusing our own career which is within our control instead of sharing about unfavourable external factors.

    I had been in a similar situation 2 months ago and I sticked with my story of job restructuring which was one of many reasons I moved on.

  3. Hopefully you are well under 50 y.o. Employers are very quick to shut out experienced individuals regardless of the circumstance.

    • You can’t whine about this until the years of experience requirement goes away. There are just as many young people being discriminated against due to a lack of years of experience as there are grey hairs who are not selected for jobs.

  4. There’s always been a rule of thumb about not bum rapping the company your leaving. Dinging their ethics rubs up against that homily. And if you do go into their non-ethics, as Gregory says, what people hear is sour grapes and whining and committing the sin of taking a shot at your employer.

    I think there’s ample material to work with noting “no accountability, multiple “hands in the pot”, and particularly, reticence to comply to accepted practices. Plus the fact the writer pointed this out and got clear signs there was no interest in ever doing it. It all spells out poor grounding for company success and those on board. And that’s more than enough to explain bailing out. No need to even discuss their ethics.

    As Nick noted, the writer can easily connect those “concerns” to looking for a company that has their act together that will provide a solid career foundation.

  5. Two things here. First, I’ll delve into GAAP a bit and why a ton of businesses don’t like it. Second, what I would do in your shoes.

    First, most of the tech world either flat-out doesn’t use GAAP, or uses it because they have to but primarily focus on their non-GAAP numbers. The primary reason is because of how stock-based compensation is handled in GAAP, particularly with how it can be seen as twice as negative (accounted for in share dilution, while also taking a hit on total net income). My view is that stock-based compensation should affect your net income rather than just earnings per share, but these companies hate it because so much of their compensation model is tied to restricted stock units. Without those, they would not be competitive pay-wise. Without those RSUs, where the bill is entirely paid for by shareholders through share dilution, the business could not operate. It is just a way of passing your expenses on to shareholders in an attempt to appear more profitable than your business model actually is. In short, it is a lie.

    For one-time payments or windfalls, non-GAAP makes sense. When comparing numbers and trying to understand how the business is doing from one quarter to the next, a massive fine, frivolous lawsuit, or even a large windfall affecting your income makes it difficult to chart a clear path from one quarter to the next, and to compare the business to other similar companies.

    Second, answering that question depends on if you are still employed. I would focus on saying “I have learned a great deal and gained significant experience in accounting. From my research and due diligence, your organization appears to be one of great integrity, that acts in good faith and has the public trust. I would love to put my skills to work for your team, and to contribute to your mission.”

  6. Personal experience over 10 years ago

    “Why did you leave that company ?”

    (by the way, one of the stupidest interview questions ever. )

    I found a difficult challenge managing expectations between international corporate culture. When I assembled a finalist list of candidates for Regional manager position, I received an email from overseas stating “No Girls”

    With a long work history and stellar references of both clients and reports , you can be more blunt

    Early career, you have to hold your horses and avoid the complaint process.

    How to say it…

    “I learned how to handle this challenge at this job. I think this opportunity will offer me better challenges focused on making our company more profitable “

  7. Where I live, it’s not uncommon for employers (mostly smaller employers) to bounce paychecks with little recourse for the stiffed workers.
    Back in this last recession, I hit a lengthy season of unemployment, and had to resort to working for a small company with a sketchy vibe. Not only did they bounce paychecks, they had payables that were 1-5 years past due with vendors. They literally couldn’t get welding supplies, gases, steel, and other materials. Nobody in a city of 1 million population would come near them, and many vendors wouldn’t even do C.O.D.s with them (that’s pretty bad).
    These transgressions, coupled with reporting to a young and inept H2-B Mechanical Engineer, resulted in my resignation in exactly 1 year.
    I had no problem afterwards when asked why I left this employer (which was very rare) that they “bounced paychecks” (which is egregious even in most employers eyes), or that “some of their business practices were a little unsettling”, and left it at that. If that was a deal breaker, or branded me as some whiner or malcontent, I probably was better off not working for said prospective employer.
    This past employer is now so far in my rear view mirror that it’s no longer an issue.

  8. I would say that my values were not aligned with my employer. Or some thing along those lines.

    • ^ This.

      I recently read a post on an unnamed social media platform where the writer expressed that she was leaving her current position after many years and “looking forward to a new opportunity with an employer that shares my personal values.” It was pretty obvious who her former employer was, but the post didn’t come off as condescending…at least not to me.

  9. The one time this happened to me, I used the (accurate) cover story of not being able to tolerate the horrific odor of decomposing Squirrel in the ceiling during a Texas summer.

    My new employer looked at me a little askance with a knowing, sly grin and then said “It’s not really about the dead squirrel, is it?” Everyone in the industry knew how slimy my old employer was, so I didn’t really need to say anything.

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