In the Top 10 Stupid Interview Questions category… the new Ask The Headhunter Newsletter includes this query from a reader about How to Say It:

This question is asked by almost every employer: Why did you leave your last job? Frankly, I’m tired of it, but it just keeps coming. It’s like they’re asking me whether I’m a good-for-nothing bum because I left a job. I’ve got nothing to hide — I left because my boss was a jerk and I got tired of being abused. What does that have to do with whether I can be a good worker? I’ve been totally honest with some and I’ve been clever with others. Nothing seems to feel right because I can never tell how they take my answer. How do I answer honestly without screwing myself out of a job?

This ranks right up there with, “What’s your greatest weakness?” (Answer: Uh, my last job?) There are tons of clever responses, if you can afford all the career books they’re stored in.

I’m not gonna touch this one because the best approach will be squeezed out of all the dialogue I expect it will stimulate… So let’s have at it.

How would you explain in an interview why you left a crummy boss?


  1. I’m sure there’s a reason you ask that?
    What would you say if I said I left because (insert real reason here)?
    If interviewer is negative to your hypothetical, lighten it with humor and say “Well, then I’m not saying that!” and play off their response.
    I’m sure you’ve done these interviews a thousand times…let’s say you were in my shoes and you left this job and were sitting where I am now facing that same question…as an HR professional, what can be both appropriate to say about a past employer and a real reason (not puffery) in response to a question like that?
    There is no clever answer, but you can find out what their “right answer” is by reversing the question until you know the correct answer.

  2. Every answer is situationally dependent, of course; in the current employment environment this could work: “I needed a job at the time, and when this one came along, though I knew it wasn’t the right job for me, I took it. I’ve given them excellent value in the time I’ve worked there, all the while knowing that when the right job for me came along it would be time to leave. I believe that working with you is the right job for me, and that is why I am here.

  3. Clever answers are rarely effective and viewed more of avoidance than an answer. I’d certainly prepare myself for that question but also prepare the interviewer for your answer. Take control of the direction of the dialog. For instance you could say, “I’m happy to share with you my career history and motivations for moving, but I’m more excited to discuss what impact I can make with this company, is that okay?” Provide the interviewer with something they can get excited about. I would however recommend being as truthful as possible without “going negative”.

    Secondly, in today’s economy I have found most job seekers are interviewing with other companies because there is too much uncertainty with their employer or within their industry. It’s perfectly reasonable to tell an interviewer, “I’ve given this issue a lot of thought. I’m doing very well at work, and my current organization is an industry leader, but the recent changes in the economy prompt me to be proactive. Although I’m sure my company is the best at what they do, I’m just not sure what will happen to our industry.” So you can assign “blame” on the economy rather than your boss or employer.

  4. Nick, I love your e-zine. People are going to tire of my posting all the time. Employment topics are working right into a seminar I am creating on branding — as I scramble to create my own brand, I might add. I can’t face going back into another dysfunctional office.

    Some interview off-limits language here….

    If only it were possible to come down to earth, be real, cut through all the bullshit and have a frank conversation about why you left your previous job. Everyone would be better off; it would be a great way to talk about expectations (on both sides); a great way of getting down to brass tacks and making sure there is a fit; making sure the same thing doesn’t happen again.

    But that’s not the way it is….

    I left my last job because my boss worked twenty-five percent of the day, spending the rest of the time gossiping and forgetting, chatting with and e-mailing friends, popping heavy-duty prescription pills, decorating his office, panicking when his computer crashed daily, scrambling to find scraps of paper buried in the mess on his desk, disappearing for hours at a time searching for a new pharmacist or another doctor with a prescription pad, etc. — while I kept it all together, having designed all the systems to keep the project on track. In return he gave me a less than satisfactory review because some of my processes were not the way he would have done them (despite their working like clockwork with sign-off from my other boss, who was also his boss)!! He broke any bond. There was no trust left. My other boss was lovely but a micromanager — big time! How do you explain all that in a job interview?

    The best way to explain that your boss was a jerk is to turn it into a positive. (Perhaps I should say positive smoke and mirrors.) For example, in my case, I could say I left because I am interested in being innovative and using my initiative to design efficient office systems to benefit the team — something like that. What do you think?

  5. I find that it’s best to keep it simple and honest. For example, I left my last position because of how my Director chose to handle a situation with one of our employees. As the Asst. Dir of the department, I felt we needed to write up the employee for having violated due diligence and our trust for the second time. His actions had exposed sensitive personnel data to potential abuse. The Director later decided to overlook this second occurrence, after we had already discussed and agreed we needed to write up the employee for the repeated violation. After the Director reneged on an earlier decision, my workplace had become an environment of mistrust and where employees were not held accountable for their actions. I could not and would not work in an environment that allowed abuse of data and chose not to hold our employees responsible for their actions. I told my new employer that I was not comfortable about how the work environment had turned and knew it was time to leave. I was hired after only one interview and have loved my new position since day one. It’s given me new direction and skills that will take me further than if I had stayed. I believe you must love what you do to be happy in life. No amount of money can compensate for a poisonous work environment. Oh. And I ended up with a 20% pay increase to boot. Things always work out in the end.
    As for your response, I would say the work environment/atmosphere was not healthy and did not align with your expectations, so you chose to leave. It’s important to remember we’re not indentured servants who have to work for an employer. We have a choice in the matter as well. Stay strong, but remain humble and honest.

  6. Forget the clever answers (such as trying to turn a negative into a positive)—any decent manager can smell that tactic from a mile away. And never speak ill of anyone behind their back (the interviewer will think that you could do the same to him/her once their back is turned).
    Instead, keep it short, simple and direct–such as “It was time to make a change and that is why I am here”. Talking too much displays insecurity and weakness. Don’t be afraid of a pregnant pause–give the interviewer time to digest your answers. It shows class, confidence and professional presence. Filling the air with canned, rehearsed answers about such things as why you left your last job makes you sound like just another job seeking wanker (unless you were a terrible performer or did something illegal, no one really cares why you left your last job). Don’t defend your resume. As a famous mayor once said, “Don’t complain, don’t explain”. Best regards and good luck!

  7. I think Steve’s advice is seriously misguided–“I needed a job at the time, and when this one came along, though I knew it wasn’t the right job for me, I took it.”
    That makes you sound like a desperate job seeking loser who will take anything he is offered even if you know it is the wrong fit. You will be perceived as someone who cares more about their short-term needs than the long-term goals of the organization (a recipe for career disaster).
    I agree with GotThumbs and TJ about keeping it simple and direct. Moreover, this is a job interview, not a therapy session. If you want to bitch and moan about your last boss/job/paycheck, go talk to Oprah or hire a shrink. In the interview, it should be all about the work and what you can do for them in a profitable and professional manner.

  8. Neva has the best advice so far. In my experience, criticism of a past job *never* comes off well in an interview–however honest you are. Unless your interviewer has intimate information about the situation, they tend to assume that your last position was/is largely like the one they are offering. Talking bad about your last boss/company/position leaves the interviewer wondering what you are going to end up saying about him/her if/when you leave them. You do *not* want that going through their head.

    Rather than being evasive, however, I think it’s possible to answer the question honestly and without being negative about your past situation. Saying that you had a personality conflict with your former boss (without denigrating them for it) or that you would prefer to take a different direction than the one charted for your former company is reasonable without being judgmental—it opens potential for a dialogue with your interviewer about what you are looking for in a new position and gives you an opportunity to ask searching questions about the offered position and company.

    In the end, you left because you didn’t fit (whatever reasons behind the miss-fit are) and you have the hope that the offered position is a better fit. You want your interviewer to have that same hope, so turning a question about the past into questions about the present is both a natural and a helpful direction to take.

  9. When I hear “I left because my boss was a jerk and I got tired of being abused” I find myself wondering about the employee’s role in the failed relationship. This employee’s story is one-sided and places all of the responsibility for failure on the boss. But how did the emloyee contribute to this sorry state? Perhaps the boss would say the same thing about the employee, that he was a jerk and the boss is happy the guy left.

    As a hiring manager (I oversee about 30 employees) what I want to hear from an interviewee is the truth. Yes, tell me that things did not go so well with the former boss. But explain to me how you personally contributed to the problems, and what you have learned about yourself through the process, and how you have changed your approach to make this situation less likely to recur.

    You might as well be honest, because I don’t hire without having conversations with former supervisors and co-workers who know you, as many as I need until I feel comfortable I have the full story. We managers do our networking too, you know! I will take the good and the bad and weigh the sources as best I can. As connected as we all are now, it’s not that difficult for me to find that information. There’s too much at stake to make a bad hire who is going to take up a whole lot of my supervisory time. Been there…..done that….not going back if I can help it!

  10. I think people worry about how their answer will come across… too much. Consider: if you’re honest, and if the truth about your job change is legitimate (not because you blew it somehow), then just say it. I do agree with some of the cautions offered here: Don’t complain about others or blame them, don’t speak negatively about others, etc. But do tell the truth, BRIEFLY.

    Because here’s the point: If the employer can’t deal with that, then you will face a skeptical employer the entire time you work there. Talking truthfully maintains your integrity, but it is also a filter. It protects you from people who can’t deal with the truth, and who view other people’s problems cynically. Do you want to work for such a manager? It’s not just about “getting the offer.” It’s also about getting the right job.

    We all face problems. A candidate who suggests life was peachy at the last job… then why did the person leave? So be careful about whitwashing.

    The depth of thinking behind all the posts – each makes one or more good points that are well worth thinking about. Awkward as a discussion might get about “why I left,” consider what an employer really wants to focus on: Brandon says it – “I’m more excited to discuss what impact I can make with this company, is that okay?”

    Tell the truth, keep it brief, and focus on the work that needs to be done next. Even a nervous employer wants to shift gears to talk shop – about how you will do the job. Help him/her focus on that, and why you left becomes relatively trivial.

  11. @Marcia: thanks for the manager’s perspective, and for giving folks a little hope that a manager just might be able to cut through all the info to make a good decision… if you helk by telling the truth and discussing your responsibility.

  12. This might not be received in the proper way; however, it is somewhat different. ;-)

    “When I finish a painting, I don’t wait around to watch the paint dry.”

  13. Hi Marcia,

    I just have to comment.

    Don’t assume that your candidate contributed to the failed relationship in his/her previous job. I’ve been in the workforce long enough (in management and as part of the troops) to know that is not always the case. Often but definitely not always.

    Having said that, as I said in my post, I recognize that one has to be professional, but it would be so much better if we allowed frank conversations (albeit with all causes and contributors on the table), with an eye to the future. The cloud and judgement over open, honest discussions make the job market doubly difficult and superficial for both employers and job seekers.

    Look to what your candidate can do for you in the future; not to a personality clash somewhere else in the past. The people in the past were different. The management was different. The environment was different.

    HR once advised me not to hire a candidate because he had received a poor performance review and had been embroiled in a hellish personality clash. It turned out that he was overqualified for his job and that resulted in tensions. His qualifications were exactly what we needed. His personality fitted in well with our stressful financial services environment. We determined that by talking to him. We never even phoned the previous manager. Had I listened to HR, we would have missed the best candidate.

    A person’s performance in a dysfunctional office vs. a well managed office can be like night and day.

    The candidate, whose previous boss gives you a bad reference, may be the very best person for the job. You don’t want to miss out, because of any insecurities about the ability of your management to focus on strengths and give the opportunity for each and every employee to shine; to manage potential personality clashes before they happen.

    Also, for legal reasons, these days many, if not most, companies do not allow their managers to give out information about previous employees; and HR will only confirm that the person worked there for a certain period.

    If a manager were to give someone a lousy reference, I would question the manager and his/her motives. Why would he/she find it either decent or useful to give someone a bad reference. It serves absolutely no purpose whatsoever, other than to sabotage another person’s future. It’s a lose/lose game.

    There is no need for it, unless the person concerned had committed some criminal or egregious act and then the matter should be referred to HR/legal to handle with the barest of facts — just enough for the potential employer to get the drift.

  14. If your reason for leaving is positive (“I’d like to work for your company because it’s exciting”) or neutral (“my family had to relocate”) – then no problem to answer honestly.

    But if the reason is negative, problems arise. At it’s core the question is: What do you say if you left because your boss was a jerk?

    I agree with Marcia that many cases have two sides which one could discuss, but as Neva pointed out, not always. Therefore, I think one should be allowed to say that you left because the boss was a jerk without the fear for not getting the job.

    However, the right way to formulate it is probably not “he was a jerk” but “I had some peronal difficulties/conflicts/strong disagreements with my boss” – brief, but honest. If they probe further, may be the best is up front say that “you may not like this, I hope it will not scare you, in case please tell me” – and then simply tell the truth; avoid bad words, but mention specific disagreements, say that the boss was angry or didn’t appreciate your work.This way, you show the hiring manager that you understand his concerns.

  15. If I implied that one should say, “My boss was a jerk,” that wasn’t my intent. Diplomacy is key. Karsten puts it well.

  16. Here is how I would and am responding (feedback welcome)

    When I first started in the work world I noticed some safety issues with how our workers were using an industrial machine and I brought the issues to the boss’s attention. The boss told me not to worry about it as it only looked dangerous (from my perspective as an admin asst) but that all employees had received proper training and it had all safety guards in place so no one could ever misuse the equipment. Three days later a worker was pulled through the safety bars into the machine. His foot was so badly damaged he had to have it amputated at the age of 18. I learned a very hard lesson deeply and thoroughly. That lesson was to always ask why a process or procedure is in place that doesn’t make sense or that I don’t agree with (not on a personal level but from a professional level and in a professioanl way) and to keep digging until I find out why.

    By asking why and probing until I understand all of the components and key players I have developed into an excellent project manager as evidenced by X,Y,Z projects. My success in managing projects continually reinforces my belief that asking “why” is vital to me as a person and as a professional. At the first professional place I worked asking why was strongly encouraged within HR because it brought about results and enabled learning to the degree needed by HR to solve problems within the organization. I was laid off along with 30% of their employees as a result of this economy combined with my lack of seniority.

    I found this new job because of my ability to manage projects and get results. I am leaving because asking “why” isn’t framed the same way within my current employer, asking why is seen as questioning authority, not assimilating into the team environment, and reaching far beyond my station as an HR Generalist. My bosses love what I do for them and will strongly recommend my skills, technical abilities and probably express extreme disappointment in my leaving because they really need my skill set but I think even they would say that asking why is part of my nature and doesn’t fit in with the culture.

    I am here with you because I think your company culture embraces the belief that asking why helps you learn and be able to mentor future employees. I also think asking why will help me analyze data, manage projects and be detailed oriented enough to help you do XYZ as described on your website and in the job description…

  17. If you can give specific parts to what the job contained that you know you wouldn’t want in your next job, this is where one can get to the meat of the situation. I remember in my last job interview giving explanations of what I didn’t like where I last worked and gave specific examples of where things were done that would usually merit a “Huh?” or “WTF?!?” where I tried to give enough back story to explain why I was in that position and what I liked about previous work environments that I want where I work. Why not just be honest, not personal but professional, and assertive in the answer? It can be surprising what happens after you admit that some things will get on your nerves and if this job has a lot of that, then it isn’t the job for me.

    Interviews are two-way streets and I fear this is forgotten way too often.

  18. @JB King: *Interviews are two-way streets and I fear this is forgotten way too often.*

    Kudos. That’s the other half of the story. The point of answering an interview question is not to win the job. It’s to figure out whether the job is the right one for you. Don’t just try to come up with the “right” answer – give the honest answer and watch the manager carefully for the reaction. Then ask yourself, Is this for me?

  19. Great question! Take a look at this WetFeet article on the “Why I left” question, especially after a recession-related layoff:

    – Lewis, Seattle Interview Coach

  20. These comments are really helpful. I’m in this boat right now (left because boss was jerk, getting this question in interviews). I gotta say, Nick: people read your stuff for a reason. You give the most sound advice: be honest, be brief, and take care of yourself first.

    My first few interviews I tried to be positive. Even I almost vomited in my mouth from how fake I was being. As I’ve gotten bolder and more confident, I am honest and brief. The last employer said, “we all have these stories, and at least you’re able to talk about them with compassion and respect.” We do ourselves a disservice by assuming all employers want to hear the “right” answers. I believe that really good employers want to talk candidly.

  21. “As a hiring manager (I oversee about 30 employees) what I want to hear from an interviewee is the truth. Yes, tell me that things did not go so well with the former boss. But explain to me how you personally contributed to the problems, and what you have learned about yourself through the process, and how you have changed your approach to make this situation less likely to recur.”

    She seems to be one of those that wants to place blame on the applicant, failing to realize that there is some poor managers out there.

    Many articles out there recommend to never speak negatively of a former employer during an interview.

  22. I am in the same boat here now. I do get annoyed at times when future employer pressed on this delicate issue even after I tried to sound diplomatic about it. I really wanna be honest with the problem coz truth be told some people are really bad managers. No doubt about it. I do agree with Eileen though. We should be allowed to be honest with our reasons but as said, we still need to be professional while dealing with the issue. It’s difficult at times when we have to be careful with our words and not lose the chance to be hired.