Should you criticise your current workplace when talking to prospective employers?
December 30, 2010 2:56 AM   Subscribe

My husband is thinking of leaving his job after nine months to escape a boss from hell. Would criticising what's happening in his workplace be a help or a hindrance when talking to prospective employers?

My husband got a new job nine months ago after we moved to a new country. He's a journalist and, while the job's not the best in the world, it's a decent role and he's been happy to stick with it so far.

However, a new boss has just started who is so difficult to work with that a quarter to a third of his 13 colleagues are thinking of leaving. There's a fairly small journalism market in our city and, while my husband is getting on well with his boss so far, he doesn't want to be left behind if there's a rush for the exits and all the best positions are taken.

So he's about to go round to some contacts he made a year back to talk about what opportunities they have coming up. The question is, how much should he tell them about the turmoil in the office?

Employers prefer to be given positive reasons why you're making a job move--"I want to work for you because you're a great company." But the fact that my husband's only worked in his current job for nine months and is now looking for alternatives seems to demand a negative explanation--"My workplace is going to the dogs"--if he's going to convince prospective employers that he's not going to quit again a year later.

The best approach would probably be a mix of both, but do any MeFites have any thoughts about the best way to approach this?
posted by 8k to Work & Money (20 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
If it's a pretty small market in the city, the bosses in the other jobs will know what is going on with his current job. He would do best, in my opinion, not to badmouth his current job or boss.
posted by monkey!knife!fight! at 3:11 AM on December 30, 2010 [3 favorites]

I can't address your question directly, but will throw this out as someone who spent over 11 years on a news staff in a former life...

My experience was and is that journalism tends to attract some fairly extreme personalities, which frequently leads to discontent with one's superiors.

During my time in the business, I'd say that at any given point in time a quarter to a third of my colleagues were thinking of leaving.
posted by imjustsaying at 3:13 AM on December 30, 2010 [3 favorites]

I think your instincts are right, there's not a lot for your husband to gain by being honest in this situation. Most prospective employers want to know that a candidate is a team player. Admitting you are looking to move on because you disagree with, or worse have clashed with, a manager is a risky strategy that is unlikely to show you in the best light. I think it's ok to admit that you have reasons for wanting to leave somewhere, but you need to show these reasons in a positive light by focusing on what you hope to gain from the move (e.g. a new challenge, greater experience etc). And above all, I would caution against any criticism of the company or managers -- particularly in a small industry, where people tend to know each other.
posted by londonmark at 3:15 AM on December 30, 2010

Never trash talk a previous employer to a new one - it gives them an indication of your ability to be professional when things don't go well. Above all, always maintain your professionalism, ESPECIALLY in small industries. It won't feel great in the moment, but you'll reap the benefits over time, and your longevity in the industry will multiply.
posted by shazzam! at 3:22 AM on December 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for the replies so far. Just to clarify - my husband does not have a problem with the new boss. New boss actually seems to regard him highly. But some other colleagues are getting grief from him, which is worrying my husband because the attacks are disproportionate and he wonders if he'll end up in the firing line eventually.

imjustsaying - I know what you mean, but it's a little more extreme than the usual new editor/general disgruntlement.
posted by 8k at 3:38 AM on December 30, 2010

As a hiring manager, I can honestly say no one wants to hear the negative. There's a large pool of tremendously talented journalists who apply when we post good jobs; a negative comment risks putting him lower in that pool.

Encourage him to find creative ways to explain why NewCo opportunity can lure him away after merely nine months, instead!
posted by mozhet at 4:32 AM on December 30, 2010

I conduct interviews for my organization on a fairly regular basis.

Candidates who bring up baggage or drama from their last place of employment generally fall quickly in my ranking system. Mostly because it's just not necessary.

If I like you and what you're about and what you can bring to our team, I'll probably hire you.
posted by WaspEnterprises at 5:44 AM on December 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Candidates who bring up baggage or drama from their last place of employment generally fall quickly in my ranking system. Mostly because it's just not necessary.

So how would you advise someone to respond when asked, "Why do you want to leave your current position after only nine months?"?

I was recently in the OPs position. It was very hard to know what to say, and I even worked with a high-end headhunter who coached me. In the end, I wound up being honest but not making a big deal about it.

I said, "I feel a little uncomfortable answering, because I'm worried it will make me sound like I'm not a team player. If you look through my resume, you'll see that I generally stay at company for years. But the truth is that are personality conflicts at my current. A lot of yelling and the like. Everyone has bad days, of course. And I'm not the type to walk out just because things get a little heated. That's going to happen anywhere. It's no big deal. But after nine months, I realized the yelling was daily, and that the situation was not going to change. And I figured it was time to move on."

I got the job, but I think I just lucked out, because I happened to be uniquely qualified for it. But it's very possible my employers are watching me closely, looking for signs that I'll flake out on them.

Still, my headhunter really didn't give me any usable advice. He said what people in this thread have been saying: "Don't badmouth your employer. Don't make it sound like you're not a team player."

Okay, but what DO I say?
posted by grumblebee at 6:19 AM on December 30, 2010 [4 favorites]

If your husband is getting along with this boss so far, he should try to stick it out until he's been there at least a year. As mentioned above, in a small market other organizations will know that this boss is a difficult person to work for, so once your husband does start to look for work, he'll get bonus points for being able to work with this nutbar. Also, if this boss is starting a mutiny, it may be the boss who gets turfed, and your husband will remain there safe and sound.

Also, saying negative things about your current workplace without having them sound negative is tough when you've only been there a brief time. It's not like he can say "Well the new manager came on board and the chemistry of the place changed and some of my favourite colleagues left and it's given me the kick in the pants I need to refresh my own career path." Saying "Bad fit" after nine months would make your husband look flaky and uncommitted to anything.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 6:21 AM on December 30, 2010

If it is a small community, your husband risks both not getting the job and his boss finding out he is looking. If he is getting on with his boss and likes the job, stay. But if he interviews, do not mention the baggage. When I interviewed people if they complained about the current employment I assumed they were malcontents and would do the same at my place.

If asked why he is leaving after none months, the vague, "It is not a good fit" is code for my job sucks, my boss is an ass and I cannot take it anymore yet it shows you are not going to be a thorn in their sides.
posted by AugustWest at 6:29 AM on December 30, 2010

Okay, but what DO I say?

In general, you say you're not being challenged in your current role, you say you think the new role better suits your skills and experience, you say it's an opportunity you don't want to miss out on, you say anything that shows you are solidly employed and in control of your career.

It obviously wasn't wrong for you to be honest because you got the role, and you must have been very impressive throughout your interview. It's just, in general, interviewers don't want to hear about your problems at work. I blew a lot of interviews before I realised this.
posted by londonmark at 6:32 AM on December 30, 2010 [4 favorites]

Okay, but what DO I say?

It would be easier if there were a script for these things.

It's important though, I think, to give the hiring manager/HR some credit. A few non-negative details are generally enough for someone to get a good read on a situation.

Keeping a focus on why the new company is a good fit rather than why the last one wasn't is also key.
posted by WaspEnterprises at 6:35 AM on December 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

I always ask prospective employees to describe their worst work situation and what they did to fix it. The purpose is two-fold: I want to hear what they think is bad (e.g. being asked to stay late once or twice is not bad), and what steps they took (e.g. being asked to stay late constantly? OK, what can we do to improve workflow so we don't have to do this all the time...?).

Bad prospects complain and don't offer solutions.

Good prospects tell me what they did.

Now, everyone gets the bad boss, I recognize that. But as an answer to this question, "I quit" is a bad answer UNLESS you can also tell me about all the wonderful, inventive, creative things you tried to do and the bridges you tried to build.

Because, while you thought you had a bad boss ... I may have thought the bad boss was actually a good guy.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 7:07 AM on December 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Your husband could flip the situation around such that the position wasn't a good fit because he's looking for more of a team/community/group dynamic and he feels a bit too isolated in his current position. That the idea is that he feels isolated because the boss *isn't* coming down on him can remain unspoken, leaving it as a general "company culture" question...just focus on the larger picture. :)
posted by rhizome at 7:46 AM on December 30, 2010

This summer I left my job for a new one—my boss was so extraordinarily awful that his awfulness made international headlines (and a post in the blue). I started looking for new employment a few weeks prior to things getting bad enough that the Today Show showed up at our office, meaning that I was in the same position as your husband. I knew how awful things were, but it didn't seem wise to inform prospective employers of that. So I presented things in terms of (accurate) platitudes: looking for new opportunities, felt it was time to move on, I'd made the contributions that I had to make, etc. When the story did become public, not only did my interviewers (who had, by then, offered me jobs) not hold it against me, they actually informed me that they appreciated my discretion.

Incidentally, I sympathize with your husband's position. For years, my bad boss wasn't bad for me, but only for co-workers. It was only in my last few months there that he turned on me and the rest of my co-workers, too. True, sometimes a boss is just poorly matched with some employees, but sometimes they just haven't gotten around to turning on everybody just yet.
posted by waldo at 8:04 AM on December 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

When he interviews, why not say why the place where he's interviewing is absolutely fabulous? Interviews are about making the best of the opportunities you have so consider this an opportunity to show off how much he knows about the place where he's interviewing. Details and specifics matter - when my new manager asked me why I was interested in working where I work now, I said, honestly, while I was volunteering, I met a girl who worked here and she said she loved it.

If he does need to "go negative," I'd keep it focused on your husband, not trying to place blame on anyone else - he wants to learn or work on a skill at a new job that he isn't getting to work on at his current job, for example. There are also plenty of vague or stock answers he can give without badmouthing his current gig - it's just not working out for me, no room for promotion, etc. If he comes prepared with enough positive things, he won't have to dwell on the negative. And chances are that they know what's going on at his current place of work so showing that he's not going to talk smack even when given an opportunity says a lot about him.
posted by kat518 at 8:25 AM on December 30, 2010

Depends on whether the prospective employer knows the current new-boss or not. If they know each other, ignoring new-boss's 'quirks' will seem more disengenuous than "I didn't like the guy".

Another possibility: new-boss was brought in to clean house. He is being nice to your husband because your husband is not a target of the house cleaning.
posted by gjc at 9:25 AM on December 30, 2010

I would try to phrase things in the most positive light possible keeping the focus on why the new job would be a better fit for his talents by offering more responsibility or a closer fit to his career goals or whatever. I would have to be pressed very hard before I would offer anything negative about my current job and even then I would keep it as vague and general as possible. Something like "I don't really have anything negative to say about XX, I've just heard from colleagues that YY is a much more positive atmosphere and workplace" which sends the message without seeming too whiny. The problem is that a good interviewer will be on that like a dog with a bone and will drag more details from you, which is why you are better off not to say anything bad about it at all.
posted by Lame_username at 10:50 AM on December 30, 2010

The question is, how much should he tell them about the turmoil in the office?

Egads, nothing. It's not even directly affecting his position. I hope that the turmoil isn't even the main reason he's looking. To jump ship in a panic because other people are unhappy with the new boss seems a bit dangerously knee-jerk to me.

He gets along fine with the new boss, his job security isn't currently threatened, and he likes his position well enough? Hey, there's a lot to be said for how much personality can affect things, and if he's truly got a decent relationship with the guy, maybe he just lucked out. And maybe there was other stuff going on with those who got axed. And maybe he can ride out this good relationship with a potentially difficult boss long enough to work it to his advantage when negotiating his next position.

That said, there's absolutely nothing wrong with assessing your options in hopes that something that suits you even better will present itself as an opportunity. But I don't think that "all the good jobs will be taken" is really a strong approach. I think a better answer to the question of "why are you looking" is to concentrate on the strengths he can offer to an employer that may be either underutilized or not the highest priority of his current employer.
posted by desuetude at 3:08 PM on December 30, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for all the answers. Very helpful!
[Desuetude and others who asked - FYI he's not thinking of moving on directly because of the new boss - he had some other reasons, both positive and negative, for wanting to look around after about a year anyway.]
posted by 8k at 9:03 PM on December 31, 2010

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