Why You Never Badmouth Your Boss at a Job Interview

Your badmouthing raises too many questions for your interview.

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A reader writes:

I was hoping you could answer a question I had about my most recent job interview.

I learned a little too late that it is considered a very bad thing to badmouth former employers at a job interview. But I was wondering whether you would automatically disqualify a candidate you were interviewing because of this or if you would still consider giving them the job?

I'm asking because when my interviewer asked why I left a previous job, I answered that "I felt my managers were too immature for their position." This happened early in the interview but after that mistake, I felt like I did well during the rest of the interview. I am a recent college graduate and I'm also wondering if my young age would grant me any leniency in regards to making interview mistakes.

Ouch. Honestly? It's very unlikely that I'd hire a candidate who said that.

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It's not that hiring managers don't realize that that might be true, because there are plenty of nightmare bosses out there and some of our candidates are undoubtedly fleeing from some of them. But right or wrong, the convention is that you simply don't badmouth a former employer in a job interview, unless there are extremely extenuating circumstances (something like racial discrimination).

[See why you should skip snail mail.]

Why? Because it raises questions in our minds that you don't want there. Questions like:

  • What's the other side of this story?
  • Is this person impossible to please?
  • Do they not have reasonable expectations of their manager? Will they be a pain in the neck to have on staff?
  • Are they going to quit here too the first time something happens that they don't like?
  • Are they going to be badmouthing me someday too?
  • Why doesn't this person realize that you don't say things like that?

Now, most hiring managers will allow for the possibility that your account is objective and correct. But it raises enough of a question mark that we at least have to wonder and worry, and you don't need those kinds of shadows over your candidacy. Plus, even if your account was unimpeachably objective, we still have to wonder why you didn't know what is and isn't appropriate to say in business situations, and we'll wonder how else that might manifest.

[See 5 lame but common interview answers.]

You're far better off explaining that you're looking for new challenges, excited about this particular opportunity, taking the time to find something right, and so forth. I'm not crazy about advising someone to be anything less than forthright, and I don't normally recommend it, but in this area, the potential for giving an employer an bad impression is just too great to do it safely.

Next time, you’ll know. Good luck!

Alison Green is the author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Leader's Guide to Getting Results . She is chief of staff for the Marijuana Policy Project, a nonprofit lobbying organization, where she oversees day-to-day management of the staff as well as hiring, firing, and staff development. Her writings have been published in the Washington Post, the New York Times, Maxim, and dozens of other newspapers. She blogs at Ask a Manager.

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