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Ask Victoria | How to Address A Negative Job Experience on an Interview

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Hi Victoria,

I have a question about how to discuss a negative relationship with a previous manager when interviewing. Long story short, the job I was doing was way different than I thought it would be, and I was miserable.

It was a small office where everyone was very friendly with each other and I was close with my boss. So, when asking for more responsibility, I was quite candid and ended up being let go. I take responsibility for what happened, but I don't want this one bad experience to ruin the rest of my career.

I take responsibility for what happened, but I don't want this one bad experience to ruin the rest of my career.

Specifically, in the last couple months of working there, my relationship with my boss turned very negative; it felt like I couldn't do or say anything right and it turned out she had been telling the ED things that I had said in confidence. It was basically a mess and really upsetting, so when I was let go I actually felt relieved! She even lied to the unemployment office about why I was let go (and said I was bullying her!) and I was initially denied unemployment benefits.

My question is this: how on earth do I talk about this in a job interview? I have positive relationships with other staff members who have offered to be a reference, but how do I explain why I don't want my interviewers contacting my previous supervisor? I know to never bash a previous employer in an interview, but how do I talk about why I left my previous job without lying or sounding as though I have sour grapes?

Thank you for any help you can give!


Dear Rebecca,

Yikes, your supervisor lied to the unemployment office?! That’s some serious ire. However, you’re right; it’s not the greatest idea to “bash” a former employer. Rest assured though, there are some ways around this pesky problem, without lying, avoiding the question, or sounding bitter.

I would suggest sharing a bit of the story but keep it neutral in tone, particularly in regards to displaying your emotions about the situation. Mention that you were hoping for more responsibility in your role (most employers love it when employees show initiative) and had a conversation about it with your manager. Share some details about the ways in which you felt you could contribute more to that organization. If there’s an opportunity to support the hiring organization in a similar way, even better! Take the focus off any sense of lack or negativity, and keep your abilities at the forefront.

Take the focus off any sense of lack or negativity, and keep your abilities at the forefront.

Next, mention that you maintained positive working relationships with many of your colleagues, who are more than willing to serve as references. If they press to speak with your former supervisor, I would simply say that despite your best effort to have an honest, positive, and solutions-based dialogue, ultimately, your manager wasn't interested.

Will this new employer attempt to follow-up with your former supervisor in spite of leaving her off your list of references? Perhaps, but remember that most organizations’ policies allow only HR managers and direct supervisors to verify your dates of employment and job title. Given your manager’s history, I would say it’s fair to assume that she may discuss your performance in more detail, and won’t be honest in her assessment of you. Unfortunately, it may become a matter of your word over hers. To combat this, ensure that the rest of your references are glowing and reiterate your positive contributions to the organization.

Finally, you may want to consider reaching out to your former employer- particularly the HR department, if they have one- as suggested by Ask a Manager. Mention that you are concerned your manager won’t give an accurate assessment of your work, would like to know what the organization’s reference policies are, and what type of reference to expect from them.

Remember also that your situation stemmed from something that most employers would find admirable: you wanted to take on more responsibility and accomplish more at your job. Keep that at the forefront of your conversation with any potential employers.

Rebecca, I wish you much luck in your job search. Please do keep us posted on how things go!

To your success,


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