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You Left a Job on Bad Terms, Now What? What to Say to a Potential Employer

A smartphone with an angry face emoji on  the screen.

While job hopping can sometimes be a bad thing, the reality is that sometimes leaving is unavoidable. Sometimes, it isn’t your decision. And even worse, sometimes you know you could have left on better terms.

There are many less-than-favorable ways to leave a job. Maybe you got fired. Maybe you had a fight with your boss. Maybe you quit with less than two weeks notice. Maybe you felt the organization was awful and still feel the need to tell (or warn) everyone you know. Maybe you simply burned out and stopped doing your job to the best of your ability.

So now you’re back in the job market and wondering: "How do I bring this up on an interview? What do I say if they ask to call my employer? Am I doomed to never find work again because of that bad experience?!"

Talking about previous employment experiences, especially negative experiences, requires a certain amount of political thinking and good judgement.

Before you begin any conversation with a recruiter about a former employer...

  • Separate the personal from the professional. If you left a job because of a personal disagreement or issue, don’t bring it up in your interview. Work is work, and no matter how much we identify what we do with who we are, an interview wants to know if you can maintain your professionalism in their organization. Bringing a personal issue into an interview, even if you feel completely justified, is a red flag. Keep an interviewer focused on what you are capable of doing as a professional, and the ways you can help their organization.
  • Don’t bad-mouth your former boss. Yes, we have actually heard this more times than we care to mention. “My boss there, she was a total B*****” or “He was so horrible I can’t believe anyone still works there.” Speaking badly about a former boss makes you look unprofessional and does not help make that situation better. Here is the basic logic from the recruiter’s desk: What happens if you don’t like your new boss? People are people, and managers make mistakes, too. When you spend significant negative energy talking about a former boss, it's easy to assume that you could feel the same way about your boss anywhere. Stay professional and keep it respectful.
  • Keep your emotions in check. It’s true, leaving a job on bad terms is inevitably emotional. Usually you feel angry and those feelings can bubble up and cause you noticeable distress when you begin to talk about a negative work experience. Before you go into an interview, practice speaking with a friend about why you left your job. Keep your answer professional and respectful. The emotions are inevitable, but don’t let them control your future opportunities.
  • Always steer the conversation back to a positive. If the interviewer asks the right questions, you may have to talk about some negative former employment experiences, but don't dwell! Focus on the things you learned and the skills you built in that position. The ability to bring the conversation back to a positive place says something about you as an applicant. In spite of hard times, you have a great attitude!

Tackling awkward questions

  • Should I list my former employer as a reference if I left on bad terms?  No, we do not recommend it. In any organization, you interact with multiple levels of people: clients, co-workers, colleagues from another department. List someone who can speak to your virtues and strengths. You choose your references, and we anticipate you will choose someone who will speak about your strong points.
  • Should I tell the interviewer that I got fired? There are diplomatic ways to talk about getting fired (or better put, dismissed). First and foremost, they'll ask why you got fired. Even with background checks, HR departments do not have access to your performance records or reasons for dismissal. Unless the cause was criminal (e.g. stealing from your organization), it will not show up on your background check. Choose your words wisely and be diplomatic in how you talk about your dismissal. “I was let go after a change in management.” Or “I was not a great fit for the position as _____ because my strengths are _______ (steer back to positive).”
  • Should I talk about why I quit my last job? The Q-U-I-T word is a four-letter word to many human resource managers. Even if you had every reason to leave, we don’t want to risk investing in a new employee who may turn around walk out the door. Again, be diplomatic in how you talk about leaving your job. “I left because I had no potential for future growth in that company.” Or “I left because I felt the need to invest my career in a company whose mission was in line with my passion.”

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About the Author | Ashley Putnam began her work in career counseling at America Works, where she counseled low-income clients on resume writing and job search in New York. She later worked as Community Engagement Manager for Mercado Global in Guatemala, where she organized internship programs and oversaw private fundraising.

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