Beth Braccio Hering

“Why are you looking for a new role?”

Lucky for Kevin, he thought about this question before his job interview. If not, he might have given the hiring manager a long account of his current situation. He would explain how his toxic boss never supports employees but yells at the top of his lungs when they make mistakes. He would mention being encouraged to lie to customers if it meant making the sale. And he certainly would state that he’s tired of burnout, zero work-life balance, and stress affecting his physical health and mental health.

Instead, Kevin politely gives his prepared short answer. “I’m seeking new opportunities at a place with a company culture that aligns well with my values and work style. I think your organization would be an ideal match because . . . .”

Plenty of people leave their current jobs because of a negative work environment. In fact, research by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) reports one out of five workers have left their job in the last five years because of workplace culture. Nevertheless, potential new employers generally frown upon candidates bad-mouthing previous employers. Thus, it pays to think before speaking ill about a former employer during a job search.

Why employers ask

When it comes to interview questions, “Why are you looking for a new job?” or “Why did you leave your last job?” rank among the most common. The answer provides potential employers with valuable information.

Sometimes, the reason is pretty straightforward. Lay-offs due to downsizing, moving to a new geographical area, or seeking an advanced position following greater educational attainment are rather self-explanatory. Many situations, though, prove much more complex.

Talk too much about desiring greater compensation and risk being seen as a job hopper who follows the buck. Complain about workload and generate suspicions of being a whiner or someone who has difficulty meeting professional expectations. Detail every reason why your previous job was the most toxic environment imaginable and raise eyebrows as to how good you’d be as a brand ambassador for this new company.

Navigating the balancing act

Addressing the past is something everyone needs to do during the interview process. When a work history involves a toxic job, present information as professionally as possible. Long laments and blame games appear overly dramatic and immature. Besides, you want to move on as quickly as possible to establish a positive tone that convinces the listener that you would make a great addition to the staff.

“In addressing your departure from a toxic work environment, honesty is crucial, but framing is key,” says Steven Mostyn, Chief Human Resources Officer of Management.org. “Instead of explicitly stating the toxicity, focus on your desire for a more positive and collaborative workplace. Emphasize your commitment to professional growth and how the prospective company aligns with your values. Use specific examples to highlight what you’re seeking in a work environment without dwelling on the negativity. Demonstrate resilience and a forward-looking attitude. This approach allows you to address the issue without sounding overly critical, showing that you’re focused on future opportunities and positive contributions. Transparency can build trust, but it’s essential to strike a balance between honesty and maintaining a constructive tone during the interview.”

Adds Ryan Wong, HR manager at BarkLikeMeow, “You definitely want to avoid trash-talking your old boss or company. It makes you look bitter and unprofessional. Here’s what I tell the people I coach: Focus on fit, not dysfunction. Instead of saying ‘My last company was a gossip fest,’ try ‘I realized the environment wasn’t a great fit for my work style. I thrive in collaborative spaces with clear communication.’ Highlight what you’re seeking – ‘I’m excited about this opportunity because your company culture seems very (positive aspect you noticed, like ‘supportive’ or ‘results-oriented’).’ Be honest, but be brief. If you’re pressed for details, a simple ‘There were some cultural differences’ is enough. Remember, the interview is about YOU and the future. Show the interviewer you learned from the experience and are looking for a positive change. That’ll make a way better impression than negativity!”

Crafting a response

As Kevin in the opening did, thinking about what to say prior to the actual interview is a smart move. Planning allows for careful, concise wording rather than trying to wing a response on the spot. It also allows a chance to practice the delivery.

As you consider what to say, remember the following:

  • Be brief when discussing a past toxic work environment. Too much negativity will cast a pall over the room.

  • Consider framing bad experiences as learning opportunities leading to career growth. Hiring managers like to see self-awareness and maturity.

  • Stay calm and professional. Calling your ex-boss a jerk during the interview reflects worse on you than on him.

  • Spend more time looking forward than dredging up the past. Display optimism for this new position. How does it fit in with your career goals? Might it improve your personal life by helping you feel more fulfilled overall?

  • New employers are not out to save you from a toxic situation. Their interest is in filling an opening with the best possible candidate. Talk about what you can offer this company, not detail why you want to leave somewhere else.

Toxic work environments are not all the same. What made yours bad will influence what you say.

“I live by the rule, ‘Say what you mean, but don’t say it meanly,’” says Ilene Marcus, leadership expert and author of Managing Annoying People. “The interview strategy is to state, only when asked, in a calm, clear manner the issue, the impact, and how you handled it or how it impacted your work.”

Sample explanations

The following suggestions can help with the wording of specific scenarios.

Problem: My past employer had no problem with lying, cheating, fudging numbers, and other unethical behavior.

How to present: My personal values did not align with my past employer’s company culture. I am seeking an organization that provides a better match.

Problem: My current boss continuously breathes down my neck, which makes me feel jittery and disrespected.

How to present: I understand micromanagement is sometimes warranted, such as for a new hire, a program launch, or implementing a new process. However, when my KPIs consistently are in line or even exceed expectations, it is not an optimal situation to be managed that way. It limits my growth and contribution.

Problem: The amount of favoritism going on was not only hurtful on a daily basis, it left zero chance of me ever getting a promotion.

How to present: I am looking for a company that nurtures professional development and rewards outstanding performance. I am especially interested in career development opportunities that hone my leadership skills. Combined with my solid tech background, I believe this would put me in a good position to serve as a manager in the IT department down the line.

Problem: The place went downhill when an incompetent new CEO took over.

How to present: The organization was moving in a different direction under new leadership, which presented a natural opportunity to part ways. I am seeking a work culture such as yours that seems to prioritize transparency, order, and consistent communication between management and staff.

Problem: I could no longer take working in a toxic environment that compromised my well-being.

How to present: I am a team player who can work through chaotic seasons and crises, but I prefer not to work for a place where that’s the everyday culture.

Problem: Office bullies ran the place and generated a fearful atmosphere.

How to present: Several strong personalities set the tone for the entire office. It was an unwarranted aggressive environment, and management allowed it. Although I had good relationships with many teammates and liked the work, I thrive in a psychologically safe environment where my ideas can be heard and considered. That’s how I can best serve my employer and grow in my skills.

Regardless of the specific problem, employees who experience a toxic workplace culture often harbor resentment and pain. Exploring these emotions with help from trusted others may prove helpful. Do not, however, consider a prospective employer such a confidante. Landing a new job hinges on demonstrating why you are the best person to fill an open role, not on trying to gain sympathy or mar your former employer’s reputation. Keep feelings in check!

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