A reader writes:
I’ve given my notice to the company I’ve worked for for four years, without another job lined up. I know that this is against general recommendations, but it was just getting to be too much for me to handle; I don’t want to get into details too much, but my micromanaging boss just got to be too much for me to handle, coupled with the fact that my work schedule is so crazy I couldn’t go interview at places.
I don’t want to walk into an interview and be negative about my boss and the situation I was in, because I can definitely handle a LOT. But what are your suggestions for explaining why I left a job without another one lined up?
I’d go with something like, “After four years, I feel like I want to take on new challenges and I wanted to take some time to really focus on finding something I’d love.” It’s vague, but it’s reasonable (because you’d been there four years; it wouldn’t be reasonable if you’d been there a year). Employers are going to be satisfied with this answer, because it’s one they’ll understand themselves.
Here is the secret about the “why are you leaving your current job” question that every interviewer asks: It is totally fine if the real reason you are leaving is because of a crazy micromanaging boss, unpleasant coworkers, a toxic culture (we’ve all had those experiences ourselves and know in the back of our minds that it might be why you are leaving). You just can’t tell us that. Instead, you have to pick a cover story, like “leaving for new challenges,” because if you tell the truth, we start to worry about things like: Is your boss really a micromanager or is it that you require a lot of oversight? Are you just hard to get along with? Are you a troublemaker? A primadonna? Are you going to be impossible to please here too?
Now, this may seem unfair. Given how many crazy bosses and toxic workplaces are out there, why shouldn’t you be able to tell the truth and have the interviewer give you the benefit of the doubt? Two reasons: First, while we absolutely will allow for the possibility that your account is completely correct and objective, it raises enough of a question mark that we have to wonder and worry, and it doesn’t help any candidate to have those sorts of questions hanging over her. And once those questions are raised, it is very difficult to definitively put them to rest during the hiring process (unless we happen to know someone who worked at your old company, in which case they can often confirm that indeed your boss was a nightmare — but that’s the exception to the rule). Second, rightly or wrongly, the interviewing convention is that you don’t badmouth a previous employer — and we’re looking for evidence that you know what is and isn’t appropriate to say in business situations.
All of which leads to: Use an appropriate cover story — leaving for new challenges, excited about this particular opportunity, taking the time to find something right, and so forth. We may realize there could be more behind it, but we’ll be pleased that you’re handling it appropriately, not boiling over with rage, etc. (You have to deliver the line naturally though; I’ve had candidates say it in a way that sounded overly formal and rehearsed, which immediately made me think they were hiding something and that’s when I probe for more details. So watch your delivery; sound sincere.)
By the way, although you can’t tell us the truth about your crazy boss in the interview, you can definitely tell us after we’ve hired you and you’ve been working with us for a while. We love to hear such stories after we’ve learned that we don’t need to worry about you, especially if you then contrast the old boss to us and tell us how much happier you are now.
P.S. This is the one and only area of job-searching in which I’d ever recommend being anything less than forthright, and I don’t feel good about it. I’m a big proponent of being honest about your weaknesses and other things job-seekers are routinely advised to lie about. But in this area, the potential for giving an employer an incorrect impression is just too great to do it safely.