when an interviewer asks you to say something bad about your former manager

A reader writes:

I’m currently preparing for an interview (with the help of your guide!) and I took a quick look at Glassdoor. One of the listed interview questions someone received was “Say something bad about your ex-manager.” How do you think you should answer this question? To me, it sounds like too negative of a question.

It’s a terrible question. Candidates have it drilled into their heads that they shouldn’t badmouth former employers. It’s going to put them on the spot and make them really, really uncomfortable. And for what?

A far better question that could get at similar substance is: “When you think back to managers you’ve had in the past, what management styles or practices haven’t worked well for you?” (And in fact, you should just pretend that this is the question that you were asked.)

But “say something bad about a former manager”? That’s like saying, “Trash talk people who you might have loyalty to, violate interview conventions, and risk making yourself look bad.”

There should be an interviewer license that could be revoked as a penalty for asking stuff like this.

{ 135 comments… read them below }

  1. caraytid

    the smartass in me would be tempted to respond simply with a literal “something bad about my former manager” and leave it at that.

        1. Richard

          Ok, seriously, what is wrong with them? Did I miss the memo when did they go out of style? The next thing you know people will be dissing me for wearing a neckerchief.

    1. AMG

      Or bash their interview tactics and say that this is exactly the type of ridiculous question Former Manager would have come up with.

    1. Mallory Janis Ian

      That’s what I thought, too. Kind of like when I was retelling the tale of how I accidentally went to Chik Fil A on that day when all the conservatives were eating there in support of their politics, and everyone from my boy scout troop was there. I went up to them and asked what was going on ( bc I truly did not know).

      In retelling how they responded, I said that they said, “We’re here to discriminate against gay people,” which is what I *heard*, although not literally what they *said*.

    2. ScottySmalls

      I think it was a blunt rephrasing, because it is from Glassdoor and it’s a question someone received and when they remembered it, they phrased it like that

  2. Sharon

    So given that it’s such a blunt/direct question, how should an interviewee handle it? Normally it’s advisable to answer the question that you *should* have been asked, but since this one is so blunt (and presumably the interviewer is a twit), they may keep asking it until you say something that satisfies them. So…. then what? Or just politely decline to interview with this company?

    1. jmkenrick

      Personally, I think if they keep pushing like that it will be really obviously weird and there’s no reason the interviewee couldn’t respond to that. Assuming you’d already given an example of a managment technique that hasn’t worked well, you could point out that you really respect your former team and push back on them (diplomatically) for why they need that info.

    2. Sunflower

      I would maybe change the question around and say something like ‘I’ve never had a bad manager but sometimes their work or management styles have differed from mine. For example…’ Or something like ‘I think it would be difficult for me to work with a manger who X’. That way you’re answering what you don’t like without blaming it on someone.

      1. The Cosmic Avenger

        This is what I would do. And if they phrased it exactly that way, I’d probably decline any offer from them.

        At least part of me has a vain hope that maybe this is a test of whether you can stay professional under stress/pressure. For some positions (CSR) that might be an appropriate thing to try to gauge.

      2. Holly Day

        Agreed, or “from a former manager I learned that XX characteristic is important to me in relationships with future managers. How does that characteristic play out here?”

    3. Evan Þ

      I guess the way I’d handle it would be to compare two of my managers and talk about what made one so much better than the other. It’d get to what the interviewer should be searching for, without actually calling anyone a bad manager.

    4. Lizzie

      I’d probably decline to answer the question first (“I’m not comfortable answering that question.”), because I think it’s such a ridiculous question. If pushed, I might consider responding like Sunflower suggested…but it probably wouldn’t matter, because a question like that would make me seriously reconsider taking a job with that employer anyway.

    5. Josh S

      “Every person has flaws and areas where they can improve. I would hope that my flaws do not include badmouthing my managers behind their backs. Having said that, I do prefer to work with managers who do ______ rather than _______, because it lets me do my job more effectively as the kind of person who _______.”

    6. Lindsay J

      I had something similar happen to me recently.

      The question was, “Do you think it was fair that that company fired you?”

      I said something like, “Well obviously they felt it was what they needed to do in that situation. I made a mistake, and mistakes have consequences. I don’t hold any ill-will towards them, and I’ve moved forward in my career since leaving [that company].”

      They repeated the question again, and I danced around it again.

      Then they repeated it again, and finally I said what I really felt, that I didn’t feel that it was fair that I had been fired.

      By then I was pretty much done with their whole hiring process anyway. They had a bunch of weird “personality and risk assessment” tests that I had to take between the phone screen and the interview that I didn’t think could have told anyone anything meaningful about me or my job skills. Then the whole interview was weirdly adversarial, including hammering me with this question.

  3. YandO

    Follow up question

    Honesty vs Positivity: what is more important?

    How do I reconcile these two things? My employer sucks. Every reasonable person will immediately understand why. If I talk about them, even without saying anything negative, it becomes clear that they suck.

    Obliviously, every interview is different and you have to follow the interviewer lead, but I am leaning towards honesty instead of empty positivty.

    Thoughts?

    1. jmkenrick

      I think the issue is that people have different levels of sensitivity. Without knowing you, it can be hard to determine if you’re being rational in your assessment. Especially since not being negative in interviews is such an established norm, it can reflect poorly on you and make it seem like you’re the one who doesn’t understand those norms.

      But of course the other issue is that a company doesn’t necessarily want to hire you just because your current employee sucks. That would be like someone wanting to date you because their current partner cheats. You want to know that they like you for you, so when asked the “why are you leaving?” question, it’s always best to focus on the opportunities ahead.

      That said, I think you can be honest to a point, as long as you’re using a neutral tone, not actually badmouthing anyone, and describing things that aren’t subjective. I once mentioned in an interview that my current boss worked remotely, in another state, and one of the things I was searching for was a team that worked locally, face-to-face. There was a lot of other stuff I didn’t like about that manager, but this was a pretty straightforward, non-subjective thing I was looking for. Plus, if they didn’t have that, I was happy to let them self-select out.

      1. Connie-Lynne

        Yep, this.

        It’s rare that I leave a company simply because another company is awesomer or has more appealing things to work on. However, when talking to people about why I want to leave, I focus on the appeal of my next position.

        “Why would you leave something as interesting as running food festivals full time?”
        “Well, because after trying it for a year, I’ve discovered that while it’s very rewarding emotionally to run food festivals, there’s not a lot of money in it. This position, however, has a lot of interesting technical challenges and it’s really exciting to be able to build my own team from the ground up. I think I’ll be able to apply a lot of the people management skills I worked on producing festivals to building this team.”

    2. Katie the Fed

      I think this is a false dichotomy. You don’t have to choose between those things. You can say something like “I prefer to work in environments that foster close collaboration” or something like that. You can turn it into something constructive or make it about you, rather than the former boss. They don’t care about the former boss. They want to know what makes YOU tick.

      1. Stranger than fiction

        I’m not so sure about that. My boyfriend just started new job in jan and when he was interviewing, more than once, I’d say about half the companies, were trying very hard to get him to dish out some dirty laundry about his former employer…ultimate he stuck with convention and kept it positive but he swears a couple places turned him down because they felt he didn’t give enough/any dirt

        1. Koko

          True, it may be a tactic. But honestly, who wants to work for a company that relies on poaching their competitors specifically to gain access to proprietary/privileged information in order to get ahead? If the company goes so far as to base hiring decisions on who’s willing to dish dirt, I’m sure that leads to a really wonderful, collaborative, trusting work environment where nobody is suspicious of their coworkers motives or trying to undermine each other….

    3. Sunflower

      Can you put a positive spin on your negative experiences?

      Company is cheap = we run on a tight budget
      boss is insane = my boss expects a lot of us
      micro-manager = we are held accountable for all of our actions

      The problem with being negative is 1. No one knows the full story about what goes on at your work and the interviewer has no way of knowing if you’re overreacting or being reasonable and 2. it could give the interviewer the idea that you are desperate to leave your job and will take the next thing available to get out of that hell hole.

      I’d suggest looking through some interview questions and trying to get a feel for what they’re really looking for. When someone asks ‘what would your manager say about you’, they want to know if you’re a good employee. So focus on things that show that in your answer

      1. Connie-Lynne

        I have to admit I’d wonder why someone was leaving a company just because the boss expected a lot and wanted them to be accountable for all their actions.

        For leaving a micromanaging boss, I’d probably say something along the lines of “my current team has fairly rigid roles and I’m looking to move to a place that supports more creativity” or maybe “where I am right now has a strong command-and-control style of management, which certainly gets us over the line in terms of deliverables, but I’d like to explore someplace with a a more collaborative approach. It feels like this place is more collaborative because … , is that accurate?”

    4. fposte

      “Every reasonable person will immediately understand why. If I talk about them, even without saying anything negative, it becomes clear that they suck.”

      There’s no reason for you to talk about your former manager to that degree in an interview for a future job. It would look fixated.

      And in general, this “empty positivity” characterization seems dismissive of something that’s really important. I like Katie’s phrase about wanting to see people dealing constructively with situations–we’re going to assume that what we see is what we’re going to get, after all. Does an applicant look like they can’t move past their frustration with their current manager? Then that suggests the possibility of a problem for me.

      1. YandO

        fposte

        it’s a small firm owned by a married couple and there are two employees: me and their close friend.

        When most people hear that, they give me a look of “that sounds dreadful”

        and it is

        1. YandO

          I will follow up with: I don’t actually say that in interviews, cause I feel it shows my poor judgement in taking the job in the first place.

          1. Mpls

            It’s also not terribly relevant to an interview. It *might* give some context to the work you do and challenges you have taken on, but your focus should be on the work you’ve done, rather than the environment you’ve worked in (except to the extent it impacts the work.

          2. fposte

            As Mpls says, the reason not to say it in interviews is that it’s not relevant to the interview; it doesn’t automatically spell doom as a setup, though I can easily see how it would become that.

            It can really help sometimes to put yourself in the place of the hiring manager–what do they want to know about you, and what would help them decide whether you’re a good fit for their opening? Stuff that happened at your previous or current job doesn’t; what you *did* at that job does.

      2. Not Today Satan

        Agreed. I talk at length about my previous job in interviews and my relationship with my boss doesn’t color my response at all–I just talk about my work and my achievements.

      3. themmases

        I agree with this, except I’ve been under the impression that “Why are you looking to leave?” is not an uncommon interview question. I’ve never been asked that (currently a grad assistant, took my last job as a new grad), it just seems to be when it usually comes up here. If you really dislike your current employer, I think it’s a good idea to think ahead about how to describe your job truthfully but constructively– just as you would think ahead about your weaknesses, or gaps in your resume.

        I could also think of situations where job situations you might be asked about make your employer look bad, for example, maybe you saved the day on a big project that was actually your boss’ responsibility. If you’re still suffering through a bad job, it can be hard to keep to the point of that kind of story without getting sucked into describing the politics.

    5. YandO

      I think it’s important to answer the question asked. When someone asks me “what is the most frustrating thing about your current employer” . I would not dodge the question.

      With that said, I really liked all of your suggestions and I will try to incorporate it in my answers. I think I get better and better with every interview I do.

      Thanks!

      1. fposte

        It’s not dodging the question to present yourself well, though. I feel like you’re locked in this binary where you’re either being false or you’re talking in detail about your former manager; as Katie says, this is a false dichotomy, and it’s one that can really hurt you if you stick to it when you’re applying. It’s also pretty unusual for an interviewer to ask you specifically to say something bad about your manager, and it’s not really a good sign about that workplace. So I wouldn’t just take it as a cue to talk about my manager, I’d ask if frustration has been an issue at this workplace, and talk about how I’ve dealt with frustration.

      2. Connie-Lynne

        It’s not dodging an answer at all to dissemble or to turn the conversation back to the positive.

        “Right now it’s a small family firm, which presents some challenges. I’m hoping that by moving to a larger company some of the resource constraints typical of small businesses will become less of an issue.”

        You’re not trash-talking your employer there, you’re just acknowledging that small businesses have their own challenges.

    6. Chicken

      If you talk about your employer in a neutral manner and the interviewer can tell they suck, that’s okay – you don’t need to make up fake positive stories or anything. You’ll look better if you are neutral/matter-of-fact/tactful, even if it’s clear that your employer has a problem.

    7. themmases

      Positivity. You can say factual stuff that makes it clear why you’re leaving (I think AAM had a question a while ago about a business owner getting arrested, and gave the advice that it’s not “negative” to truthfully state that this bad thing happened), but what you don’t want to get into is “and they were wrong to do it that way!” or “aren’t you outraged just hearing about this?!” I think your tiny company is a great example where lots of people would understand why you’re ready to move on, but your boss isn’t *wrong* to run a small family business. It will also never hurt you to sound like you’re excited about this job/company and taking initiative to move on on your own, rather than just reacting to a bad situation at work.

      Bad jobs can feel so all-consuming until you escape them that it seems like anything less than perfect frankness isn’t even the truth of the situation. However, those jobs also have a way of really clarifying what we do and don’t want next. I don’t think sharing those active goals and desires on your part is dishonest just because they don’t dwell on a bad situation you found yourself in.

    8. Nobody

      You have to remember the context of these questions. Really, every question that is asked in an interview boils down to one thing: Why should we hire you? You therefore need to answer every question in a way that tells them something about why they should hire you — how you would be an asset to the team and contribute to their success. Does complaining about your current employer accomplish this? No! They are not going to hire you because they feel sorry for you for working for an employer that sucks. They will only hire you if they think you will bring something valuable to the table.

      I’m not saying you should lie and tell them your current employer is great, but there are ways to answer this kind of question honestly but still give them a reason to hire you (other people have given many great examples in this thread).

      1. fposte

        “The devil cape kept sweeping stuff of my desk, and the sulphurous farts were distracting.”

        1. Connie-Lynne

          “My shamanic skills simply weren’t up to par, so when the seventh seal was broken and demons breached the gap, I realized I needed to go some place where I could learn to solve these problems in a lower-pressure environment.”

  4. TeapotCounsel

    I’ll crib from Allison’s suggestion, which was good:

    Q: Say something bad about your ex-manager.
    A: No, sir (or ma’am), I’m not going to do that. It’s not appropriate. But if we want to talk about different management styles, those that I work well with, and those I don’t, I’m happy to discuss that. For example, [micromanaging vs. vague instructions vs. poor sensitivity to employees’ time, etc.]

    1. OhNo

      I don’t think you should necessarily call out the inappropriateness of the question, unless the rest of the interview has been particularly egregious. Instead, just answer the question Alison suggested. If pressed, you could even say, “I can’t think of anything specific, but here are some generalities that don’t work for me.”

  5. DarcyPennell

    It’s a terrible question, they’re basically asking “please make yourself look bad.” I was on a job interview where my previous job had been with local minor celebrities, a married couple who wrote books & hosted a radio show. In the interview they asked me to gossip about the couple! “Dish the dirt” was what they said. I said something very mild about their behavior with each other in meetings, something that if it got back to them would have been ok. Then I said that at first I had worried about working for a married couple but then I realized that they weren’t arguing or anything, it was just the way they interacted. That was as much gossip as I was willing to do!

  6. Dasha

    This reminds me of the time I went on an interview and the interviewer asked, “What would your MOM say is your most negative quality?” (Or maybe biggest weakness, I can’t remember now!) It was a long time ago and I had just graduated college but I was like seriously? I was able to think pretty quick on my feet and say, “Well, my mother has always been a positive influence in my life yada yada blahblah but I’d say professionally my biggest weakness is x.”

    It just left a really bad taste in my mouth and I felt like it made the interviewer look unprofessional.

    1. Buffay the Vampire Layer

      I got that exact question too! I just said “my hair.” The interviewer laughed and moved on to even more invasive questions like how much my rent is and how much my husband and I exercise. I would not have taken that job after an interview like that.

      1. jamlady

        Oh jeese. Seriously? There is no relevance to any of those questions! Who in the world was doing this interview?! Yikes.

        1. Buffay the Vampire Layer

          Associate in a public interest firm, of all things.

          That was one of the worst overall job hunting experiences I’ve ever had. I came in on a Thursday afternoon for a first interview with one of the partners. That went well apparently, because Saturday morning I get a call asking me to come in for a second interview. On the same day. I needed a job, so I did go down there that same afternoon for a second interview.

          Second interview is conducted by the first named partner / head weirdo. I’d heard beforehand that he was idiosyncratic and controlling in some weird ways (insisting that all attorneys’ desks would be clean and free of paper every night, etc.), but the firm was well-known and again, I needed a job, so I went regardless of the red flags. The second interview turned out to be almost nothing about my professional background and a whole bunch of inappropriate and invasive questions. This was nearly a year ago now and I still remember some gems:
          “Oh, so you went to [well-known Catholic university], so tell me are you a good Catholic girl?”
          “What’s your driving record? (me: I don’t see how that’s pertinent, will I be driving?) Just tell me I want to know.”
          “So do you work out? (me: yes) Ok good, how about your husband? Does he exercise too?”
          “Where do you live? (me: vague city) No, what neighborhood? (me: X) One bedroom or two? (me: one) How much are you paying in rent? (me: I’m not going to answer that)”

          That last one went on for a fairly long time. It was the only question I put my foot down about answering, and the interview ended soon after. This guy wasn’t just cluelessly trying to make conversation either, he was very insistent about all of this. I’m very confident that the rent question was because he was going to base his salary offer to me on my expenses.

          Other partner, to his credit, sat there looking ashamed. Non-crazy partner walks me out, says I’ll hear back early the next week. Monday comes, nothing. Tuesday, nothing. Wednesday I send out a nice email asking if he needs anything else etc. Nothing. The following week I get a letter in the mail dated from before my Wednesday email. So he’d known he rejected me when he got my email checking in.

          Bullet dodged.

    2. Lily in NYC

      What an awful question. Like anyone cares that I suck at lawn-mowing (I killed my mom’s favorite tree and she’s never let me forget it).

      1. Hermoine Granger

        Not to get off topic but I’m curious, how did you kill the tree while mowing the lawn? Did you hit the tree roots or something?

        1. ThursdaysGeek

          You just have to bump it too hard with the riding mower or score the base or scrape off too much bark. Not that I would know, of course.

      1. Ann

        Yep. My friend’s parents died when she was 10, and I’m pretty sure she’d relish the opportunity to put the interviewer in a very awkward spot with that question.

        1. OhNo

          Speaking from experience: I’ve done that before. It works great. To be fair, it wasn’t in an interview, but it was in a professional setting.

          My philosophy is that you just shouldn’t bring other people’s parents up in a professional setting. You never know what kind of response you’re going to get; better to avoid it altogether.

        2. Merry and Bright

          Some years ago, a very odd interviewer asked if I thought I would get married one day. WTF? I saw she (yep, a woman) had a wedding ring so I asked her in return if she thought her marriage would last. I already knew I wanted to give the job a wide berth but, even so, I enjoyed the moment.

      2. AW

        The thing is, not only are they assuming the interviewee has a mom but they’re assuming that they knew their mother and that it’s not a sore subject. So they’re also risking things like “Don’t know, never met her”, “She barely remembers me due to illness”, or “Well, she hit me just as hard no matter what I did, so I guess she’d say all my qualities are equally negative” as a response.

        1. Tinker

          Yeah, I suspect that what they think they’re asking is something like “what would a person external to you who knows a lot about your private flaws and secrets say is your greatest weakness” but — it’s a terribly naive sort of question to ask. Even if it’s not “what would your abuser say about you” levels of awkward, I can’t imagine it’s that uncommon to be effectively asking something like “What would a person who sometimes forgets that you are no longer 12 and is applying to you the career and social standards of 40 years ago say is your greatest weakness?”

          No good can come from that. Even declining the question requires a certain amount of grace in order to not be uncomfortably revealing, and such things are particularly hard for precisely the people who would have cause to in the first place.

        2. UK Nerd

          “I implanted in her uterus instead of spontaneously aborting like she wanted me to.”
          “Being male instead of the daughter she wanted.”

          I’m another in the ‘my hair’ camp.

      1. Feeling Snarky

        That I’m her favorite daughter (from a candidate with a clearly male name and look)

        or

        That I’m her favorite son (from a candidate with a clearly female name and look)

    3. Tinker

      Oh gods. Worst. Question. Ever.

      She’d say, in her words, “She insists on doing everything her own way”, which I would contend is more properly stated “They’re atypical in certain ways, and they have independent preferences and desires that they often endeavor to manifest.” Providing the context for this interpretation (and why it should be taken that way and not “They’re intransigent in a way that makes them a continual source of drama and impossible to work with”, regarding which there is substantial evidence against) would basically cause all parties involved to sink through the floor from humiliation and a hovering sense of impending legal doom, as I drag in three or four protected class statuses, a couple items that carry a stigma to discuss openly, most of the contents of Deborah Tannen’s You’re Wearing That?, a set of anecdotes that do not make sense without some reference to a matter that I consider somewhat private, and my personal political, social, and religious beliefs. And there are LOTS worse parental relationships out there.

      I gotta figure that this question comes from a profound and glorious ignorance regarding the ways in which relationships between parents and their adult children can be fraught.

  7. Apollo Warbucks

    Don’t answer the question it’s a trap, a very stupid and ridiculous one at that. There is no reason to phrase the question like that, I guess it’s a hamfisted way of testing your judgement or putting you on the spot to see what you might reveal that you otherwise might not.

    I remember one series of the apprentice in the UK where one of the candidates could do and awesome pterodactyl impressions (and did so regularly) he was asked do the impression in the interview round. When he did it the interviewer berated him for a lack of professionalism, and said he’d have had more respect for him if the request had been turned down as it wasn’t the time or the place to be messing around.

      1. AW

        Yep. That was a trap, there wasn’t a good way to respond to that request that couldn’t have been criticized.

        1. fposte

          I hate traps so much, first, because they suck, and second, because then they make so many people believe that what they’re experiencing might be a trap and it almost never is.

  8. jamlady

    I’ve had this happen very recently. It was a CEO who was the WORST interviewer in the world. He barked out orders, never asked questions, and gave me a “Tell me what you didn’t like about your last manager.” I replied that she was a great manager and I had nothing to give to that topic. He then said “I don’t believe that. There’s always something. Tell me what it was.” So I explained again that she was great and I had nothing negative to say about her skills as a manager. And he said “Well then tell me something negative about her as a person” (seriously). When I replied that such a thing wasn’t relevant and can we please move on, he finally moved on the next stupid topic. That’s the only time I’ve actually walked out of an interview. Every single part of that interview was horrendously offensive to at least one person (mostly me: “I don’t trust hiring military wives because I would never hire someone who puts their spouse before their work and puts them on a pedestal” – SERIOUSLY) and I just could not deal anymore. I think this question is highly inappropriate and has no place in an interview.

      1. jamlady

        I was even polite and professional about it (because, of course) but it took all of my energy to sit there as long as I did. I even had my would-be manager sitting in (who LOVED me) and he was SO rude to her and she just sat there and whimpered. I didn’t even know how to stick up for her because it kept catching me off guard. He was horribly verbally abusive and even had I been offered the job (and for some crazy reason, accepted it) she would have been hard to work for. She was totally beaten down. :(

        It was SUCH a great job, but it just cemented our decision to not settle in this area after he leaves the military within the year. This was by far the worst, but honestly, the better ones are still pretty bad.

    1. SystemsLady

      Oh, wow, is that military wives statement inappropriate. And potentially discriminatory (what about military husbands?). And inaccurate.

      For one, doesn’t everybody put their spouse before work to an extent? And isn’t a military spouse actually getting a job in the first place pretty contradictory to what he probably meant to imply?

      Props to you for walking out.

      I am one myself and absolutely none of what he said is true for me, so all the more infuriating – didn’t even consider him being in the military a factor in dating him, put my career before moving around absolutely every time he moved for work (we both did, for the record), etc. Yuck.

      1. jamlady

        This is pretty much what happens when I’ve tried to find work near my husband’s base. The only work available is about an hour and a half away and my address makes it obvious that I’m a military spouse. I never outright say it (plus I thiiiiiink I read somewhere it was illegal for them to ask, probably because of things like this). I’ve actually gone out of state for work more than he has with TDYs and deployments. It’s like me willing to leave him halfway across the country is the only way I can be taken seriously as an employee and not just a job-hopping military spouse (I should note, my main industry is not this way, but I often work in the tech industry for a job-related skill I have and it’s in this industry that I have issues).

  9. SWriter

    I agree that this is bad form and may be a trap.

    I used to work for an Elected Official and a lot of people ask me to “spill the T” about him.

    Even though there were many times when we didn’t get along and few times he threatened to fire me under arbitrary circumstances, I will NEVER say anything bad about him. There were days when I would come home crying and upset but I learned a LOT in that position. I usually just tell people (including my interviewer from my current job) that politics was not an ideal environment for my skillset and that I appreciate the Elected Official’s patience with me.

    A little bit of class goes a long way.

  10. A Jane

    Has AAM done an “Asked the Readers” for worst interview questions? My quick google search says no, but perhaps there was one in the Open Thread?

      1. Lizzie

        I got asked what kind of tree best represented my personality. Also, he started the interview by saying “Tell me about yourself,” which I took to mean, you know, tell me about yourself as a professional. I gave my little stump speech and he goes, “No! Tell me about YOURSELF.” I was like…um…I like Planet Money?

        The entire interview was random questions, wholly unconnected to the job itself, and yet somehow I managed to land a second interview…

          1. Lizzie

            I very nearly blurted out “I’m like a pine tree, because we both smell good,” which would have been a weird answer, but perhaps indicative of my ability to think quickly? In any case, I spent the next six months making mental notes of what trees there are. Still not sure I can answer the question, though.

        1. k

          I allow my staff one kooky question for their group interviews, approved. Lately it has been “what is your favorite dinosaur?” It’s fun, and is a nice way to show not tell what we are like.

          1. Lizzie

            See, that would have been okay! I can say what things I like, even if it’s not something I think about often. But “what [thing] best represents your personality” is, at least for me, a much more difficult question. I guess I tend to not think of myself as very interesting or possessed of particularly strong personality traits, though. At least, not traits shared by trees. What is the most organized tree?

          2. Jeanne

            Still not good. I got asked the question about what animal I’m most like and I just said I couldn’t think of one. I think those questions are ridiculous and not helpful to the interview process. I know the names of two dinosaurs and I don’t consider either a favorite. Would you say I can’t work with your company? Stick to skills and other job traits.

      2. SWriter

        I got asked about what I would do if aliens kidnapped me. I gave him an answer about taking over the ship and flying myself back to Earth because I know how to do it (my boyfriend got me into Kerbal space program and you have to use real science to get your ship to and from Earth).

        1. Guy Incognito

          A man went for a job interview at a blacksmiths, and the interviewer said to him do you have any experience shoeing horses, and the man said no, but once I told a donkey to clear off.

  11. E.R

    Likely already said above, but from my own experience i am confident that this question is a red flag for a potential employer and should set off the alarms!

    1. Jeanne

      To me, I would consider it an outlier. This is one interview with one manager. It’s unlikely to happen in other interviews with other managers.

  12. Parfait

    I had a manager who never washed her hands after using the toilet. I knew it was her, she wore very distinctive shoes.

  13. AdAgencyChick

    OP — I genuinely believe (or perhaps it’s just that I very much hope) that what happened was something like this:

    The interviewer asked the candidate why she wants to leave or has already left her most recent position. The candidate, either in a respectful or disrespectful way, indicated that issues with her manager were part of the reason. The interviewer asked the candidate to elaborate. The candidate reported this as “they wanted me to say something bad about my manager!”

    I hope that’s what happened and that you won’t be asked this question. If you are, I’m inclined to agree with all those who advised to say that you’re uncomfortable answering the question, you have too much respect for your former managers to badmouth them, etc.

    1. OP

      That is a really good point, I hadn’t thought of it in that way! Thanks :)
      Anyway, I didn’t end up being asked this question at the interview!

  14. rPM

    I’m with some of the other commenters in guessing that this might be a really unfortunate attempt at testing your judgment during the interview. It’s a terrible question but I suppose the hiring manager might think that the willingness of the candidate to start bashing their past manager would be revealing.

    I’d probably say something like, “I really don’t feel comfortable ‘saying something bad’. But I tend to work best with managers who are X. I’ve previously worked for managers who are more Y and I found it challenging because blah blah blah.” (Also, if my ex-manager was genuinely great, I’d throw that in and give praise where it’s due.)

    You might also reply to the interviewer with the question Alison posed to see if they’ll rethink or clarify what they’re asking, ex. “Do you mean, ‘Were there parts of her management style that didn’t work well for me?'” I could see a stubborn interviewer doubling down on “Just say something bad about her,” though, which puts you right back where you started.

  15. Another Salesperson

    “My boss thinks he is a Mayan shaman and told me that 1/4 of my baby was his.”

    But does that give the interviewer information about me personally or just that I desperately need a new job?

  16. LQ

    I’ll admit part of me would be really tempted to be factual and honest. (He stole approximately 100,000, a vehicle, computer equipment, and left the organization bankrupt.) But that’s just because it’s true and I’m still mad even years later.

    But I wouldn’t want to say anything about any of my other bosses and I don’t know that I’d want to work for someone who expected me to answer.

  17. CQ

    I would totally say something off-the-wall to try to make the interview laugh and to deflect the awkwardness of the question. Examples might include…

    “She was a Cowboys fan.”

    “I wasn’t crazy about his beard, to be honest.”

    “As if I could say something good about her!”

    “He almost never let me host wine tastings in the office.”

    “She ate chicken wings every day and got hot sauce EVERYWHERE.”

    “He was not fond of my habit of tweeting to Will Smith whenever he was in a meeting.”

    1. Amber Rose

      “He always wore socks with sandals.”

      “She would not stop screaming death metal songs.”

  18. Sandy

    I feel like this is one time my story about my former manager that used to throw office supplies would come in handy…

  19. Jessica

    I was asked this question! It threw me, because I, like everyone else, have been told to never badmouth a former employer. I answered by saying that I didn’t dislike my former boss personally (which was totally not true…he was a real jerk) but that he often would speak about future projects that I would be have which would never come to fruition. I just said it was frustrating because I looked forward to those projects.

    I didn’t get the job, so who knows if this had any affect. However, I did wonder for a while afterwards if that was a trap and that the only acceptable answer would have been, “I don’t dislike anything about them.” Which is disingenuous. I really didn’t see the point of the question at the time and I don’t see it now. My interviewer wasn’t that great. She spent the majority of the interview talking. I probably spoke for 20%.

  20. ivorygirl

    Okay, assuming the interview takes place in the U.S., this is an easy question to handle.

    Everywhere except the Boston area:
    Interviewer: “Say something bad about your former manager.”
    Interviewee: “Well, she’s mostly awesome, but…she’s a Patriots fan.”

    In the Boston area:
    Interviewer: “Say something bad about your former manager.”
    Interviewee: “Well, she’s mostly awesome, but she hates the Patriots. Especially Tom Brady. I think she roots for the Giants.”

    (Outside the U.S.? There’s a good chance that there is Some Other Sports Team that you can use instead…)

  21. living life my own way, own way

    The recent thread about the boss who didn’t send flowers to his direct report’s funeral got me thinking about how when bad things happen is sometimes when you find out who your real friends are. I ran across a Country song on the topic, that talks about being broken down in the middle of nowhere, and how some people will drop everything and come to assist.

    My boss plus a couple of my co-workers did exactly this for me, once upon a time, in the cold of winter.

    He’s my boss, so – maybe he’s not exactly my “friend”. But he’s absolutely a stand-up kind of guy. If some interviewer asked me to “say something bad about my boss” – I honestly don’t know what I’d say. But it would be such a HUGE red flag that I can’t see myself taking that job.

  22. Omne

    “Nothing comes to mind but I’ll certainly take notes about you in case the question should come up in a future interview.”

  23. Michele

    I have been asked this question in several interviews, and I always hated it. I am surprised that so many people doubt that is what was really asked. I have even been told to ask it when interviewing candidates. Because I hate the question, I modified it. I asked for an example of a conflict the person had with his boss and how it was resolved. It ended up being very informative, and not it the candidate’s favor. He re-enacted losing his temper and screaming at his boss over a correction. Since then, I always ask the conflict resolution question.

    1. Observer

      That’s a VERY different question though, and one that can generally answered even by someone who has a boss he considers to be great.

      Re-enacting a temper tantrum at work? Wow! That does WELL beyond being negative about a former boss.

  24. Shannon Terry

    Oh goodness! Like AAM (and the OP I’m sure) I am frustrated by this ridiculous question. I have not read the 129 comments prior to this one, I’m sure there is great advice here already in addition to AAM’s answer.

    In brief, I’d counsel my interview practice clients, (though I never have had to do so, because who asks this sort of question??), to simply flip the answer somehow, for you to stay professional and courteous, hold your ground.

    I like AAM’s suggestion to pretend they asked what sort of management style works well for you.

    Especially if it’s true, I’d probably say you could also just say that you really like your employer, (and maybe even list a few quick reasons, being mindful that if those reasons are really different than what this employer is like, that could be detrimental, maybe …), it’s just that you are interested in a different type of challenge (or whatever your reason is for looking for a new job.)

    You could go sorta neutral, like, “Well, in any business, there are always going to be things anyone would do differently, so nothing bad per se, but I might try a new tactic with XYZ (this COULD demonstrate your creativity, problem solving, business strategy skills, etc. & might be an opportunity to impress this interviewer (this all depends on your experience, role, etc.) … if you want to (see below) … but could also be a bit dangerous & open up to more “what are THEY doing “wrong” type questions, or you being seen as a “know it all”, which could just prolong a tricky, uncomfortable situation….

    This sort of question is also one reason to do some concrete interview prep & practice – so that the one curve ball you are thrown is unlikely to lose the whole game!

    That said — remember that you are interviewing the company & your potential boss/es, too …. if this sort of question was one of several of it’s kind, I’d say it may be that you need to consider that interview a practice session, and keep looking elsewhere for a different company & culture! The interview experience is usually indicative in many ways of what it will be like to actually work there (though if it’s one odd ball question out of an otherwise good experience, we may want to allow the interviewer the same mistake allowance as we hope they’ll give us if we flub up a tad!)

  25. D

    I bombed a recent internal interview because of this question. The interview was for a fill-in manager project for a large company. They wanted a specific example of something a manager I’ve had in the company has done well and what manger has done poorly that I didn’t like. They claimed my answer would not leave the room and I didn’t have to refer either example by name but lets face nothing as anonymous. I have only had 4 managers with my company 2 men and 2 women it would be easy to figure out who I was talking about. I have no issue telling positive things about my managers, but it goes against everything I know to answer the negative especially because it was an internal interview.
    I gave a generalization for both because I would not give a specific example for the negative. During the interview the main interviewer actually turned my questionnaire over and wrote something on the back. I knew at that point I was out of the running. I talked to the other applicants and none of them balked at the question.

  26. RB2

    The interviewer is not looking for an actual answer to the question. They are simply looking to see how you handle the question.

  27. bunnyrut

    the question isn’t “say something bad about a manager”
    it’s a 2 part question. tell me about a good experience with a manager, and tell me about a bad experience with a manager.
    you should be responding with an example to both (if you have one), how you overcame it, and what you would do in the future.
    the interviewer either worded the question wrong or misunderstood the question entirely. the interviewee could have misinterpreted the question as well.

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