are my examples in interviews too negative?

A reader writes:

Inspired by you and the commenters here at AAM, my top goal for 2017 is to launch a new career in a new industry. I’m putting together answers for potential interview questions (of the classic “tell me about a time when…” format) and I keep running into an issue: the place I’ve spent the last decade working my way up the ladder is incredibly toxic and dysfunctional.

Toxic dysfunction is really common for our industry — one of the reasons I’m getting out — but as I’m putting together some broadly applicable sample responses, I’m beginning to worry that my best examples of dealing with challenging situations, difficult people, and completely irrational goalpost moving are too negative.

For example, last year I had a difficult new employee whose attitude and behavior took a nosedive at the three-month mark. I’m an experienced manager who has been able to correct issues like this in the past, so I started working with her to fix these problems and began documenting everything in case we had to let her go. By the six-month mark, she’d only gotten immeasurably worse, and I started taking steps to fire her. At which point my boss (who had already been one of the worst managers I’d ever worked under) began attacking me publicly, sabotaging my projects, writing me up in my performance appraisal for things that had never happened, and lots of other fun and games. It turned out, of course, that he and my employee were sleeping together, and every time I cracked down on her for doing things that were potentially illegal and definitely harmful to the business, he would retaliate. Firing her was off the table, and she acted like a screaming, name-calling, spoiled child on a daily basis.

So I did the only thing I could do: I helped her rewrite her resume, coached her through the interview process, and pushed her into a new job outside of our company. Then I marched down to HR, gave them my file on her, and made sure that she’d never be able to weasel her way back in.

A lot of my examples from this place are like this. When I’ve interviewed in my industry in the past, people nod and then tell me their own horror stories. But I’m worried that when I start trotting out these kinds of stories to sane people, it’s going to sound like I’m unbalanced and send up a bunch of red flags. I can tone them down, but there’s a definite pattern. I’ve taken classes for and had coffee with people from the industry I’d like to move into, and when we really start trading war stories they look at me like I’ve got two heads. I think my experience at my current company have given me valuable skills in managing a variety of crises, but how do I toe the line between honesty and scaring off potential employers?

Ooooh, great question. I think you’re right to worry that examples like this are too extreme.

When you use drama-filled examples in interviews, the focus becomes the drama more than your skills. Even if you’re able to position yourself as the sane person who maintained a level head in the midst of toxicity, the drama tends to overshadow everything else. You want the focus to be on you and your skills — but most people hearing stories like the one here won’t be able to help focusing primarily on the outrageousness you’re describing.

There’s also a point where an interviewer will wonder what kind of experience you really got at a company that’s so dysfunctional, and whether it’s applicable to their own environment.

I do think a single outrageous story can work when (a) it’s just one, not a bunch of them and (b) it’s not about your immediate work environment, but rather about dealing with, for example, an especially difficult client.

But otherwise the problems above kick in and your interviewer’s takeaway is too likely to be “Wow! What a clusterfudge.” And while she won’t be thinking that about you exactly, that’s not the overall feeling you want an interviewer to be left with.

So. Do you really not have any tamer examples from your most recent job that you could use? Presumably not every occurrence in that job was infused with the kind of extreme dysfunction you’ve described here, right? The more ridiculous ones are more easily remembered, of course, but I bet that if you dig deeper, you’ll find more mundane examples that you can use in interviews.

{ 157 comments… read them below }

    1. MoinMoin*

      I know we aren’t supposed to speculate but I was also curious, mostly because I think a lot of readers from totally different industries probably read that and thought, “Oh, must be in ‘whatever’, like me.” I know I did.

    2. Colorado*

      That was exactly my first thought and the second one is wow, I want to hear more of these stories just for shits and giggles!

      1. Captain Radish*

        AMUSE US OP!

        Seriously, though, I can imagine that there are many good stories that the OP can share. We aren’t (probably) hiring, but we would LOVE to listen!

      2. Kyrielle*

        Yeah, I would not trot out the more extreme stories in interviews.

        But, OP, if you want to share them here – I would be thrilled.

        Um…so we can help you find non-shocking ways to describe the same thing. Really.

        Or, just because it’s fun to hear that sort of thing. (And, in general, a story that makes people react that way probably needs to be skipped or toned down in an interview, but they sure are fun to listen to in other contexts.)

        1. Important Moi*

          You offer this a joke, but it’s an issue for me as well. You can learn from a “bad” situation, but you don’t want to appear so toxic.

          1. Michele*

            Yep. When you tell stories about bad things that happen at work, explain how much you learned. Also, don’t set it up as “I was right and someone else (especially my boss) was wrong.”

    3. jaxon*

      I have worked in the past in Academia. Often I would hear stories like this — JUST like this – and if the storyteller didn’t volunteer the info, I could safely assume they were always talking about the philosophy department.

  1. azvlr*

    Perhaps you can reframe the story so that it highlights your skills instead of the events that led up to what you did:
    “I managed an employee who was not a good fit for the company. After several other interventions (name them here), and because firing her outright was not in my control, I helped her revamp her resume and was able to help her get a new role in a different company.”

    1. Kai*

      I was going to say something similar. OP, if it’s possible, you can try to tell some of these crazier stories but leave out the worst of the drama and focus on how YOU responded to the situation. You may not necessarily have to tell your interviewer some of the messier parts if the story still makes sense without them.

      1. RVA Cat*

        This. You could even say the employee was being protected by favoritism/nepotism, which people will assume means they were somebody’s slacker niece or something, not the boss’s mistress. Once you introduce sex into the story nobody can focus on anything else. ;)

      2. vanBOOM*

        I think azvlr’s and Kai’s comments are spot-on here, OP. Play up and emphasize your skills, your performance, etc., and only offer minimally acceptable details on what co-workers did, drama, etc. Just enough for hiring managers to understand what the basic problem was, and nothing more. The focus should be on your positive characteristics and what you can contribute, not the drama.

        I sympathize with your plight, OP. If your example here was just the tip of the iceberg, I can see how it would be really difficult to sanitize your experiences (to say nothing of figuring out how to leave it all behind you).

        Now I kind of want to start a game here where we pick the most insane stories featured on AAM and post practice “tell me a about a time when….” answers on how those should have been handled, haha. Like, instead of going into the details of The Duck Club, you simply describe co-workers’ “inappropriate sexual relations at work” or whatever and how you handled it, haha.

      3. Working Mom*

        Yes, I was coming here to say the same thing. Use those crazy examples, but streamline and leave out the crazy details. That way you still showcase your skills but leave out the drama. However – be prepared for those follow up questions and how you might sidestep them to avoid sharing the drama. For example, interviewer could ask, “Why was firing the employee not under your control?” As long as you’re ready to give a simplified version of that answer, I think this approach could work.

    2. Charlie*

      I’d argue that not only should OP frame it this way, this is the only way to do so – even less toxic stories. I’m not immune to a hilarious story, but this one is in a class of its own. I don’t mean to cast any doubt on the veracity of OP’s story – because why would they exaggerate in this context – but this is so far out of the ordinary I’d worry that an interviewer would think I was a tall-tale teller or overly dramatic.

      1. OP*

        …”this is so far out of the ordinary I’d worry that an interview would think I was a tall-tale teller or overly dramatic.”

        This is an excellent point, and one I hadn’t considered. Thank you!

        I took an elective on playwriting in college, and the professor said something really valuable: “It doesn’t matter if it’s true. It doesn’t matter if it really happened. Sometimes the truth is so strange you have to either tone it down or outright lie to get them to believe you.” I feel like I’ve been working in Wonderland or Oz, and so much of my experiences at my current job need to be re-calibrated for my move to Kansas.

        1. jamlady*

          OP: I do what azvlr suggested above when I need a break from my industry and take contracts elsewhere (I have a skillset that’s valuable in my industry but I can use it and work in several industries if I choose to). Industry A is insane, industry B is not so much. I noticed that once I stopped going into details and kept things vague, interviewers were much more receptive.

          “Manager called supervisor while she was using MFLA and spending time with her dying mother to scream about her not having enough PTO, I intervened and reminded manager I was in charge while supervisor was out and that she was breaking all of kinds of policy and to chill the heck out”


          “Supervisor appointed me interim lead during a personal family crisis, during which time I accomplish x, y, z and maintained a strong level of communication with manager, who was new to the role and needed guidance on company policy for the current situation”

          Or something. Haha

        2. Not So NewReader*

          I suppose that some folks would think this stuff was lies/tall tales. But I have worked in companies where talking about a good company/workplace was perceived as a myth/lie. I guess it can go either way.

          I totally get the re-calibrating stuff and Alison is right on point when she says don’t stay at a toxic place too long because you forget what normal is. Like we see here, we also don’t have any normal stories to tell either.

          I am still working on developing a watered-down version of some of my stories. But you know what, OP, I don’t think we ever truly escape it. Once I started working at a normal place, I kind of didn’t fit in because if something went wrong I would just figure out what to do. I am used to figuring out some weird stuff and it shows from time to time.

          Personally, I think us humans have a tendency to go for the biggest/worst example we can think of. You might find that your solution is to pick one of the tamer stories and tell that story. I noticed you said that you had worked through problems with employees before and you were good at it. Stop there. No need to keep going. Give examples of your success stories. One thing I had to do was train my brain not to search for the worst story out of the group of similar stories.

          Think about this: The questions are framed as “tell me about a time when….”. The questions is NOT “Give me the worst example you can think of when….” I have to say this hurt my brain. It’s hard to cut through the bad stories and find simpler examples of success. Practice at home. Not joking.

          I ended up chuckling because I realized, “I am not meeting my Maker and doing a life review.” We just don’t have to be that candid. The new boss does not care that we helped the old boss with that car bomb.
          And the truth is, it’s not relevant to the new job. Keep envisioning what the new place is like and give examples that sound like something that might come up in the new place.

          1. BeenThere*

            ” Once I started working at a normal place, I kind of didn’t fit in because if something went wrong I would just figure out what to do. I am used to figuring out some weird stuff and it shows from time to time. ”

            This is me, all most recent managers find me easy to manage and things just get done when handed to me so on the surface it’s great they don’t realize how much thinking I have to do to act normal. What I’ve done with my current manager is share my horror stories to explain my thinking and why I ask about how certain things are done or how they should be approached. As in the past I’ve stepped on people toes and gotten on the wrong side of people just by doing things they way they used to be done in former toxic workplace.

    3. Just Me and My $0.02*

      I was coming in to say something similar about demonstrating your role in achieving a success outcome. Give enough detail that the challenge of the situation isn’t understated, but not so much that people are surprised with what you had to deal with. You’re trying to convey your ability to help them achieve organizational goals, not show them how well you dealt with dysfunction.

    4. Imaginary Number*

      I agree. You should also be able to say something you gained from the experience. I had a negative example that involved an employee who who was stealing funds. It wasn’t a situation where I was necessarily in a position where I should/could have caught him earlier, but I was able to talk about the red flags I learned about because of it. I also talked about rebuilding trust in my group (when this was a fairly senior guy who had used other (unwitting) employees in order to perpetuate his fraud.)

      In this case, you can easily phrase it in terms of what you learned. That it’s harder to deal with someone when they feel like you’re the enemy, but a lot easier when the problem employee feels like you’re on their side. In this case, you were still trying to force her out, but you did it in such a way that she felt like you were on her side (helping her get a job that was a better fit.) I wouldn’t bring up your boss’s involvement at all, other than maybe to say that you weren’t getting a lot of upper support in removing this person and so had to figure it out on your own.

    5. MillersSpring*

      Agreed. Relate the circumstances far less dramatically. Keep your body language and facial expressions even and poised. Instead of, “It turned out, of course, that he and my employee were sleeping together…” try “I learned that they were having an intimate relationship.” And instead of “fun and games” describe them as “other issues.” Instead of “weasel her way back in” describe it as “ineligible for rehire.” etc.

      Also, I think you need to give yourself more credit about coaching the employee and helping her with her resume! Another manager might have referred the entire scenario to human resources, so getting the employee to leave on her own shows creative problem solving and team management.

      1. Fortitude Jones*

        Instead of, “It turned out, of course, that he and my employee were sleeping together…” try “I learned that they were having an intimate relationship.”

        I’d argue this doesn’t need to be said at all. It’s gossipy and goes back to the negative vibe OP said she was trying to avoid.

    6. Ama*

      Yeah, when I was trying to get out of a dysfunctional, toxic environment I would talk about the time I took over management of an in house magazine with two weeks to print deadline and, with all the original design files unavailable, rebuilt the source file from scratch, learning the software on the fly.

      I didn’t mention that the situation came about because my boss quit with no notice when our budget was about to be audited because we were extremely over budget, and that we had no files because one of the reasons we were over budget was that she’d hired an outside vendor to produce the magazine and then claiming she’d done it herself (and made sure to keep all her dealings with the vendor on her personal computer and email so we couldn’t find their contact info).

      1. Captain Radish*

        Uff. That’s a good one.

        My best is when I had to pull a CCTV system out of my ass using junk parts sitting around the warehouse because my boss blew all the money dedicated to the job on an expensive wireless system that didn’t work and couldn’t be RMA’d.

    7. Bonky*

      That’s great – gets to the heart of things but without the drama.

      It took me a while to figure it out, but after I’d been hiring for a while I realised that (at least in my business’s environment) screening out people who enjoy/create drama is one of my top priorities if we’re to keep everything on the rails. Somewhat ironically, given the problems OP had with the person they’re writing about, it’s about fit. Someone who answered a question with what azvlr just wrote would tick my boxes. The OP’s approach to the same question, even though it’s essentially the same response, just with extra lashings of drama, would not.

      1. TootsNYC*

        “screening out people who enjoy/create drama is one of my top priorities”

        Yes! And so someone who tells too much detail about the drama is someone who definitely dwells on the drama. Maybe they didn’t create it, and don’t enjoy it, but they -dwell- on it. And I want people who know how to tone down drama.

        So, tone down the drama in the interview.

    8. OP*

      @azvlr, thank you to you and to everyone in this thread for the excellent examples of the pivot and reframe. I’m copying everything you and everyone else has said here to my interview prep file!

      1. ArtsNerd*

        It’s definitely tricky to give an objective version of the soap opera when you’re living it! Practice practice practice your stories with people outside your industry.

        Now I’ve got “I managed the teapot design, manufacturing, and marketing during a difficult leadership transition, so as you can imagine, it was a bit of just pushing through instead of getting anything absolutely perfect.”

        As opposed to “my boss disappeared for days or months at a time [and also he sent at least one work email from a pornographic account name, which i googled because i believed him for a split-second that he got a virus or something, which is how i found his pornographic twitter account] and upper management wasn’t interested in providing us with any support, nor in moving the hiring process forward for the three open positions we had and oh my god please please rescue me *tears*”

    9. Fortitude Jones*

      Yup, that’s a pretty good compromise. OP will be telling the truth, but just leaving out the more salacious details.

    10. MW*

      I think this is the way to go- the OP’s actions sound very reasonable, the WTF-factor is the manager sleeping with the hire and retaliating. When you omit this element, you’re left with a rational anecdote. When that element is included, it overshadows everything else.

      That said, OP should prepare to be pushed with questions like “Why couldn’t you fire that employee?” I’d go with something along the lines of “Company politics; even though I had well documented proof that they weren’t performing in their role, they had an in higher up in the company and that tied my hands.”

      Hmmm. I guess if I were interviewing you, I’d ask why you didn’t go over the head of whoever was protecting this employee?

  2. Paloma Pigeon*

    Can you come up with positive patterns as indications of how you would solve problems? For example, instead of one or two stories, you could say: “I think I core competency I have learned over my time at X company is to arrive at positive solutions to potentially corrosive situations. I have coached/learned/mentored employees to find stronger paths strengthening our department/learning a new skill to add to my skill set/etc.” So your pattern of behavior is ‘finding solutions’ vs. the toxic details of a particular story. I bet if you figure out the what of how you handled every drama filled crisis, you can come up with one or two positive patterns to illustrate in interviews. Make sense?

    1. The JMP*

      I think the OP still needs specific examples, though, if the question requests one. If I were conducting an interview and I asked “tell me about a time when…” and the response discussed a pattern of behavior, my next question would be asking for a specific example. And I might start to wonder why the person hadn’t directly answered the question the first time.

      1. Jadelyn*

        +1 Same here. If I ask for an example, and you answer with a broad pattern, I’m going to feel like you’re dodging the question, and then I’m going to start wondering why you would dodge that question and what it says about your actual experience.

    2. I used to be Murphy*

      As others have said, as an interviewer this type of answer is a red flag for me. I don’t want you to tell me about how you would act, I want you to tell me how you did act in a specific circumstance. Otherwise it’s too hypothetical and I think you don’t actually have this skill.

      1. Zombii*


        The advice I was given, way way back in the beforetime when I first started interviewing for jobs, is that the only time a hypothetical is acceptable is if you truly don’t have an example—and if you have to pull out a hypothetical more than once, you are likely not at all qualified for the job for which you are interviewing.

        Which is not to say you won’t get the job; I have been hired after an interview full of hypothetical answers, but that job did not work out.

    3. BethRA*

      +1 for specific examples, and I think OP is already has specific examples of the problem-solving – she says “I’m an experienced manager who has been able to correct issues like this in the past..” but when unable to fire someone, came up with a very creative, positive solution. If you leave out the drama, those are great concrete examples.

  3. WhiteBear*

    You can if you want make a positive twist out of the horror story you told us. If you’re asked something about managing others or helping the people who report to you grow in their fields or job satisfaction you could say, “I helped one young woman who reported to me by reworking her resume and providing interview advice so that she was able to land a new job that has allowed her continued growth in her field.”

    There we go. I feel like I just took your horror story and dumped a bucket of bleach on it… sanitizing it to oblivion.

    1. fposte*

      Yup. I was thinking “Squeeze the juice out of it”–same theory. If I were the OP, that would mean “rewriting” from scratch, because I would have had way too much practice at telling the full anecdote and I’d need to make sure I didn’t lapse into the more colorful account.

      1. OP*

        You make a great point, fposte! I have told the colorful version of this story enough times that it’s the one that’s burned into my memory. I’m going to have to practice telling the “freshly squeezed” version.

    2. Bwmn*

      Completely agree. In one fairly toxic environment, we had signed a few grant agreements for projects that no matter how much we were assured would 100% totally definitely happen – they 100% totally definitely did not happen. And from the inside, those activities did not happen in a fairly absurd, aggressive, overly dramatic and flagrant way.

      But in interviews, that story becomes showing a familiarity with the grant process and an understanding that organizations implementing new activities have face more hurdles in their implementation and therefore the grant/contract/relationship can be managed to be supportive and flexible of potential hiccups in meeting deadlines.

      I know that while you’re in the situation, the drama may seem to overwhelm the larger experience – but even in the most dysfunctional of environments, there often is a way to sanitize it. Lots of grants funded projects don’t meet all objectives in the time frame and lots of employees don’t work out in situations where managers aren’t in a position to terminate them. But it truly is possible to remove the drama is you just take the moment to take a step back and think how you’d explain the situation in 2-4 sentences.

  4. an anon is an anon*

    I’ve been wondering something similar since my top 2017 goal is the same. Except, my issue is more why I’m looking for a new job. My go-to is that the company is doing layoffs, that I’ve been promised a promotion over a year ago and then there was a hiring freeze, and that I learned everything I could for my role and need a new challenge. But all of those sounds negative to me and things that aren’t what a hiring manager wants to hear.

    And now, actually regarding your question…I work in a dysfunctional industry and Alison’s advice is spot-on. I limit it to one outrageous story about a client and keep my other examples minimal and less outrageous. Or I’m vague about it, like, “There’s a lot of miscommunication in my department, so when I send out project emails, I make a point of being concise and listing all relevant points so everyone is on the same page from the beginning.”

    1. ButFirstCoffee*

      Can’t you focus on the positives of what you hope to find in a new job instead of why you’re leaving your old one? “I’m looking to work on more of _”, etc. Good luck with your job search. :)

    2. SometimesALurker*

      Just my two cents (not a manager myself), but I think that the bit about learning everything you could for your role and needing a new challenge is great! I have said something similar in at least one interview, and I remember the interviewer looking pleased. I got that job, although that certainly wasn’t the only reason (and that particular job ended up not being a good fit!).

      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        Agreed! I think the difficult part of being in a toxic job is that sometimes all you can see is the toxicity because it’s a massive energy drain. But aside from the general awfulness, the underlying issue is that that toxicity is a barrier to your achievement or to your ability to get things done. So instead of focusing on the toxic drama, focus on the things you want to get done but haven’t been able to do. This also keeps you from badmouthing your employer and refocuses on future opportunity.

        When I left a toxic job, I focused on all the positives of the new position in my interviews. For example, getting to work individually but with team check-ins and one-on-ones with my supervisor, getting to do a lot of X kind of writing instead of Y, wanting to understand the process of X industry better, wanting to grow my experiences/skills (generally) in a new context/capacity, looking for opportunities where there was room for advancement/growth.

        Basically, don’t ignore the bad things, but try to figure out what positive things they encourage you to seek. So I didn’t say, “It frequently takes my supervisor 6-7 months with consistent reminders to return work product that was due to the client within 2 weeks.” I said, “I’m looking for a more fast-paced environment where feedback is built into the process.” I bet if you go through your list, again, you’ll be able to “translate” each bad experience into a good quality/experience you’re looking for at new employer.

        1. azvlr*

          “Basically, don’t ignore the bad things, but try to figure out what positive things they encourage you to seek”

          What an amazing piece of insight! Thank you, Your Highness!

        2. OP*

          “Agreed! I think the difficult part of being in a toxic job is that sometimes all you can see is the toxicity because it’s a massive energy drain. But aside from the general awfulness, the underlying issue is that that toxicity is a barrier to your achievement or to your ability to get things done. So instead of focusing on the toxic drama, focus on the things you want to get done but haven’t been able to do. This also keeps you from badmouthing your employer and refocuses on future opportunity.”

          This is a great piece of insight. I might get this tattooed somewhere. And I’m definitely adding it to the file.

          1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

            I’m so glad it was helpful! I think you’ve got this OP—you sound super capable and deft, and now it’s just a matter of communicating those skills to employers. Good luck!

      2. an anon is an anon*

        My problem with the line is that I’ve been told it tells hiring managers that I’ll become bored easily. Which I do, because I learn quickly and then when there’s nothing else for me to learn, I get unhappy being stuck in the tedium of the same thing day after day. I don’t mention the latter part, but it is why I’ve stayed away from saying I need a new challenge.

        1. TootsNYC*

          Sometimes it’s how you say it: “ready for a new challenge” or “ready for the next step” or “ready for growth.”

          And some of it depends on the level fo the job and how long you’ve been there. Less than a year at an entry-level job? You’ll sound flighty.
          More than a year and a half at a clearly entry-level job? You’ll seem ambitious.

          Ratchet up from there. The higher the level, the more time you need to spend.

          Or you say, not that you’ve learned ALL you can at that job, but that you’ve realized you want to have more XYZ in the mix of what you do, that LMN is an area you want to learn more of, and there’s not as much opportunity where you are.

          Or, “I’m ready to have a bigger voice in what we do, so I’m ready for the next level.”

    3. Kate*

      when I was leaving a toxic environment, I went with a true story that wouldn’t be true at 99% of the places I was looking. Specifically “turnover here was so high because of that I found most of my time was spent re-training staff and not improving the program. I’d like to be somewhere I can really dig my teeth in and help make lasting improvements”.

      Maybe you could say something like “I’ve spent becoming the best I can be in this role, but to grow I need to try apply those skills in a new environment with different challenges”.

      1. Kate*

        right, angle brackets don’t work in html environments… whoops. that should be:

        turnover here was so high because of (valid reasons) that I found most of my time was spent re-training staff


        I’ve spent (x years) becoming the best I can be in this role

    4. TootsNYC*

      “My go-to is that the company is doing layoffs, that I’ve been promised a promotion over a year ago and then there was a hiring freeze, and that I learned everything I could for my role and need a new challenge.”

      The bolded is the only one you shouldn’t say. It sounds like sour grapes, and it might make me wonder why they aren’t promoting you, that maybe there’s another side to the story.

      The layoffs and hiring freeze are both indicators that the company is shrinking, and I would never think ill of someone who wanted to leave that. Instead, I’d think, “ooh, good at reading tea leaves!”

      Having learned everything you can and wanting a new challenge, that’s the most positive reason to look for a new job ever.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Agreed that you should leave the bolded part out. Layoffs are enough of a reason.

        Agree that wanting a new challenge is a good reason if you’ve been there for at least several years. If you say it after one year, it’s not so great.

      2. an anon is an anon*

        Yeah, I refrain from saying no promotion, but the reasoning behind that really is because they’ve had a hiring/promotion/internal transfer freeze for over a year (which sucks for a lot of reasons).

        Each time I’ve job searched it’s been at least 3 years at the company, but maybe I’ve just had bad interviewers telling me wanting a new challenge is a bad thing to say.

        Thanks for your advice, I’ll keep it in mind during my next interview.

        1. A Plain-Dealing Villain*

          My company has an internal hiring freeze in place and I’m looking at opportunities for advancement is a pretty good reason to give if you are interviewing somewhere that has a clear path for growth.

        2. TootsNYC*

          I think you can say, “The hiring freeze and layoffs mean that not only is there some instability, but any upwards paths are frozen–I am ready for greater authority and a step upward, but the company isn’t able to do that.”

      3. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

        The other reason you wouldn’t mention the “bold” – at least in my field – a potential employer may feel that their offer will be used as a bargaining chip for a counter-offer.

        Counter-offers do happen — and, contrary to headhunters’ advice, SOMETIMES a counter works for the good of all…. and sometimes politics, or policy dictate that it’s the only way promotions will happen. I worked at a company once where counter-offers were the ONLY means to advancement.

        But you don’t want to be looking and telling prospective new employers this – intentionally or otherwise.

  5. Jesmlet*

    If your interviewer doesn’t relate to the issue, you’re going to have trouble convincing them that your intervention was the correct one. If all you have are these extreme examples, try simplifying them and presenting the craziness as generally as possible. Otherwise, the focus will be off of you and onto them wondering whether or not to believe your assessment of the situation.

    1. OP*

      If your interviewer doesn’t relate to the issue, you’re going to have trouble convincing them that your intervention was the correct one.

      I hadn’t actually considered it that way. This is really, really helpful, and something I wouldn’t have thought of on my own. Thank you!

    2. TootsNYC*

      This “the focus will be off you” is another HUGE part of why you want to dial down the drama.

      Once when I was interviewing lots of people, I realized that i had short little taglines for everybody: “The guy from the newspaper” or “the woman with SoftwareX experience.” Even “the guy with the small ears” (Hi, Michael Trotman!)

      You don’t want to be “the person with the outrageously dramatic stories!”
      You want to be “the person with X skills” or something else.

      Plus, you have only a few minutes in that interview. You don’t want those to be sucked up by the drama; you want to be able to use that to make a case –for you–.

  6. Katie the Fed*

    I think the example might be ok if you gloss over some of the details. I think the part about holding a non-performing employee accountable is good, and you could add something like “due to political factors beyond my control it became apparent that senior leadership wouldn’t support this employee’s dismissal, so I worked with her on a transition plan to a more suitable transition.”

    In other words – leave out the play-by-play and hit the highlights.

    1. Jubilance*

      Yup, I was thinking the same thing. The OP should focus on the highlights of the story and what they specifically did/accomplished, instead of divulging all the details of the drama.

  7. Kira*

    I just went through a similar experience. I had left a chaotic, drama filled workplace and was used to telling “war stories” whenever I talked about it. In order to tone it down for interviews, I had to stop thinking about the most extreme version of the question and pick a more mundane version.

    Still, in every answer I gave in the back of my mind I was thinking about how bad managers made the situation worse. But I avoided throwing them under the bus when describing the difficulties.

    You write “I’m an experienced manager who has been able to correct issues like this in the past…” and I think Alison’s spot-on that you probably have more approachable stories in your past you can point to. Possibly even taking a dramatic story and just leaving out a lot of the details. It’s just hard to switch from the mindset of “And on top of that, you won’t believe what my boss did!” to leaving out the information that made the situation so stressful.

    1. OP*

      I really appreciate hearing from someone who has wrangled with this problem and made it through to the other side! And on top of that, you won’t believe what my boss did!” is EXACTLY where I am right now, and your comment makes me realize it’s possible to do that.

      Did you do anything in particular in your prep to get you into this mindset? I seriously am taking notes in a Word doc about this whole thread, and I’d love to add any tips you can offer to my file.

  8. Kate*

    I worked in a position where we were constantly under pressure because the higher ups didn’t tell us their plans until the last second, causing everything to be an urgent mess that wasn’t dealt with in the most optimum way and didn’t set up for the same thing happening next month/quarter/year. So me and some others lower down the food chain decided that we needed to track these fire-drills and put them on a tickler system and when something happened more than three times we’d implement an official “process” for that item.

    Spinning that in an interview, instead of focusing on the problems with management and how that had led to yet another explosion in the teapot factory, my story was that “a small team proactively identified recurring issues and implemented a process to make these always-occurring-exceptions a normal function assigned to a team member. I have found that it’s best to have a short, medium and long range plan so that you’re sure you’re headed in the direction you want to go instead of just spending time and energy running in the direction of the next fire to be put out.” If I had to identify the recurring issues, I could name one or two (teapot needed purple glaze, we were only set up for red and blue), but kept the focus on the technical (not the personality) problem and the solution that helped me shine.

    But am I ever glad to be out of that exploding teapot factory!

  9. Delta Delta*

    This could not be more timely for me. I left a complicated (not quite toxic, but getting there) job with no new job lined up and am currently looking for a new job. I planned this for a long time and have been practicing how to say that I left because of X legitimate reason without going to the dark place of all the terrible reasons. It seems like 1 example of, “this was bad and this is how I dealt with it” could have a good impact without seeming like drama or, possibly worse, like being someone who can’t deal with other people or with management.

    Yay for all of us moving on to bigger and better things for 2017!

  10. Interviewer*

    I’d come up with a more positive example for coaching & mentoring, like someone you actually turned into a good performer. If you sanitized the story as described above, it would leave me thinking less of “she needed to go” and more of “why didn’t your coaching & mentoring work?”

    Sanitized for an interviewer’s ears, this one might be a good example of a problem with no obvious solution. “There was a poor performer that I spent 3 months coaching and mentoring, all to no avail. It turns out she was dating a member of upper management, and felt protected despite her poor performance. So I worked with her to improve her resume and got her a new job at another firm. I hear she’s doing very well now.”

    OP, I’m really curious – how did the conversation go, where you convinced her she needed a new job? Asking for a friend.

    1. OP*

      I really like your reframe on this particular situation, because “a problem with no obvious solution” is a great way to think about this.

      To answer your question, I was kind of lucky. I mentor a lot of people both formally and informally so I’ve got a reputation for it. I’d already been working directly and deeply with her on professional development, so when I came to the realization that if firing her wasn’t an option and I wanted her away from my team and company she’d have to leave voluntarily, we already had a framework in place for that kind of a discussion. I phrased it as “You don’t seem happy doing this kind of work. We’ve been trying to do skill building, but how about we switch to strengths-finding and really drill down to figure out precisely what it is you want to do?”

      One of my core philosophies as a manager is that in today’s day and age pretty much no one wants to work in the same job forever. I strongly emphasize professional development with my employees, and I structure a lot of that around helping people both develop in their current role AND figure out what their next step is going to be, because people focused on the way excelling in the short-term will positively influence the outcomes of their long-term goals are, in my experience, happier and more effective.

      A lot of the other managers in my company think I’m nuts for encouraging people to leave if it’s what is best for them, but I’ve got one of the highest performing teams in our organization, THE happiest team per our recent company morale survey, and as I recently learned it gives you additional options for dealing with troubled employees if firing it’s possible.

      1. Tinker*

        It seems to me that the answer here also constitutes a really great answer to the interview question — like, the sanitized version of why the employee was not performing in their current role, and then moving on to that. That you’re known as a mentor and already focused on professional development, that you refocused the conversation on the bigger picture, and how this led to a good result both in this individual case and systematically for your teams as a whole. To a degree even the “it wasn’t organizationally feasible to fire them” doesn’t need that much attention, and the precise reason why can just be omitted.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          I was thinking in a similar vein, OP, this paragraph right here is perfect for interviewing. The listener learns something about you and what makes you tick. Good stuff.

      2. Marillenbaum*

        Heck, I think I’d want to work for you–I really respect your approach to management.

      3. A Plain-Dealing Villain*

        Wow. Really good stuff here OP. I think you found you interview question answer. Focus on the mentoring aspect. Also, I hope that part about having the highest performing team and happiest team according to the morale survey is on your accomplishment-based resume. You’ll have a new job in no time, I’m sure

  11. SignalLost*

    I’m curious to know what question that example is supposed to answer. I assume it’s something like “a time when you managed a poor performer”, but ending with the “and then I went to HR and made sure she would never ever work here again so neener neener!” overshadows the actual accomplishment of coaching someone out of the company when you had no other choice. And yeah, I would be beyond horrified to hear that story – it’s not aimed at showcasing you but the situation, which disempowers your response.

    1. OP*

      I was thinking of it more as a “tell me about a time you managed a difficult employee or situation” kind of response, but you’re right. It’s just not a good example.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        The question is not, “tell me about a time when you managed the MOST difficult employee or MOST difficult situation.” That is not the question. Oh boy, did I have a tough time stepping back from that one.

      2. SignalLost*

        I actually stepped in that one once, in an interview – someone asked me a question that I interpreted as “tell us about a time when your company required you to engage in illegal activity” and boy did I have a story loaded (it was pretty gray-area illegal, it was a relatively harmless violation of my state’s constitution via money-laundering rather than, you know, murdering our competitors). It is not a question that has a great win in it, though, since I did what I was asked but resented it a bunch. After I answered it, it turned out what they’d MEANT was “tell us about a time when you disagreed with what your boss asked you to do.” Which was what they’d said, but I’d interpreted it my way and it wasn’t a great answer. Surprisingly, I was told that they would have offered me the job anyway if my skillset was stronger or if their team had not been in the midst of recovering from a very bad manager and had a lot of performance issues to work out. There wasn’t anyone who could mentor me and I wasn’t strong enough on my own. So I got lucky, but the story even only came up because I was still so angry about it and my brain selectively interpreted the question. I can definitely see where, very sanitized, this could be a good example because it does showcase you as a proactive manager in a difficult situation, but if you do keep it, be careful about using the sanitized version!

        1. A Plain-Dealing Villain*

          “Relatively harmless violation of my state’s constitution via money-laundering” would be such a huge red flag for me as an interviewer. I know you are already aware of this, but I’d definitely avoid that story. I’m not sure that one can even be reframed, especially since it ends with “I did what I was asked”.

          1. A Plain-Dealing Villain*

            I also wanted to say I think that is a really good point about being so mired in the mess that you start to loose sight of what people are truly asking. We all need to take a step back sometimes.

  12. MadGrad*

    It probably couldn’t hurt to acknowledge the craziness either if you do sense that more drama has been told than needed. Laughing about it could go a good way to dispel some tension, I’d think.

    1. hbc*

      I’d frame it as “Do you know much about [industry]? It tends to be a more [polite synonym for the crazy] than the average workplace, so my examples might not be something you’d ever experience at [potential new company].” That way it isn’t breaking the rule about bad mouthing current/former employers, but still shows self-awareness

        1. Zombii*

          Nope nope nope. If you accidentally wander into OldJob Crazy when giving an example at an interview, that’s the time to laugh or otherwise play it off so you can disassociate from the crazy. Absolutely do not preface your entire interview in a way that makes the interviewer visualize a big flashing neon sign over your head that says I’M NOT CRAZY BUT MY LAST JOB WAS (BUT I WORKED THERE SO MAYBE I AM TOO—HIRE ME TO FIND OUT).

  13. dr_silverware*

    I think your key is when you say: “I’m an experienced manager who has been able to correct issues like this in the past.” Go backward to some of those successes, the particularly boring ones!

    1. k*

      That was my first thought. Use one that was totally by the books and had a positive result (either the employee improving, left on good terms, etc.)

    2. AthenaC*

      Maybe – but the last time I interviewed for a new position, my interviewers were specific that they wanted to know details about my experience in my current role, rather than in my previous role, where all my really good stories originated.

      Now, I solved this problem by choosing to hear “tell me about your projects now” as “explain to me that you’re qualified to work here,” which involved taking real events and real accomplishments and blending details and timelines a bit. And it worked for me! But that may not work for everyone.

      OP may need to stick to sanitizing some recent stories.

    3. OP*

      I realize as I read all of these responses that I’ve been gravitating towards this example because it IS extreme and unusual. You’re right, I do have a lot of past managing successes, and I think part of me was worried that boring would be bad. But if boring isn’t a bad way to go (and from these comments, I’m getting that it might not be), I will definitely start making a list some of my other past successes and trying to draw from those.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        There were times when we have done something cute/clever that worked very well. But it can be tough to remember those times and we have to shovel a lot of crap off the top of the pile to find those stories.
        Even some of my most toxic jobs had moments were a bunch of us stood together and said, “awwww” because something was just so thoughtful and worked so well.

      2. A Plain-Dealing Villain*

        You sound like a story-teller OP, and that can be a good thing, but the only story you need to tell during an interview is why you are the best candidate for the job.

  14. AnotherAlison*

    I’m glad the OP had gotten to where the dysfunction of the industry is recognized. I posted something last summer about some things my mgmt was doing to me, and everyone here’s response was “That’s terrible!” and it was eye-opening. I thought it was bad, but I compared it to people in even worse situations and didn’t see it as quit-worthy. I am now a year behind the OP, but on the same plan.

    I can see myself telling war stories like it was normal SOP. This post is a good reminder to not do that.

  15. Someone*

    I agree with Alison, you can find less dramatic stories.

    You say “I’m an experienced manager who has been able to correct issues like this in the past, so I started working with her to fix these problems and began documenting everything in case we had to let her go.” That means you have stories about the time when you worked with an employee and succeeded in correcting their issues — tell the interviewer that story.

    For most of your horrible stories, you have the story of “how it should have gone” or “how it went that time I did it at a functional company”. That’s part of why you know this company is over-the-top dysfunctional.

    1. TootsNYC*

      And you say, “It got bad enough that I started a PIP. But there turned out to be political obstacles to that pathway, so I turned my focus toward encouraging her to move on in a positive way. Because it obviously wasn’t a good fit for her either. I helped her with her resumé and encouraged her for interviews. Soon enough, she found a new job, and it was good for both of us. So, though I’m experienced enough–and tough enough–to discipline someone through the traditional channel, I’m able to find solutions like these.”

    2. OP*

      For most of your horrible stories, you have the story of “how it should have gone” or “how it went that time I did it at a functional company”. That’s part of why you know this company is over-the-top dysfunctional.

      I think there’s a lot to unpack in this statement, and I’m going to have to think about it for a really long time (longer than this comment thread will last). I don’t have a lot to say right now other than “Wooooaaaaahhhh, dude”, but please know I’m going to be thinking a lot about this.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        These toxic places take away our ability to think clearly. It will come back, it has already started and it will get even better.

  16. Barney Barnaby*

    I don’t think you need to put a positive twist on these stories; you project positivity in your interviews by talking about what you love about the work, why you stayed for ten years, how you enjoy challenges, and your enthusiasm for the new industry or role.

    Allison is certainly the expert, but you do not need to avoid crazy stories in order to explain to an interviewer why you are leaving and why the workplace is toxic. What you need to do is to condense the crazy story down to a maximum of three sentences and then move on to a different topic.

    “I enjoyed the work and I love managing people. [This is not negative or crazy, so it doesn’t count towards your three sentences.] However, there were situations at my company that were unprofessional and dysfunctional. For example, I once had a problem employee in my management whom I could not remove, manage, or discipline because she was sleeping with my boss. He retaliated against me for attempting to manage his lover, even though she was doing things that were harmful to the business [leave out the “potentially illegal” part unless you can explain very, very succinctly]. It worked out when I helped her to find a new role, but I know that type of dysfunction is rare in corporate America and I’m actively seeking out something in a healthier, saner company.”

    Some of what comes across as “drama” to people is an overly long description, lots of details that aren’t relevant to the crux of the situation, etc. Your explanation was coherent, comprehensive, and helps Allison and everyone who reads it to understand exactly what happened and how dysfunctional your workplace is. However, at almost 250 words long, it’s going to (for lack of a better term) suck up a lot of oxygen in the interview room.

    1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      I haven’t found it helpful to call my workplace dysfunctional/toxic when I’m interviewing, even if that description is accurate. And when I’ve heard interviewees describe their workplaces that way, it sometimes raises a red flag over whether the candidate is a drama-feeder or whether they’re accurately describing their work context (and either way, it makes me nervous that their professional norms may be warped). In OP’s case, where the entire industry is apparently dysfunctional, I’m worried that saying one is seeking a “healthier, saner company” will backfire.

      Even the shortened description you’ve provided is super loaded, and without context, it makes it sound like OP is paranoid and possibly projecting his own problems onto his company’s behavior. Even though the rewrite is accurate, it sounds sexist and crazy (although your rewrite is way better than the original).

      I thought azvlr’s language and Katie the Fed’s advice was really helpful—don’t focus on the circumstances, focus on the key points.

      1. Barney Barnaby*

        Sorry, but no.

        The problem with this is that, absent really explaining how dysfunctional and miserable the company is, the decision to leave the can seem downright irrational. The interviewee runs the risk of seeming flighty, unable to grasp that “work” is called “work” because it’s not “happy fun play time,” or that she is unable or unwilling to gut through the tough times.

        Yes, there’s downsides to everything, but if the company is truly that bad, any rational person will understand that the interviewee is justified in leaving. She gains credibility through the rest of the interview: a general sense of being open and honest; genuine enthusiasm for her work and the new role; a calm, succinct description of the problems at the old place; and a game plan for moving on. (The “game plan” could be “Now that a series of complex projects have wrapped up, it’s a good time for me to interview and move on with minimal disruption to my previous company.”)

        I will also say this: as a survivor of a gruesome, toxic workplace (of the variety that employment lawyers said was one of the worst things they had heard about), I would absolutely not work for someone who thinks that discussing those problems is a “red flag” of being a “drama feeder.” If someone is screwing his subordinate’s subordinate, the manager in the middle isn’t the problem – period. Any hiring manager who thinks otherwise is showing an immature tendency to focus on the easy things to “fix,” rather than the underlying problem. There are very predictable consequences to working for such a person.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          But you can explain that without getting into drama-filled details. For example: “I enjoy the work and I love managing people, but I found I didn’t love the culture at my last organization. I like to have warm, friendly relationships with my colleagues, but the culture there was one without a lot of professional boundaries, which caused some problems when it came to making decisions and holding people accountable. The management above me was pretty resistant to letting people go, which tied my hands as a manager a few times. That’s the only time I’ve really run into that though — in previous jobs, I felt the culture was better aligned with blah blah blah…”

          (Although for what it’s worth, the OP’s question isn’t about how to explain you’re leaving, it’s about giving examples of work situations and how she dealt with them.)

          1. Kyrielle*

            Also, OP’s been there eight years. That’s a lot different than bailing after six months. At that point you can skip the entire dysfunctional aspect and just say you want to grow in directions that aren’t available to you currently*, or explore new area Z which the new company works in, or….

            * Such as sanity, health, and work-life balance, but no need to spell that out, right?

            1. Kyrielle*

              Wait, I think I have this mixed with another regarding the time there?

              As long as OP has been there more than 1-2 years, though, some variation thereof should work?

        2. AthenaC*

          Right, wrong, or indifferent, the vast majority of human beings have a desperate need to believe that bad things won’t happen to them. They do this by victim-blaming: “X victim did Y, which is why they had Z happen to them; it’s their own fault they had Z happen to them. I would NEVER do Y, so I will never have to worry about Z.”

          It’s so, so common that people do this, that even if you find a potential employer who has actively rejected making these types of assumptions about people, you will come across as out-of-touch with professional norms if you approach an interview the way you’ve described.

          And the reality is that you don’t need an employer to have a good grasp on psychology and emotional intelligence; you need a place with good professional boundaries to allow everyone to get things done in a productive environment.

          1. Cassandra*

            This is so common there’s a couple-three org-psych names for it: “fundamental attribution error” or “attribution effect” or, um, what’s the other one? “Correspondence bias,” I think.

            Wikipedia may or may not be your friend? I haven’t looked.

        3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          I want to clarify, because the way you’ve framed your response makes me think that you took what I said to heart or that I caused offense, which was not my intent.

          I’ve also survived a toxic workplace, and I’ve hired people from toxic workplaces, including people who mentioned the toxicity of their OldJob during their interview with me (I think most of them called their workplaces “dysfunctional” instead of “toxic,” fwiw). But I’ve also interviewed people who were definitely drama instigators who also referred to their workplaces that way. Assuming you haven’t done a phone screen, the in-person interview is often the first time a hiring manager interacts with a candidate. At that point, there’s not really any built up credibility or trust aside from the candidate’s application materials (I usually don’t check references until the end of the process).

          I don’t know anything about a candidate’s judgment except what’s provided in their written materials and in the interview. If someone spent their interview time talking about the INSANE example that OP survived, I would be gobsmacked and wonder why they to highlight that example in their interview. Even a downplayed explanation redirects attention away from a candidate’s qualifications and towards the crazy behavior. I don’t think any reasonable manager would expect someone in OP’s position to “fix” the inappropriate relationship/retaliation situation, but I do think they’d wonder why that’s the best example of OP’s management skills (although it’s a fairly good example of survival skills).

          Through my experiences in hiring, I have generally found that people who are able to cut through the drama when delivering their interview answers are better able to extricate themselves from drama, are better at avoiding unnecessary drama, are more resilient, and are able to identify and name problems when they arise. That makes it easier for me, as a hiring manager, to offer coaching, to pull them out of bad situations, and to have their back. So I’m not saying that mentioning that you worked somewhere toxic is instantly going to sink your ship, but I also don’t think it helps candidates to emphasize that toxicity or offer details that sound like chisme. It either makes me question their judgment in picking that example, or it makes me wonder if their toxic job has become so bad that they’re operating with work-induced PTSD, and neither is attractive to an employer.

        4. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          I’m also not convinced that leaving a place after 8 years is irrational or that you have to prove your workplace is bad for a hiring manager to think your job search is rational, but I may be misunderstanding your point.

      2. SignalLost*

        I’ve had good success calling my drama-llama workplace “reactive rather than proactive”, which can be followed up with a statement of why that makes sense (international trade relations is the industry, so things shift quickly) and how that impacted my work. It avoids using language like dysfunctional and toxic and two-faced and all the other things that place is. And it avoids the value judgement of dysfunctional and toxic; I agree with you about that being a huge problem for interviewees. Find a way to describe the behaviour, not judge it.

        1. OP*

          “Reactive rather than proactive” is a great turn of phrase, and neatly describes one of the dynamics I’ve been dealing with. I’m definitely going to borrow this, and the “describe the behavior, not judge it” philosophy behind it.

        2. Delta Delta*

          I like “reactive rather than proactive” as a descriptor. It can definitely describe drama but can also describe a culture that is not the right working environment for everyone.

          1. SignalLost*

            Yup! It’s also (depending on the order of the questions) why I left that employer. They are reactive, I like a mix of reactive and proactive, most employers are both, and any who aren’t … I don’t want to work for again. It’s a good way to start sussing out the real employer culture when you’re in an interview.

      3. Adlib*

        I agree. I’ve had one truly terrible job, and even when I interviewed, I was as generic as possible on the question of why I wanted to leave. I don’t think many places I’ve interviewed with seem to care one way or the other. Maybe I’m just bland/vague enough in my answers that they don’t really focus on it.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Whoa! That language above would raise red flags for me — just too much drama and almost seems gossipy. I don’t need to know that your manager was sleeping with an employee or the retaliation, etc. — it’s way too much drama that just isn’t needed and I’m going to wonder why you’re sharing it when you could be more discreet. It would be better to pick more mundane examples, which have to exist.

    3. Isben Takes Tea*

      I disagree–as soon as you mention the word “lover” in an interview, you’ve given up yourself as the focus. I’d also argue that the more “toxic details” you add, the more it takes away from “look at what I have accomplished” to “look at what was outside my control.”

      I would edit your story down further:
      “For example, I once had a problem employee in my management whom I could not remove or discipline without retaliation from my boss, even though she was doing things that were harmful to the business.”

      You clearly describe the dysfunction while showing that you are capable of being discreet and professional. Divulging unnecessary details (and they are unnecessary) causes the “drama” alarm to go off.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        “I had an employee who I could not fire, so instead I [fill in with what you did].”

        But really, this example should never come up. You had plenty of success stories OP, there is no need to use this story. It’s a job interview not a grand jury inquisition.

  17. Rat Racer*

    I think that the other danger with dramatic stories is that it can leave the interviewer speculating that there was another side to the story, undisclosed, in which the interviewee was either enabling or actively participating in the drama. It’s the old “It takes two to tango” mindset.

    Those of us who hang out on this blog on a daily basis (raising my hand) know that it does not always take two to tango, and there is an veritable army of crazy in the working world tango-ing all by themselves. All the same, I wouldn’t want to leave the door open for the hiring manager to wonder “Hmmm… this employee and boss sound too awful to be true…”

    1. Argh!!!*

      Great point. Even if the other side really is totally nutso and exactly as described, someone who hasn’t observed it may be dubious. I worry about that because the responses to things I’ve done wrong in my current job have been so out of proportion I know I just have to leave. I willingly admit when I’ve done something wrong, but I’ve never done anything so wrong that I deserve to be menaced with a knife or yelled at for an hour.

  18. INTP*

    Agree with Alison that these examples are too extreme. I would focus on the success stories that can be told more concisely than the most difficult situations to turn around.

    Besides Alison’s points about the interviewer losing focus on you and questioning your experience in such a dysfunctional workplace, you also risk the interviewer wondering whether the problem is really the workplace or you. There are workplaces as dysfunctional as the OP’s, for sure, but there are also paranoid people who can’t accept criticism or conflict without assigning some nefarious, personal motive to it and create drama in otherwise functional workplaces. The interviewer can’t tell which one you are, so I think it’s best to never give an example that involves someone sabotaging you or a personal vendetta against you.

  19. Cristina in England*

    I know this proves Alison’s point about the focus being on the drama and not your skills, but… I am dying to know if you told HR about your boss’s piece in all of it, and if you kept working for him after that.

    1. OP*

      I was tempted to answer this with another story (one of several) about how terrible our HR department is, but then I figured I’d take a lesson from what all the commenters have been saying and just leave it as: My HR department was unable to help. But fortunately my boss is delighted that I was able to help his lady friend find a job she enjoyed more, and our continued working relationship has been far less challenging.

      1. INTP*

        Wow. It’s really too bad that this sort of story ISN’T ideal to tell in interviews, because juggling all of these ridiculous people into a careful balance where they are each happy themselves and with you was a truly epic display of problem solving and interpersonal skills on your part.

      2. Not So NewReader*

        I have a motivator for you. If you want to move away from being a UN Peace Keeping Unit, then don’t give examples of how you negotiated a truce.
        Give examples that parallel the work you enjoy doing, not the work that you had to do to keep from getting shot.

  20. Student*

    You can rephrase good examples that have loads of drama and dysfunction to be more interview-appropriate.

    When I give an example about how I handle conflict, I cut out all of the personal insults, the drama, and the convoluted backstories. I refer to my former-co-workers politely and, almost always, anonymously: “A colleague and I had an ongoing conflict over equipment use; we worked out a compromise to take turns using X set of criteria that worked reasonably well for both of us”. The “real” story is that an obnoxious co-worker would interrupt my work, try to take over equipment I was using, and never configured it correctly. I told him I’d use it during the morning, and he could have it after lunch – already configured for him. However, if he tried to encroach on my time without asking my permission, then I’d purposely mis-configure it before he used it so he’d either have to suffer through the configuration process he was supposed to doing anyway, or get garbage results. I cut out the backstory, I cut out the general bad behavior and incompetent of my colleague, and I cut out my strong-arming the guy into behaving: I focus on the fact that we had competing needs, worked out a compromise, the compromise was mutually beneficial, and the compromise worked well and lasted a long time.

  21. Tomato Frog*

    Something I’ve done — mostly because I just don’t have that many examples for some “Tell me about a time….” questions — is break the story apart to use it in different ways. I think that might be helpful for the OP, for different reasons. As a whole narrative this is DRAMA, but each piece sounds somewhat less dramatic taken in isolation. “Tell us about a time you dealt with a problem employee.” “Well, employee was doing so-and-so, and I took this step, this step, and this step.” “Tell us about a time when your management was completely crap and how you dealt with it.” “One time I was not able to fire a problem employee for political reasons, so to work around that I coached the employee….”
    Obviously, there might be follow-up questions and you still might not want to use some parts of the story, but if these are your best examples, they may be worth breaking down for parts.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      There are certain interview questions that are red flags to me.
      “Tell me about a time when your management was completely crap and how you dealt with it”, would be one example of a red flag question for me.

      OP, if an interviewer asks you a question like this or want to talk along these lines, it’s for a reason. They are telegraphing something major about this job opening to you. My answer to this question here would be, “I am sorry. I am not the person you need. I have tied up your time and I apologize for that. I wish you the best.”

  22. Mena*

    Yes, as Alison says, the example is much too extreme. It also comes across a bit as ‘victim survives against all odds’ and while that may indeed be the case, it casts a dramatic shadow that looms over you. The scenario described strongly distracts from your actions as a manager.

  23. mobfreak*

    Seriously, though, I can imagine that there are many good stories that the OP can share. We aren’t (probably) hiring, but we would LOVE to listen

  24. TootsNYC*

    You also don’t have to tell all the drama.

    Maybe you say, “I had an employee who was damaging to our department, but it was not possible to fire her, for political reasons. So I encouraged and coached her to look for a new job elsewhere–helped her with her resumé, etc. The outcome was that she left to work somewhere else, and I looked like a hero. So I got what I needed, but I worked within the limitations of the situations. It was a win for everybody. And I learned that it’s not always necessary to have a conflict to get what you need.”

  25. OP*

    Hi there, OP here.

    First, a big thank you to Alison for a fast and perfect response to my question. This is exactly what I needed to hear. My job has always been… challenging, but the last year has been nothing but one over the top episode of ridiculousness after another, and it’s been both weighing on me and dragging my focus away from what’s normal.

    Also, a huge thank you to everyone who has taken the time to write into the comments today already. I’m sure we’re going to get more great discussion throughout the day, but my big takeaways from this so far are 1) Remember the less dramatic successes and stick to those, 2) Keep the focus on my skills rather than the drama, 3) Keep in mind that context is everything and, as several commenters have brought up, unless you know my workplace this story does not make me look good at all.

    Because a few people have asked: yes, this happened, and yes, I actually toned it down and removed some of the other identifying (and even more ridiculous) details. This example is way longer than what I’d typically use in an interview, but I figured I’d go with one of the most extreme ones (and provide you all with a lot of context and detail) that I’ve actually been tempted to use and see how people responded. And your responses have been SO USEFUL. I cannot say enough how valuable everyone’s different perspectives are, and I’m really, truly grateful to all of you for sharing them. I am taking so many notes!

    Reading everyone’s responses has got me thinking a lot about just why my workplace is so extreme, and I agree part of it is me and part of it is the situation. Over the last 10 years I’ve gained a reputation as the person who can fix any crisis in an industry where if something goes wrong people some people can lose a lot of money, other people can die, and sometimes both. A bit like being a cop or an ER doctor— the last couple of years I’ve only been dealing with the worst parts of the most extreme situations. Which has led to a lot of negative consequences for me health and sanity-wise, and is one of the main reasons I want to get out. On top of that in the last couple of years the top three tiers of our management structure have completely imploded, leading to mass chaos and making my already challenging job a living hell.

    Listening to what everyone has to say has made me realize that before I get too far into my job search I really need to pull back, get my head on straight, and make sure that I don’t walk into another dysfunctional situation or drive off one that would be a better fit. And now I’m going to try and got through and respond to as many of your very helpful comments as I can!

    1. Brogrammer*

      Good luck, OP! It sounds like you’ve got your head on straight despite having spent so much time in a dysfunctional environment.

    2. stk*

      Good luck OP!

      I can personally recommend “due to internal political issues” as a good way of saying “due to my old workplace being full of AWFUL DRAMA”…

      1. INTP*

        I like this wording. It conveys “My workplace is a fustercluck, but I am a sane and tactful person that knows better than to say this bluntly or with the intimate details.”

      2. BookishMiss*

        Oooh I like this! Pocketing for future use…

        Good luck, OP! I have nothing to offer that hasn’t already been said above, but I can’t wait to read your awesome update from your new, empowered, non- dramatic job.

    3. Not So NewReader*

      I got used to be the go-to person. I got used to having huge amounts of working knowledge about the place. When I went to a new place it was down right strange not being the go-to person and not having that pile of historical knowledge to draw on. It was down right disconcerting at first. Practice now with stepping back and taking a reflective moment here and there. It will make the new place a tad easier.

    4. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      OP, you sound eminently capable, and I am really excited for your next steps. Thanks so much for being so open to accepting feedback and for interacting with us in the comments—it’s so much more fun (as a commenter) when it feels like a conversation. I’m keeping my fingers crossed (although I don’t think you’ll need any extra luck to land in the right place). Onward!

    5. J.B.*

      Good luck to you. I hope you find a much more positive situation soon and are able to take care of you, plus contribute something positive to the business.

  26. cleo*

    Good luck OP!

    The only thing I have to add to all the excellent advice above is that it helped me to consciously focus on the Actions and Results when prepping my behavioral interview questions and consciously spend less time setting up the Challenge (or whatever helpful acronym you use – I learned CARs). It’s so easy to get lost in setting up the problem, but honestly, I think I cared more about that than anyone else did. They were interested in the punch line / pay off.

  27. Jennifer*

    Well, I was on an interview panel today where the applicant brought up a situation in which he was physically assaulted by someone and yet managed to defuse the situation perfectly. We were all really impressed!

    But that said, this particular example of “why I couldn’t get rid of an employee the usual way so I gentled her way out and then made sure she couldn’t come back” might not be something to tell, because a lot of people will get uncomfortable with that.

    1. Not So NewReader*

      Very definitely match the intensity level of the question that is asked. Since you are used to working under crisis, this will mean SLOW down, pause, then answer.
      I had decided to interview for another position in my old company. I was nervous about “over-answering” the questions. I decided to carefully consider the intensity of each question. I was pretty pleased with myself for matching the interviewer fairly well.
      The one question I thought had any intensity to it was this one, “What would you do if fire broke out and everyone had to be evacuated?” Then I cut loose, I picked up my pace and answered, “I would check A and B, then I would do C, D and E.” The interviewer’s eyebrows went right up and he said, “That is one heck of a good answer. We don’t usually get answers like that.” (My answer was specific but it was also in alignment with company policy and safety procedures.)
      For me this was a lesson in thinking about the intensity level of the question asked. Not every question begs for a worst case scenario answer. But this question was clear cut, this one gets the worst case scenario answer. Not many questions are on this level.

  28. Chaordic One*

    I too lived through a chaotic, drama-filled dysfunctional workplace. Reading these threads I’ve picked up some great ideas about how to present what I accomplished in the midst of chaos (I moved mountains) without including all the drama or making my former workplace look bad.

    OTOH, even though I could read the writing on the wall and had started a job-search, I ended up being thrown under the bus before I found another job.

  29. Thomas E*

    How I’d put it:

    We hired an employee who turned out to be a bad fit. After giving her multiple coaching sessions we determined she was unlikely to gain the skills necessary for the job within a reasonable timeframe so instead of firing her I sat down with her to work on her CV and to redirect her job search to an area where she could be successful. We then revised our recruiting process in order to put more emphasis on testing skills.

  30. NoMoreLurking2017*

    Ding ding ding!! A lightbulb moment.

    Reading your post, OP, and the awesome comments, I realise that I have been telling similar dysfunctional tales and encountering exactly this issue in my (previous AND current) job search. I have worked in two toxic and crazy industries (front of house in theatre and something totally different that matches my education) and most of my examples are not within normal work boundaries, alongside my personal gravitation towards the most outrageous examples.

    Thanks for writing in OP and thanks Alison for this answer!

  31. AnonNurse*

    I love all the comments regarding how to rephrase this example and turn it in to the positive skills you brought to the situation.

    I was in a situation a few years ago in which one of the top jobs on my resume was an imfamous employer in my community due to resent press reports. Of course interviewers wanted gossip and I badly wanted to tell the story of what it’s like to be working when an FBI team raids your employer. Instead, I talked about my skills and the positive steps I took during a difficult time. It impressed interviewers and I think it showed that I was a professional that could overcome a crazy situation. Now that employer is further down and I have many new examples to use instead.

    Good luck!

  32. Argh!!!*

    “There’s also a point where an interviewer will wonder what kind of experience you really got at a company that’s so dysfunctional, and whether it’s applicable to their own environment.”

    Great point! I am currently eager to get out of a toxic workplace and one of the reasons is that I can see that my skills are eroding. I am also really angry about some of the things that have happened and I worry that it would come out in an interview. The anger has been subsiding and I think I am close to being ready to send out my resume, but this is good food for thought.

  33. Kara*

    I save my most extreme stories for AFTER I’ve been hired, because I’ve worked in some extremely dysfunctional work places. Like the time we had to call the police to the office, because one of the founding partners had barricaded himself in his office and was threatening to kill himself. Or the time that my boss threw a party in the office after hours and someone OD’d, always a good story. Or when a co-worker was asked to be a drug mule by our CFO- that was super fun (yes, same company, in the span of a week, the only week I worked there in fact). Prostitutes that were paid for on company cards, guy that died in the office and no one noticed for at least 8 hours, and finally, guy who killed his wife and drove to work with her body in his car. These are all post-hiring stories.

  34. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

    In the past, I had referred to one particular IS/IT company (no longer around) that was in its death spiral, and most people who were trying to jump off that sinking ship had trouble finding employment because of its reputation – earned or otherwise. It might have NOT been what we used to call a “zoo” in the computer business, but anyone who had ever applied for employment there was given the strong impression that it WAS a “zoo”, and said impressions were tattooed on the faces of their alumni.

    Remember the ad — where the guy worked with a bunch of chimpanzees? One problem an interviewer might have, is he/she doesn’t know if you’re the human in that ad, or one of the chimps. Hiring firms are very well aware of companies that are in a tailspin. You have a raison d’etre for getting out, but you also may have perceived baggage as well.

    I wish you luck – but I’d follow the advice – frame your negative experiences carefully.

  35. Geeky Swap*

    That’s great – gets to the heart of things but without the drama.
    I wish you luck – but I’d follow the advice – frame your negative experiences carefully.

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