should I not tell interviewers I left my last job because of bad management?

A reader writes:

Can you help me with an appropriate response to future employers as to why I resigned from my previous position? It took a lot of guts and months of build-up to do it, but I resigned from my position earlier this summer. The work culture was beyond toxic and I truly felt that I had done all I could to try and be happy. My mentors and close business connections supported the decision (especially after hearing about the shenanigans that were going on and some of the actual words that came out of our leaders’ mouths).

I’ve found that in most of my recent interviews, hiring managers are sympathetic and don’t focus too much on the reasons why I left. However, I also have not received a job offer in the four months since I left. I’m freaking out. Here’s the response I’ve given when asked why I left. I think it’s good enough, but perhaps you can offer some advice on how to improve it?

Interviewer: “Why did you leave your last job?”

Me: “I pride myself on being supportive of outcomes, but some of the business decisions being made didn’t align with my interpretation of our mission. There was a lack of direction from leadership, which in my opinion was breeding chaos and fostering a toxic work culture where no one trusted or supported anyone. I would be best suited for a work culture where open communication is valued and collaboration is encouraged. That seems to be a key theme in the job description for this role, which is why I’m excited to pursue this opportunity.”

Too much? Not enough?

Too much. This is way more critical of your previous employer than what’s normally heard in interviews, and without any real prompting to do that. I know it feels like the question is prompting it, but most interviewers won’t see it that way.

When interviewers ask this question, they’re just looking for some quick context to understand what’s going on with your career and how their job opening might fit in with it. Most of the time people’s answers to this question are pretty bland, but interviewers are watching for signs of things like: Were you fired or otherwise pushed out because of problems on your end? Did you leave on not-good terms? Do you have unrealistic expectations that they won’t be able to meet either (because you get bored with all your jobs after eight months or chafe at being managed in a reasonable way, or so forth)? Is there other context that is relevant to them?

But again, typically people’s answers to this question are pretty unremarkable: they’d been there five years and were ready for something new, or they moved to a new city, or their whole team was laid off. And that’s what interviewers are usually expecting when they ask it. So when you answer with “leadership was toxic and chaotic,” you’ve just thrown a bit of a grenade into the usual order of things and now their ears are perking up.

And it’s not that interviewers don’t know there are terrible, toxic workplaces out there. They do. But rightly or wrongly, there’s a convention in interviewing that you shouldn’t badmouth previous employers. It’s often considered indiscreet and tacky, and a lot of interviewers will be really put off by it.

Plus, interviewers don’t know you, and they don’t how reasonable or objective you are, what the other side of the story is, or if you were part of the problem. (And most of us have seen situations where one person’s take on a culture is … a real outlier.) With an answer like the one you’re giving, they don’t know if anyone in your shoes would have been horrified or if you have unreasonable expectations of work. But what they do know now is that you’re willing to blurt out unusually negative things about that employer in a situation where that’s not usually done, so one of the few data points they have about your judgement already feels questionable.

Now, to be clear, it’s fine to say things like “I was hired to do X but ended up doing Y” or “the company was having financial problems and I was concerned about its stability.” Those might not be especially flattering to the company, but they’re relatively objective facts. “Toxic,” on the other hand, leaves too much room for subjectivity.

So you need a blander answer. If you were at that job a few years, then it’s easy — you can just say you were looking for the next step in your career and wanted to take on something like ___ (some piece of the new job that appeals to you). No one will blink at that.

But if you weren’t there very long, you can’t say that; you’d look like you get bored with jobs too quickly or like you’re covering up the real reason you left (like being fired). In that case, you’d need a different answer. Ideally you’d be able to honestly say something like, “I was hired to focus on X, but it’s turned out that that they really need someone to focus on Y” or “The hours/travel/work turned out to be very different than what I was originally offered.”

But if nothing straightforward like that is true, then at that point, yes, you’d need to allude to it just not being the right fit for you. But not with the wording you’ve been using! Tone that way down. Use an answer that sounds like it wasn’t the right place for you, not that you’re condemning them across the board. For example: “I’ve always worked places where I was happy to stay a long time, but I got it wrong this time — this organization has a lot of strengths, but it’s not as collaborative or mission-driven as I was looking for, and I realized it was the wrong fit for me. So I’m taking some time to find the right culture.” (I pulled those details from your statement, but there are probably better specifics to use.) They might ask you a follow-up question or two about what didn’t work for you, to make sure their culture wouldn’t be a similarly bad fit for you, so be prepared with a couple of factual, unemotional details. (To come up with the right language, think of what you’d say if you really believed this was just a blameless mismatch, rather than toxicity and incompetence.)

But that’s really it! Your goal is for your answer to this to be fairly unmemorable. It can’t be so vague as to invite skepticism, but you’re going for easy and uneventful in your reply.

{ 311 comments… read them below }

  1. Goldenrod*

    Yes, I totally agree with Alison’s answer! I left my last job because it was horribly toxic, but it wasn’t that difficult to find *other* honest reasons to talk about. I just focused on those in interviews. I also talked a lot about valuing teamwork and collaboration, but without mentioning any negative examples from my last job.

    1. Jen S. 2.0*

      Agreed. You should give an honest answer, but honest doesn’t mean that you tell the unvarnished truth about absolutely everything there is to tell. It means that everything you DO tell is true. They don’t need the specifics about the toxic culture and the inept leadership. You can just say that it was time to look for your next step*, and in your next step you hope to find [fill in the blank with appealing elements of new workplace].

      *The fact that it was time to look for your next step because the place was a dumpster fire is not really the point.

      1. RC Rascal*

        Yes. There is a big difference between the truth and savvy. Employers don’t want people obsessed with the truth, they want savvy, sophisticated, and professional.

      2. Alice's Rabbit*

        I left a job as a bus driver for a charter company because the owner wasn’t keeping the buses up, and knowingly made us drive them in unsafe conditions that put children’s lives at risk.
        Example: bus windows fog up quickly when it rains, you may remember from your own school days. He disconnected the heater on my bus to check something else, and then refused to reattach it before sending me out to pick up a full load of kids for a field trip. Within 5 minutes, the windows were so foggy, I couldn’t see the lane lines. One of the teachers had to stand next to me and wipe off the windshield every 30 seconds or so, because I couldn’t reach it over the wheel without stopping. Another had to call from the back of the bus to tell me when it was safe to turn or change lanes.
        There were 84 passengers on that bus. It was a 4th grade field trip to the ballet.
        Boss didn’t care that we all could have died if the teachers and I hadn’t stayed calm and found a(n illegal) solution. I turned in my resignation as soon as I calmed down enough to write professionally.
        But when asked about why I left, I talked about wanting more stable, more fulfilling work, a real career path where I could grow and advance in my job. I save the rage for personal venting; work, let alone an interview, is neither the time nor the place for ranting about previous employers.

    2. Sleepytime Tea*

      I left a toxic job because of a huge leadership/management change that resulted in our team going a wildly different direction. The place became toxic, there was no direction from leadership, and their “vision” definitely was different than what I felt was most important. What did I say when I was interviewing? “The team I am on is going through re-organization and my job role was changing quite significantly from what it was previously. It was no longer in line with my career path, which is (insert stuff about the job I’m applying for here).”

      That was completely true. If leadership hadn’t been such a sh*t show I may have been more on board with staying and adapting my career goals for the changes that applied to me, but I wasn’t going to drag all that out in an interview. “Their goals and my goals are different” is a perfectly fine thing to say. “My interpretation of what their goals should be was right and they were wrong” is not a fine thing to say.

      1. IV*

        Truth: There were massive upheavals, my new manager was honestly a sociopath, the place was an outhouse fire, and they were planning on forcing me out before I threatened to sue them if they didn’t give me severance and a bland recommendation and not contest my unemployment and walked out in a magnificent flounce!

        For interviews: New management was brought on board and there were some changes in direction. I could see that it wasn’t a fit for my longer term career goals so we mutually agreed to part ways.

        Just practice until your eye stops twitching when you say it. ;-)

    3. ceiswyn*

      Aha, yes.

      The truth: Their idea of what my role was had ossified back in about the 80s and their idea of radical change would have brought it up to maybe the 90s. In addition there was way way way too much work, upper management was a dumpster fire that insisted on security restrictions that made it harder to do said work (in order to use my specialist software, I had to run it in a buggy virtual machine and use an external network location to transfer things to the outer laptop environment), and they were so petty that they forced everyone to use the corporate wallpaper even though we weren’t in a customer-facing environment.

      The interview version: It was a very process-heavy environment and I work best when I have more freedom to exercise my professional judgement.

    4. boop the first*

      I guess that’s the one blessing about “toxic” jobs, is that you get SO MANY reasons to quit that all you have to do is pick the least dramatic one.

  2. Ginger*

    The original response in the letter sounds condescending and would make me wonder if OP is difficult to work with.

    Sorry, OP. I know that’s not what you’re going for. I think tone of voice is especially important when delivering your answer too. You don’t want to sound jaded or emotional.

    And don’t forget, the interviewer is thinking about how you would speak about their company too. Too much negativity translates to bad mouthing which really very few people what to introduce that risk to their team.

    1. pleaset*

      A deeper question is what is the point of this answer? When you communicate, especially in an interview, you should have an overall objective. That is not the same as being as clear as possible about every aspect of what you are describing.

    2. anonnnnnnnnnnn*

      no need to be rude and jump the gun saying the OP might be difficult to work when all you have to go on is a letter asking for advice about how to word something.

      1. Ginger*

        Second line, “Sorry, OP. I know that’s not what you’re going for”

        As always with letters – reading the words in b/w vs hearing them out loud makes a huge difference in how they are interpreted.

      2. Holly*

        Ginger’s comment *is* advice. OP provided the response that they would want to give, and Ginger is saying that their response might make their interviewer wonder if OP is difficult to work with.

      3. SomebodyElse*

        I think I have a response is in moderation… but I answered sort of similar to the one you are commenting on. It’s important for the OP to know how they may be perceived based on their answer. That’s the key… I didn’t think @Ginger was saying the OP was or is difficult to work with… but that there is a chance they will be perceived that way.

        In other words the OP is giving an answer they think is being received one way, but in fact it’s very likely being received in a different way. That’s not a judgement on the OP it’s about what is getting lost (or added) into the message.

      4. A*

        ? Did I miss something? Nothing rude about this response. I had the exact same thought. If multiple people are interpreting the script as potentially condescending, that’s saying something. It would be a disservice to the OP not to point it out given that they literally asked for feedback on that exact statement.

        Not sugar coating =/= being rude

      5. Corey*

        Literally the point of the comment is to warn OP that others might jump the gun upon hearing that response.

      6. NotAnotherManager!*

        I had the same impression Ginger did, and I don’t think it’s rude to say so. There is no personal insult to the LW, just a comment on how that particular prepared script may come across to an interviewer. LW is looking for feedback on this specific explanation – why not be direct and honest? That LW is trying to get the wording/level of detail right on a tricky answer is a positive.

    3. SomebodyElse*

      I agree with your assessment.

      Most people are going to go with the typical answers or a variation on them. It’s one of those times where you are supposed to give an answer that allows the interviewer to read between the lines. There is a reason for this, discretion is a very important skill IMHO.

      I would see that answer as a red flag as an interviewer and would probably think one or several of a couple things…

      Candidate is disgruntled and sour grapes are at play
      Candidate doesn’t understand business norms
      Candidate needs hand holding
      Candidate is not adaptable

      The word that tips me into thinking the above is use of the word “Toxic” to me that is one of those words that people use to indicate anything from severe dysfunction to very benign and normal environments. It’s like people using the phrase “Hostile work environment” to describe their boss talking to them for being late 3 days in a row or a coworker not inviting them to play cards in the break room at lunch.

      I urge the OP to reconsider their script… it will not be doing them any favors.

      1. Just J.*

        A few jobs ago while leaving a place that was very, very toxic, I had the opportunity to interview at firm run by a college classmate. Because we knew each other, the first interview was very casual. I felt free to vent about Toxic Workplace. After a few minutes, my college classmate looked at me and asked “so do you really want to come work for me, or are you just looking to escape your current job.”

        It did indeed give me pause.

        Optics. Optics. Optics.

        1. Door Guy*


          Trying to leave my last job that turned toxic (it was great for 4 of my 5 years) I still remember the verbal smack down from the bank when I tried to refinance my house to get a realtor’s license and money to cover bills for when I was in training/waiting to close on my first sales just because the realty company were the only ones who had responded to any of the applications I’d sent out online. The desperation of going “I could work in an open field putting metal posts in the ground in a Minnesota January for $4/hr less than my current wages, that’s not so bad!” (The 2nd company to respond)

        2. NW Mossy*

          I have absolutely not hired someone because their interview answers were much more focused on why they wanted to leave the role they were in than come to the role they were interviewing for.

          The sad bit: this was an internal candidate, and 5 years ago. That person is still in the same job they were so down on, and for their own sake I sincerely hope it’s because things changed and got better, not because they gave up trying.

      2. Sparrow*

        “Toxic” is used so widely that, personally, I would have the urge to ask them to expand on what they meant by “toxic,” simply because I’m not sure how to interpret the statement otherwise. Even if I didn’t ask, I would be thinking about it and, either way, you end up drawing waaaay more attention to something that you should want to fly under the radar. Definitely want to aim for non-inflammatory, neutral language here.

        1. Door Guy*

          Personally, I only use toxic to describe 2 of my previous jobs. 1 was bad from the start but it was before we came out of the recession and I couldn’t even get call backs, much less interviews (and had only gotten that job because I’d transferred from another location when I moved states).

          The other turned that way after our primary customer got bought out by a multinational conglomerate and they started making changes.

          That’s not to say I’ve not had bad jobs, had sh**ty bosses/coworkers, hated what I was doing, etc, but none of them ever reached a level I’d call Toxic.

    4. Heidi*

      I also got that impression of the OP from that script. Especially the part where leadership “didn’t align with my interpretation of our mission.” Not knowing anything about your employer, the interviewer might be asking themselves,”Why is your interpretation more important than your leaders’?” It makes it sound like you’re a “my way or the highway” sort of person, and that is not typically a valued quality in a coworker.

      If you have to call out bad behavior, it’s best to be really specific and state facts rather than your interpretation of what was going on. “My boss was indicted for fraud” is a lot stronger than “The boss made bad business decisions,” for instance. But in the context of a job interview, you probably don’t want to go into those kind of details. Saying that other people are awful won’t make you look good in comparison.

      1. ten-four*

        I really agree with this – the “business decisions being made weren’t in alignment with my interpretation of our mission” was the phrase that jumped out most to me in that letter. You explained why that phrasing is so troubling better than I could!

        1. TheCommenterFormrlyKnownAsRUKiddingMe*

          Agreed. Actually the whole statement bothers me…each section in its own way. I think OP needs to completely revamp.

      2. RC Rascal*

        Even if the boss was indicted for fraud, per your example, I still wouldn’t go down this path. Here’s why: People love to listen to lurid, gory details. The problem is the gore detracts from your candidacy. At the end of interview all the interviewer will remember is “Candidate’s boss was indicted or fraud”, not what Candidates skills and experiences are. Better to steer clear of the subject matter all together.

      3. Dagny*

        Yeah… that whole line about his/her “interpretation of the mission” came across really badly.

        Either just give concrete examples of how insanely awful and dysfunctional the place is, while never using words like “toxic,” or give a bland reason for leaving, such as “The job was not as advertised; I did a lot more administrative work than substantive work.” Or “After a change in leadership, I went from negotiating high-level deals to being glorified inside sales.”

        1. Marie*

          Yeah; I consider my previous workplace to be a racist, sexist, toxic mess. I mentioned none of that in my interview, instead focusing on how NewJob would fulfill professional growth aspirations that were not possible at SoonToBeExJob.

          Meaning: I want this particular job, I am someone who enjoys growing my skills, I am someone who leaves on good terms mostly because I value my reputation as a professional. I think that last point is part of why OP’s script is landing so poorly.

          1. Marie*

            We had a candidate today who probably won’t get an offer because she did something strange that at least one person interpreted in a hostile way. The rest agreed that it was, at a minimum, not professional behavior for an interview. Poor judgment is a great reason not to hire someone, even if you’d otherwise grant them the benefit of the doubt.

    5. A*

      Agreed. My first assumption if a candidate said that would be that they are inexperienced and perhaps naïve. Not to say that it’s necessarily an unfair assessment of their previous employer, but it comes off like they genuinely feel they know how to run the business better than their leadership team. Even if that was true, it’s a situation of ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’ – and in my line of work you’d be dead in the water if unable to recognize that.

    6. Mediamaven*

      Yeah. No manager wants to feel like their employee thinks they are smarter than them. That’s how that comes across.

    7. TootsNYC*

      plus, will you spend a lot of time during the first weeks or months venting about your old crappy job?

      Our OP has a script all worked out and is clearly comfortable talking about it–will that script come bubbling out at the water cooler, etc.? That’s not a good look for a new employee.

    8. fposte*

      I think it’s also overthought, and often when we overthink scripts we get long and lose track of effect. OP is processing the experience of this job, which can be useful, but that’s separate from what the hiring manager needs from her. This isn’t a moment for a paragraph-long speech, and using that moment for a paragraph-long speech is itself a problem–I think that’s what people in this subthread are responding to.

    9. TheCommenterFormrlyKnownAsRUKiddingMe*

      “The original response in the letter sounds condescending and would make me wonder if OP is difficult to work with.”

      Yup. This is where I landed too. That alone would keep me from making an offer even if OP was the unicorn I was looking for.

    10. Shannon*

      I agree with you. When hiring for a position which required (but was not advertised as) needing a high degree of discretion and awareness of business norms, I specifically asked that question to weed out people who showed neither by trashing their previous/ current employer. I don’t care if you work for Miranda Priestly, I don’t want to hear about how much your current job is toxic. I want to hear that you can navigate social situations.

      Also, the line about the LW’s bosses not matching their vision for the company, I’d wonder if they knew how to stay in their lane. As an employer, I would wonder if the LW is going to be an armchair quarterback for every business decision that may or may not pertain to them.

    11. Alice's Rabbit*

      Agreed. Anyone who describes something as “toxic” in an interview (with the exception of literal toxic waste) is going to have a hard time finding a new job. It’s just not the kind of terminology that endears you to an interviewer. They’re looking for professional and positive candidates.

      1. Ace in the Hole*

        Hah as someone who works with hazardous waste, I appreciate your exception there! I describe things as toxic in every interview…. when giving examples of waste categorization and spill responses. Works well in my field but not so much in other positions I’d expect!

  3. De Minimis*

    I always try to focus more on the positive things I’m looking for instead of the negative things I’m trying to escape.

    1. Ama*

      Me too — I left my last job largely because any thing my coworkers didn’t want to do became my job, and we operated in continual crisis mode because upper management wouldn’t let us enforce any of the policies about how far in advance certain requests had to be submitted.

      In interviews this became “I’m looking for a job where I can really focus on a specific portfolio rather than being a general admin” and “I’d like to find a work environment where a higher percentage of my job is proactive planning.” This second one might actually have been what got me hired by my current employer — the hiring manager’s face absolutely lit up when she found out I actually preferred to work far in advance on projects.

    2. BRR*

      I do as well and think that’s generally a good approach. But if I’m interviewing someone who left a job without another job lined up, I’d want to hear more about why they left.

      1. Elaine*

        Yes, that does raise reasonable questions. left a job without having a new one lined up. After 15 years of an awful employer, I just couldn’t do it any more. Every day about 30 minutes before leaving the house for work, I’d end up vomiting. I certainly didn’t say any of that in interviews! I explained leaving with no job as spending some time traveling. No one questioned that, even though many of them must have suspected there was more to it than that. I received several job offers and was able to be selective about the one I accepted.

      2. Dagny*

        I’m of the belief that you’re SOL either way (don’t talk about it and look like someone who is going to bail on them; talk about it and look like someone who might badmouth them), so just pick the problem you can better live with and better explain.

      3. Shannon*

        My response to that was always to take care of my family or address a family emergency. No one blinked an eye. In one case (where I got the job), no one even asked me why I had a nine year absence from the workforce, but I think they may have assumed that I had children.

        1. TardyTardis*

          I was asked about a gap like that, but since I really did have a special-needs child (who I explained recently transitioned to independent living, though not in the precise timeline I may have led them to believe), and had success as a part time job earlier, they bought off on it.

    3. Quill*

      I’ve tended to tailor aspects based on the job I’m looking for – I think my answer at previous job was “I wanted to focus on labwork and not human biosamples” (which is apparently not uncommon in any way in the industries I was in,) and “moving back towards my field of study” has been useful.

    4. Kiwiii*

      Yep — during my last job hunting round, it wasn’t “i really ended up hating admin work and am much worse at it than i thought i would be” but rather “I’m looking for something more project-based”

    5. Kaaaaaren*

      Yes. I kind of hate my job interview persona because I’m so ridiculously POSITIVE and ENTHUSIASTIC but it works better than the unvarnished truth haha

    6. Diahann Carroll*

      Same. My most recent job search, I had only been in my position for a year when I started, and I had no prior experience in that field (proposal management). When people were asking me, “So, why are you looking to leave your current company?,” I knew I couldn’t say, “Because my manager treats me like the red-headed stepchild on her team and gives me the projects no one else wants, when she bothers to give me anything to do at all.” Instead, I knew I needed to say some variation of, “I really like doing what I’m currently doing, but there aren’t many opportunities where I currently am to do the higher-level work I’m accustomed to in previous industries, so I began looking. Your job posting spoke to me because you’re looking for someone to handle more high-level proposals, and I have strong project management skills acquired in my previous positions, so I believe this would be a good fit.”

      And I got lucky when I left a toxic job years ago. The law firm I worked for is notorious in my city for being a cesspool, so anytime I interview with local employers (my current employer has no offices in my state), they usually say some variation of, “I would ask why you left that position, but knowing that place, I don’t think I need to and I don’t blame you for getting out.”

      OP, if your current employer is truly as toxic as you say it is, your company may have a reputation that precedes itself like the firm I worked for. In that case, you can give as bland an answer as you want because the interviewer will already know why you’re leaving.

    7. Teacher Lady*

      I think you’re right about this the majority of the time, but the reality is that sometimes people are leaving jobs because there are just too many bad things pushing them away – and so the question “Why did you leave your last job?” becomes, as the letter writer is finding, a more difficult one to answer. This is the situation I’m in (in between, really); I’m a teacher looking to move to another teaching position in my current district. In some cases, I’ve been able to talk about wanting to shift from teaching X to teaching Y, but some of the jobs I applied and interviewed for last spring were literally the same job I have now, just in other schools with administrators who aren’t horrible people. And it’s not always possible to know from the outside if a school has certain aspects that I could talk up as appealing (district-generated school websites run pretty bland)…so it becomes a case of, how do I express desire to leave without unleashing a lot of feelings and opinions about my current bosses?

      (Luckily I’ve been at my school for long enough that longevity can become its own explanation.)

      1. Tiger Snake*

        In “just can’t take it anymore” cases, I think its best to focus on that you’ve just been in the role for a long time now and just looking for a change. Even in a single job, each company is doing different things and had different ways of doing things; so work that angle.

        Emphasize that you love the type of work you do, and how by simply being in a part of [new company], you’ll be exposed to new ideas, projects and collaborations. (Bonus points if you can make references to the organisation’s vision)

  4. Hope*

    In addition to what’s been said, your answer also doesn’t really say whether you left of your own accord or if you were made to leave. And with it being so negative a view of your previous employer, and you not explicitly saying you left, some interviewers may be assuming you were made to leave.

    You’re going to be a lot better served by saying something much simpler.

    1. Rugby*

      Yeah, the fact that OP is currently unemployed is going to be a red flag for some employers. Talking negatively about the former employer is just going to make that red flag bigger.

      1. RC Rascal*

        The quitting is a bigger red flag than the unemployment. Companies make changes, people get impacted. Most employers and hiring managers understand that. But the quitting is hard to talk to, IMO.

        1. Diahann Carroll*

          Agreed, but only because OP’s present script doesn’t make it clear she left voluntarily.

  5. Ali G*

    My last job search:
    What I wanted to say: Well, my new boss lacked confidence in her own work and was apparently terrified that I’d out her for not understanding the basic premise of our departments work (which, as the person who built the department and all the associated program work, I could have done, but would not have), so she marginalized me, took over all my job responsibilities and cut off all avenues for advancement within the company, so at the end of the day I really had no choice but to admit defeat and to take the money they offered me to go away.

    What I said: Unfortunately the trajectory of the company changed so much that my current role in the company was altered so significantly that it was no longer a good fit for me. I was lucky enough to not have to find a new job immediately, so I took some time off to really figure out the next step for my career. That’s why I am excited about this job…..”

    1. Ella*

      “I was lucky enough to not have to find a new job immediately, so I took some time off to really figure out the next step for my career.”

      That is some impressive word-smithing! I’m tucking this away in case I ever need to leave a job before having a new one lined up.

      1. College Career Counselor*

        That is really nicely done. And much of the time, it is effective. However, I would make sure that you have back-up (specific, objective and non-judgmental) examples to give (how did the company/role/fit change) for those employers that decide to probe with additional questions about the circumstances under which you left. Especially if you resigned without another job.

        1. sunny-dee*

          I don’t know if this is TMI (and since I used this as an internal transfer, a lot of the dysfunctions in my old department were well known already), but my explanation was that we were perpetually understaffed and I was taking on more and more projects, working an insane amount of hours (legit — a normal week was 60 hours, a busy week was over 80), and there wasn’t a way to redistribute the load.

    2. Chicken Situation*

      Very well done! I wanted to say that my company was poorly managed, that the director played obvious favorites that didn’t make sense, refused to let certain employees be managed, treated other employees like garbage, openly mocked people of other religions, knew about a huge work imbalance but didn’t care, and blamed employees for problems he created. Instead, I said that the direction of the department had changed and I wanted to get back to X specific kind of work.

    3. hbc*

      I had something more similar to the OP’s statement that I wanted to say, but I ended up in the same ballpark as you. Along the lines of “The company was moving in a direction that didn’t really fit with what I wanted to do. I’m not good at searching while I’m employed, so I was able to leave having prepared myself for some time off and give them several months notice.”

      I find that there’s usually a way to hint at the toxic cesspool in the “tell me about a time when…” stories, and the more dispassionately you tell them, the more they get on your side. “The owner let his family members come and pick up inventory whenever they wanted, so I got the receptionist to notify me whenever they came in so I could follow them around and make inventory adjustments to keep everything accurate.”

      1. Dagny*

        “and the more dispassionately you tell them, the more they get on your side”

        Yep. If you can deliver in a tone that makes a weather report sound exciting, you can say some pretty blunt things about previous employers (that might sound terrible in writing them). The reason is that those blunt things are then *factual,* and therefore, not a reflection on you as a drama llama, troublemaker, flake, etc.

      2. LabTechNoMore*

        The behavioral questions are the hardest for me because of how toxic workplaces operate. Normal rules don’t apply in toxic workplaces, and things don’t get resolved in a tidy STAR manner. If I get asked, “Tell me about a time when you dealt with a difficult coworker.” I can’t exactly bring up my EEOC complaint for retaliation when discussing my racist previous coworker.

    4. Tired*

      Thank you for sharing this!! Very useful to me as I’m experiencing almost the same thing. I will tuck this away for future interviews.

    5. nrm*

      I’m in a very similar situation right now (still at the job; unsupported in my new duties and unwelcome as a support structure for my new boss; eye on the door) and I may just borrow your phrasing here if I end up in your shoes. Thanks for posting this!

  6. EBStarr*

    What does “supportive of outcomes” mean? Maybe people who are more used to business speak would understand it but I literally don’t know what it’s supposed to be conveying. That’s not the main issue with your answer, but I definitely think if you’re talking about a tricky subject it will help you to seem like you’re being straightforward if your language is straightforward.

    Having left a job it took me months to get up the courage to leave, I totally understand the urge to talk about it All. The. Time. I just have to remind myself to save it for happy hour with ex-coworkers!

      1. Degen From Upcountry*

        The jargon was 50% of the problem with this interview response. It’s a weird disconnect to describe what basically are your emotions about the last job in such buzzword-y business speak.

        1. NotAnotherManager!*

          This description is perfect!

          I’ll admit a personal bias as well: When I hear a response that has more jargon than not, it makes me suspect someone is overloading on buzzwords to cover a lack of substance.

      2. JSPA*

        How about, “thinking about past places where I thrived and grew, I did some soul-searching, and with encouragement from my mentors, I set out to again find a collegial, cooperative, mission-driven workplace.”

        It says NOTHING specific about where you last were. This is GOOD.

        It says you’ve been happy before. It says why. It says what you value, that you are thoughtful and introspective, that you take the council of others seriously, that the move is voluntary, and that you think highly of the company where you’re applying.

        It says that if a workplace is bad, you don’t fixate on or participate in the drama; rather, you look for the happy path: the spaces between, beside, or away from the drama. “Not making drama” is always a good look.

        1. Sylvan*

          You can just speak with your usual vocabulary, too. You could say “I’m looking for a cooperative workplace where I’ll develop my skills.” But of course, that’s what every job applicant wants.

    1. Joielle*

      Yep, agreed. I, too, could not begin to imagine what “supportive of outcomes” means.

      I wonder if OP thought making it jargon-y would make it sound more objective? But it just sounds like they’re trying to dance around something, or maybe make it seem more serious than it was.

      1. Falling Diphthong*

        This reminds me a bit of the worker fired for lateness who said “I choose not to discuss that” when asked why she left her last role. If you start tap dancing, people get suspicious.

        OP, something like “the work had moved away from what I want to do, which is (thing this new job does)” is going to land much better. Remember that someday you will be describing why you left this new job–the prospective employer is noting how you will talk about them. If they are so notorious a dumpster fire that why you left is obvious, then you don’t need to say anything on top of that. If they are not notorious for their awfulness, then the sample speech makes you sound difficult.

    2. RC Rascal*

      The “supportive of outcomes” language makes me feel like the OP has tendencies towards insubordinate behavior.

      1. Jargony Jargon*

        That’s exactly where my mind went. I would assume that this person is the type for whom the ends justify the means, and I don’t want to work with someone like that.

    3. Close Bracket*

      Wow, all the responses here are so different from my interpretation! I immediately went to, “I like to get shit done (outcomes), and management was too busy dicking around (business decisions being made didn’t align with my interpretation of our mission. There was a lack of direction from leadership) to allow me to do my shit.” Um, maybe I am filtering it through the lens of past jobs …

      1. Not So NewReader*

        That’s where I went also. The place actually frowned on success. They liked failure because it validated their woe-is-me.

      2. Librarian of SHIELD*

        I think that’s one of the reasons this speech doesn’t work. If it’s not simple enough to be universally understood, then there’s no telling how your interviewer is going to interpret it. What you want in an answer to this question is something simple and direct that’s difficult to misinterpret.

        1. Alice's Rabbit*

          Or something just vague enough that it isn’t attention grabbing. “The job grew in a different direction than my intended career path.” That can mean any number of things, good or bad. But it sounds neutral-to-positive, and doesn’t pique much interest.

      3. EBStarr*

        Ah, thank you! I was hoping someone would give me an actual guess as to what it means. Basically sounds like a version of “results-oriented.” But I would never have put that together myself. I admit this is totally word-nerding since the OP is being (rightly) advised to change her whole approach to this question, but like… “management dicked around and we didn’t get our shit done” *is* an outcome. It’s just not a good one. An outcome of some kind is pretty much guaranteed to follow from your actions at work, even if the outcome is “we didn’t do anything and the company folded.” So (like a lot of business speak, I guess) that phrase is probably meaningless at best.

    4. hbc*

      I would interpret that as management actively doing things or passively allowing things that, to OP’s mind, work against the stated goals of the organization. Like, if you run an animal shelter that’s supposed to be decreasing the unwanted pet population, and you’re inviting breeders to come in and sell puppies in your lobby.

    5. Echo*

      I read it as something like “I definitely want any company I work for to succeed, but my former employer singlemindedly obsessed over the bottom line so much they were willing to spit in the face of their mission, constituents, and staff at any turn if it meant they could squeeze another dollar out of them”. (Which I agree, is not something I’d say in an interview.)

  7. Antilles*

    I agree with trying to focus on the positives, but IF you’re going to say anything negative, then I think you should try to be as objective as possible.
    So if you’re leaving after 4 months because they changed your job description you say that – not “poor management” or “lack of clear direction”, but “I was hired to design teapots and they shifted the job to IT support”. If the reason is for hours – don’t give a generic “too much work” or “poor work-life balance”, but say that they usually work 70+ hour weeks. Etc.
    The more objective you can make your statement, the more likely it is that your interviewer will nod and mentally agree – whereas if you’re using subjective language, that’s when you get into “toxic work culture? what does that even mean? are we sure it’s not you?”

    1. Parenthetically*

      Yes, this is great advice for so much of life. Say “70+ hour weeks, hired to design teapots but moved to IT” and let your hearer conclude “overworked/no work-life balance, inept management.” It places you above criticism and doesn’t leave you open to accusations of gossip or slander.

    2. Richard*

      “are we sure it’s not you?”
      This is always in the back of my mind when people complain about their toxic work environments. No toxic people think they’re toxic, so if you’re in a toxic situation, there’s some chance that you’re a contributor.

  8. Detective Amy Santiago*

    “I pride myself on being supportive of outcomes, but some of the business decisions being made didn’t align with my interpretation of our mission. There was a lack of direction from leadership, which in my opinion was breeding chaos and fostering a toxic work culture where no one trusted or supported anyone. I would be best suited for a work culture where open communication is valued and collaboration is encouraged. That seems to be a key theme in the job description for this role, which is why I’m excited to pursue this opportunity.”

    “I prefer to work in more collaborative environments and found that my position there [did not allow for that as much as I’d expected] OR [was moving away from that and making it more difficult to obtain the outcomes I was striving for]. It sounds like collaboration is important in this position [for whatever reasons specific to that job].”

    The first option is if you haven’t been there long. The second is if you have.

    1. Birdlady*

      Precisely the answer I was looking for some months ago! I hope I will not need it now (my work culture seems to be changing), but I’ll make a note of it.

  9. The Man, Becky Lynch*

    Yeah, this goes against the general rule of never bad mouthing your last job. You’re a stranger, talking about other strangers in a bad light, so it makes those alarm bells start going off saying “Are we going to be able to reach their standards or are they difficult to work with? How do we know it was really a problem with the management and not the fact that this person is hard to manage.”

    We would never hire anyone with that kind of response.

    This is why when I left my last job due to their incompetence as managers and humans, I found a much more palatable reason to tell people for why I was leaving. I boiled it down to “I don’t want to work 60hours constantly anymore.” and got hired within a few weeks of starting to look.

    It’s like a first date. Don’t spook them with your crazy ex stories!

    1. somebody blonde*

      Hahaha yeah, this is exactly like giving them crazy ex stories! They don’t know you, so they don’t know if it’s really the way you’re telling or if actually, you’re the problem.

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        It also makes you look like you’ve got a chip on your shoulder. You’re wearing a fancy blazer to hide those battle scars your last boss left on your person.

        Once I get the job [seal the deal so to speak, and we’re now firmly established as partners] and then I’ll let some stories about that crazy ex drop in passing. “Yeah I saw someone fired for getting hurt on the job once…” “Wait, what?”

        They know me, they trust me, they know I’m not crazypants by any means at that time. Listen to my battle stories, bring smores.

        1. I WORKED on a Hellmouth*

          Once I start my new position, I plan on waiting at least 6 months to a year before I drop any of my craziest stories. 1) It is the only way people will know me and won’t think I am possibly insane. 2) I firmly expect I will win Boring Office Party Small Talk. Although if battle stories can result in smores, I would also like some of those, too.

        2. Falling Diphthong*

          This is an excellent point–the contexts of people who know you well (The Man = not a crazy person or drama magnet) and strangers deciding if they want to be stuck in an enclosed space with you in the future are very different.

          You want to present yourself to strangers as a low drama person, to whom past drama don’t stick because you’re just that professional about it.

          1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

            Yes, exactly!

            It also goes back to the old advice to check how deep the water is before you dive in. Wade in, check it out. Feet first, not head first.

    2. Hey Karma, Over here.*

      “It’s like a first date. Don’t spook them with your crazy ex stories!”
      This needs highlighting. The two have been compared here before and I agree the general conclusion is that dating gives both sides equal power (unless you are a fourth daughter of a penniless aristocrat…) but in job interviews, the candidate has less power. But in neither case, should you bring up your crazy ex!

      1. 1LFTW*

        Thanks for this. “Fourth daughter of an impoverished aristocrat” made me laugh. it’s a pretty good metaphor for the power position of an unemployed job-seeker!

    3. Joielle*

      This! I also left my last job due to, basically, other people’s incompetence which left me constantly scrambling to meet unpredictable deadlines. I just described the exact problem – the workload was such that I usually went to work not knowing if I’d be there until 3 pm or 3 am, and I was looking for something more predictable. Got hired basically immediately (for a bunch of reasons, but I think it helped that 1. the reason was understandable, and 2. the jobs I was applying to would clearly not have this same problem).

      1. Kiwiii*

        I love that. It seems that if there’s something poor to focus on, it works better to talk about how it directly effected /you/ rather than a problem with the company in general/as a whole.

        1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          Ding ding ding!

          It’s about YOU in the end, not THEM.

          And you want to make sure that you’re focusing on what works best for you so that the company who’s hiring knows your expectations.

          In my case I was able to say “60 hour weeks wasn’t working for me. I’m not looking to be strictly 40 hours by any means but I need it to be more spread out. Seasonal highs, I’m used to those and happy to deal with that kind of schedule shift! 45 hour weeks is nothing, I can do that continuously! I just don’t do well with 12 days straight that I have been expected to pull previously.”

          Or you mention how you’re looking for more structured days and how you thrive in a job that is somewhat predicable. Not that you cannot deal with curveballs, every job has them at some time. But you need to be catching a random fly ball here and there verses being in a batting cage from wake up to bed time.

    4. smoke tree*

      Yeah, it’s really similar to other kinds of oversharing with people you don’t know well. If I don’t know anything about you except that you’re quick to open up about the flaws of other people I don’t know, my default assumption is probably going to be that you’re the unreasonable one, since you’re already going against social norms.

      I realize that it’s an easier mistake to make in an interview context because it is actually relevant information for the interviewee and their personal motivations, but it’s not actually very relevant for the interviewer so it feels like it’s coming out of nowhere.

  10. AnotherAlison*

    Yes. There are some words and phrases that I don’t care for and immediately make a poor impression on me. “Toxic job” is one. “Dream job” is another, fwiw. I have been fortunate to work at generally good places that sometimes drive me crazy, but I have read enough here to understand “toxic” exists. The problem is I don’t know in one interview if you’re at one of those places, or if you are the unreasonable one–like my cousin who quit a HVAC service tech job that had the audacity to have him, the new guy, on call on Thanksgiving. Once you’ve been hired somewhere and get to know your team, sure, tell them all the horror stories from OldJob, but don’t lead the interview with that.

    1. Door Guy*

      On your cousin – as long as he was capable of doing the work (i.e. not a half-trained trainee) should a call come in, that’s not an unreasonable job (typically) that just comes with being the new guy. If the other workers had to work other holidays, it’s not fair to ask them to take another one while a perfectly capable worker hasn’t had to do any.

      I’ve done the service repairs around family gatherings because when it breaks, it breaks. Especially with hvac, where depending on where he lives, could be a family freezing because their furnace was out. In fact, Thanksgiving was my favorite holiday to work and the one I always volunteered for. Customers felt sorry for you and I typically came home with enough food to feed my whole family!

      We were available to be scheduled 365 days a year. Whenever someone complained about a holiday (especially a religious holiday) we had to remind them that not all of our customers celebrate those days, but they DO use our product. Granted, we tried to minimize and most people don’t want to take an appointment on a holiday either. We’d also pull ahead any work that did schedule if possible.

      1. Red Wheelbarrow*

        That was good background information! To be fair, though, I think that was AnotherAlison’s point: “if you are the unreasonable one–like my cousin who quit a HVAC service tech job that had the audacity to have him, the new guy, on call on Thanksgiving.” I’m pretty sure “audacity” is ironic here, and “unreasonable” is the key point.

        1. AnotherAlison*

          Right – there is a very long backstory about my (now deceased) cousin, but basically he was someone who would look for any excuse to leave a job. He was someone who thought doing something like being on call was unreasonable. My husband is an electrician, my dad’s a truck driver, and my sister is a nurse, so I am well-versed in the types of jobs that don’t let you have off just because it’s Memorial Day and how the workload must be spread, but I don’t mind Door Guy’s explanation!

      2. Evan Þ.*

        I agree with everything else you’re saying, but I hope you don’t literally mean “available to be scheduled 365 days a year”? What if an employee goes on vacation, has a religious holiday, or gets married – would you give them those days off from being scheduled?

        1. Kiwiii*

          I think they mean that they had Someone was able to be scheduled every day of the year, not that Everyone was was able to be scheduled every day of the year

        2. Door Guy*

          Not every person, but the office took appointments 365 days a year. All holidays were USUALLY partial staff and partial days (we’d get a memo about 2 weeks out with exactly how many to have and in what service regions) and ask for volunteers. If no one volunteered we drew names out of a hat. If you had volunteered previously in the year, your name didn’t go in the hat, but if you had been pulled from the hat on a prior holiday you got put back in.

          We didn’t have to go to the hat too often, as there was usually someone in the office who didn’t have plans (or who had evening plans not morning/early afternoon plans)

        3. Not So NewReader*

          Where I have seen companies say this they mean you cannot get a second job. If you have a second job you are not available for that time and hence you do not have open availability. The next step is you lose your job or get demoted. There is a grocery store near me that expect you have 24/7 open, you can work any shift at any time.

          More relevant to this particular discussion, there is a large well-known office products company that required open availability. I have heard of their repair employees working 36 hours straight. One time a person lost their ability to drive in hour 24 so their spouse drove them for the next 12 hours.

          And these companies tell you that you are salary, so they don’t pay OT like they should.
          In a way, I don’t blame your cousin for leaving this one without knowing the exact setting. Some of these places chew people up and spit them out.

      3. TootsNYC*

        If I were in HVAC or similar, one of the bonuses of being on call (or even on duty) for a holiday is that I would feel like a hero!

        The furnace breaks on Christmas? I swoop in to save that family’s holiday!
        I read WAY too many comic books as a kid.

        Not all heros wear capes (and capes are dangerous anyway)–some of them have wrenches.

        1. AnotherAlison*

          Plus, actual monetary bonuses. My sister does her nursing PRN now and a night shift holiday is like gold.

          1. Librarianne*

            Exactly. My sister and I have coordinated our schedules so we both either spend a holiday with our mom or with our in-laws. If we kids aren’t around, my mom picks up that sweet holiday overtime pay.

            1. Jules the 3rd*

              We do most of our holidays with gparents a week shifted from the actual holidays – it works great except for xmas.

        2. RabbitRabbit*

          I know someone who – back before Amazon’s next-day delivery – was the newbie letter carrier who had to deliver Express Mail packages on Christmas Day. He was right out of college and did not have kids at home missing Daddy around the tree or anything, so he was fine with that shift and the overtime pay. And you bet the customers were super-happy to see Santa’s Unofficial Helper show up at the door with that present that just wouldn’t fit on Santa’s sleigh. Yes, he had tips offered, took tips if they insisted.

        3. Door Guy*

          I worked in Satellite TV repair, and I got a standing ovation one Thanksgiving because I got it working just in time for kickoff on the football game.

        4. Librarian of SHIELD*

          The HVAC Repair Technician Who Saved Christmas should absolutely be a children’s picture book.

    2. CMart*

      Yep, I think a lot of us know someone (probably a family member) who is on their 10th job in 5 years because they ~somehow~ keep ending up in “toxic” workplaces with “toxic” people, and for better or worse have that in the back of our minds when we hear the word.

      I do indeed know truly soul-crushing and unreasonable workplaces exist. But I’ve also heard my brother in law come home after quitting mid-shift to rant about how the toxic manager wrote him up for coming back from break an hour late, and he doesn’t have to subject himself to that kind of capitalist humiliation.

      1. AnotherAlison*

        Thanks for reminding me that my BIL is another one of those like my previously described cousin and your BIL. Married to the same sister I mentioned in my other comments. She works two jobs and is pregnant. He currently works no job, but he’s thinking about taking on a P/T holiday job because he’s bored. That sound you hear is my head exploding.

        1. Door Guy*

          Ick. My BIL’s g/f could never hold down a job. She’s over 30, still lives with her parents, doesn’t drive, and has a history of quitting in the first few weeks (mid first-shift once even) because the jobs are “too stressful”.

          1. nonymous*

            Well you know the person you’re talking about and whether she is reasonable or not, but if someone was truly that stressed by working they should follow up with a health practitioner and get medical treatment, possibly qualify for disability. (I’m envisioning someone having panic attacks or vomiting repeatedly during the shift).

      2. Librarianne*

        Ah, yes… like my own BIL who was fired during his probation period for violating a basic company policy, but had a sob story about how this was completely unfair.

  11. Jenn G*

    I want to hire people who are going to do a good to great job well, and stay a long time, and not create situations where other staff want to leave. That is, a minimum of drama.

    Your answer, OP, unfortunately would put your drama points out of whack. I might even believe you, but it’s a risk thing.

    1. PSB*

      All of this. And also, even if I believed you, your willingness to put it that way implies you’re not familiar with the professional norm of not badmouthing former employers in interviews. It would make me wonder if there are other workplace norms you might not know.

    2. Kiwiii*

      Yes, this! Parts of the response were jargon-y and weird in other ways, but my alarm bells really went off at “which in my opinion was breeding chaos and fostering a toxic work culture where no one trusted or supported anyone” — because you can’t say that in an interview.

  12. I WORKED on a Hellmouth*

    Hey OP! I feel for you–the last place I worked was incredibly horrible, and I was really stressed out about those “why are you leaving” questions when I was interviewing. The horrible company actually wound up ceasing to exist (which made answering the question a lot easier), but before that happened I stuck to saying things like “Well, when I originally signed on for my position I was told I would primarily be doing X, but actually wound up taking on several different major roles that were outside of the scope of the advertised role, and X is really where I want to be focused. That’s one of the reasons that I am so interested in this opening–I see that would be a big part of my duties, and….” It made a big difference! One of the things I tried to keep in mind was making sure my answers couldn’t ever raise any questions about whether *I* was the issue–I kept it bland and focused on honest but universally palatable answers for those kind of questions.

    1. Door Guy*

      I’m so glad that a job I held for about 6 months ceased to exist, because it’s so much easier to say “They are no longer in business” rather than “The owner retired and left it to his son, who fired all the competent people and hired his buddies, and there wasn’t an ounce of business sense between them.”

      1. starsaphire*

        My husband has a very similar story! He jumped ship just a few months before the last rat abandoned the lumber yard.

        What is it with people hiring their friends and then refusing to make them do any work? Oy.

      2. Kiwiii*

        This is happening at boyfriend’s job right now and it’s like “i get that your boss likes you more than the rest of your competent coworkers he’s systematically fired over the last three months, but that might just mean that you’re fired last, not not at all”

    2. Parenthetically*

      Thank God, both for your sake and ours, that you had FOTs for catharsis so you wouldn’t be tempted to brain-dump at an interviewer!

      1. I WORKED on a Hellmouth*

        Right? If I had brain dumped at an interview I probably would have really scared some people.
        “Well, you see, the place has been literally on fire a few times, I found secret microphones and cameras in my office, we got locked into the office for an hour while a meth head with a bat tried to get us, this one building kept getting struck by lightning and water from our ponds started going missing, I got spit on a few times, and then there were the squirrels…” No way anyone would ever, ever. EVER hire me.

        1. Kiwiii*

          “one time a car chase ended outside the building and it wasn’t even in the top five crazy things that happened that day”

        2. Lab Manager Guy*

          “…and then there were the squirrels…” is a lovely end to a recitation of ridiculous events; even if it’s not literally true (which, it was, in your case?), it’s perfect metaphorically.

          1. pcake*

            You should find some of Hellmouth’s old posts about her job. There was a tenant who believed that a particular squirrel was out to get him…

            1. Alice's Rabbit*

              There was a squirrel outside my sister’s college dorm that was definitely out to get the students. It loved to pelt them with acorn caps as they passed, laughing and chittering.

        3. Librarian of SHIELD*

          If you were to write a novel where the main character had all the experiences you had at that job, your editor would tell you to scale some of it back because the audience wouldn’t be able to believe that many bad things could happen in a single work week.

    3. Falling Diphthong*

      “I left because the place was overrun with demon squirrels plotting against people’s trucks” is such an awesome reason to leave, but probably not one that gets you hired in the new place.

    4. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      “I’m looking to retire as a vampire slayer but think that my skills of slaughtering demons will work beautifully for your position.”

      But seriously, I was so thrilled when I found out that ownership changed at my demon job. Now I get to smile and say that sadly the business model wasn’t sustainable as is and[as I tried to explain multiple times but alas…] change didn’t come fast enough, boohoo to them.

  13. animaniactoo*

    OP, think about how you would phrase this if you were under a non-disclosure agreement about how that company operated at all. That kind of vagueness is what you’re looking for when answering the interview question.

    Something along the lines of “It was an environment that I could manage, but didn’t feel that I operated well in* and decided it would be better to find a position where open communication and collaboration is prioritized.”

    *alternately: didn’t find that I enjoyed operating in

  14. AndersonDarling*

    Like Alison said, keep it vague. If the interviewer wants to prod, then they will ask some deeper questions. In that case, I would have some examples about the toxic culture that anyone would be able to recognize as terrible. Lots of gossiping, backstabbing, managers would berate and belittle staff in front of other staff, or managers would throw objects when they got mad…whichever one fits, have it ready. But still, keep it short. We know there are terrible work environments, but the interviewers are looking to see how well you have moved on.
    But really, they just want to know if you were fired from your last job and if the reason you left will be in your new role. As long as your response starts with “I moved on because…” you are halfway there.

    1. AndersonDarling*

      Also, you can use the bad-news-sandwich. Start with “I really liked the work I was doing, but…[Insert reason for departure]…and I’m hoping to find a job where I can get back to doing the work I enjoy.”

    2. TootsNYC*

      Lots of gossiping, backstabbing, managers would berate and belittle staff in front of other staff, or managers would throw objects when they got mad…whichever one fits, have it ready. But still, keep it short.

      I think this is too much drama. It sucks all the attention away from you and your skills.

      I’d say “feedback was uneven and not particularly professional–I like to have collegial transfer of information, and I’m always happen to get corrections from my boss, but it wasn’t an effective system there.”

      1. fposte*

        Yes, I totally agree. However horrifying you found the job, you don’t really want the hiring manager to be horrified, because that’s distracting. Some of these also, ironically, risk sounding gossipy in their own right; it’s kind of like “toxic” in that “backstabbing” is a very dramatic word that can mean more about the speaker than the behavior.

    3. annony*

      Yep. Vague phrases like “toxic workplace” are going to make people wary. It is far better to say “It wasn’t a great culture fit. I do better in a collaborative workplace with open communication.” It implies that it wasn’t a great place to work without actually badmouthing anyone

  15. Door Guy*

    When I was leaving my last job, I told interviewers the truth…to a point. I mentioned the long hours, long weeks, and that my kids were getting older and I was missing out on them growing up as well as their school functions due to last second work popping up and that I was looking for something more in line with a set schedule. I also had mentioned going back to school that I want to do but couldn’t due to never knowing if I’d be able to make it to class.

    My interviewer didn’t need to know (or care to know) about all the things I hated about the job; about why I was leaving. I used an example that was both true and yet a very common reason for someone to look to move on with a small example of direct impact to personal life.

    1. Joielle*

      Yeah, I think this is good advice – OP should look for one thing that was wrong with the job that’s a pretty common reason to leave a job, and leave it at that. Long hours, long commute, low pay, no room for growth, looking for new challenges… something common but fairly objective, that sets the old job apart from the job you’re interviewing for.

      You don’t have to convince the interviewer that it was a terrible place. No need to go into too many details.

    2. The Man, Becky Lynch*

      Yes and this will give them a clear vision of what you expect in terms of schedule/hours.

      Sure it may make a few people go “Yikes, we work 75 hour weeks here and every weekend, this guy is not our guy.” but in my case it wasn’t on par for the job scopes I regularly take on. So everyone was shocked by the hours being kept and understood why I was leaving.

      They don’t need to know the drama. Everyone who’s reasonable knows that people don’t like toxicity, bad leadership, asshole bosses that scream at you and all that nastiness. They don’t need the gory details, since it just sounds like dramatics and make your mind start forming their own horror story scenarios about “what if it’s the employee, not the employer…”

  16. nonbinarian*

    What about when my previous job had my boss literally throwing things at me? I often found it hard to answer some in depth questions about that job without addressing some of the stuff that was happening. Especially “what is one thing you’d change in how you were managed at your previous job?”

    1. starsaphire*

      “My former boss and I had very different work styles.”

      “The management style wasn’t a good fit for me. I work really well in an environment with open communication, and your company website indicates that open communication is a core value here…”

    2. AndersonDarling*

      I had a boss that would throw things!
      I found that the most important part was showing that I had separated myself from the situation and had moved on. I didn’t sound desperate or pity seeking, I just stated the fact and moved on.
      But honestly, if I could go back to those interviews, I’d find less charged things to say. I’d translate the throwing things into “I would have preferred more frequent and honest communication with my manager so I could have interpreted their needs better.”

    3. Ask a Manager* Post author

      With really shocking stuff like that, for some reason it tends to work best if you first mention the general pattern, and then give one egregious example of the pattern. So in your case, maybe something like: “The culture was pretty chaotic there. I’m pretty flexible, but when my boss threw a chair at someone, I realized I wanted to move on.”

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        And I actually changed “threw it at me” to “threw it at someone” because that actually tamps down the drama a bit (in terms of the interviewer’s reaction, which already going to be googly-eyed).

        1. Archie Goodwin*

          I had a similar experience leaving my last job. I was there only three months and change, but left because the environment was so bad. When people asked in interviews why I’d left, I cited the turnover on the previous contract. It was a four-person contract; two positions were stable for the two years it existed, but the company cycled through six people in the other two roles during that same time; I was number five. When I put it that bluntly, with the numbers, people understood WHY I saw it as a management issue.

          I left that job in early February and interviewed for my current role in mid-May, and was hired soon thereafter.

        2. Oh No She Di'int*

          I agree with this point. If it is simply UNAVOIDABLE that negatives about OldBoss and OldJob be mentioned, I would make it about an unnamed “someone else”. I would think that would leave either a neutral or possibly even positive impression, as it makes you look like someone who can read a situation and make sound decisions in response.

        3. nonbinarian*

          I like that. I had a bit of trauma left over from that job so giving the distance like that would also help ME

    4. Jaybeetee*

      Heh, I was thinking there could be exceptions made for when the workplace behaviour was egregious by every standard. “Why did you leave your last position?” “Well, my boss got day-drunk during a lunch meeting and punched me for disagreeing with a proposal.” “…” But even then, deploy that wisely.

    5. TootsNYC*

      “I like feedback to be detailed and forward-looking; I’m always trying to tweak the systems I use to get work done and done right. Having specific and actionable direction is a powerful thing. I’d want more of that, I think.”

    6. ManagerOfSomething*

      I once had an interviewee explain that the reason they left their previous job was because their manager would yell at them and that it was an “unhealthy” workplace. I was very sympathetic and felt it was a reasonable reason to leave and so I hired him. It took about a month to realize that the person I hired was fond of over-dramatizing everything and was widely out of touch with workplace norms. By about the 3 month mark no one in the department could stand working with him and I eventually had to fire him because he wasn’t able to leave the drama and just do his job.

      Unfortunately, now I see any reference to a toxic workplace as a huge red-flag. Many of us have been unfortunate enough to survive a toxic workplace, I get that. But if you talk about it on the interview, I’m going to be wondering…you?…or them?

      1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

        Yes, this is crucial.

        In reality, we all know that toxic awful work places exist and people want to escape them. It’s unfortunate that we have to kind of wiggle and weave ourselves around the flat truth of “The circus owners were tyrants who tried to personally destroy each one of us any way possible” to come out the other side without getting any of that tar on yourself in the process.

        In the end, it’s like selling a product. If I’m selling you a computer, I’m going to tell you about all the great things it can do and how it can make your life easier, get the job done, etc. I leave out the messy parts about how you have to reboot or deal with it crashing time to time. Oh and the computer hates being punched and kicked…because the last owner punched and hit it. Then you start thinking “Wait, what? I don’t want any of that. That sounds like a headache.”

    7. Alice's Rabbit*

      “My former boss was a very forceful personality, which made him difficult to approach.”

      1. TootsNYC*

        this turns the focus from you and why you’re a good employee to the boss.

        And you could just be easily offended; the interviewer doesn’t know.

        Say something like, “I want to be comfortable getting direction from my boss; I’m the person who turns their intentions into concrete action, so good communication there is key to me.”

        They can read between the lines. But you sound great!

  17. kwagner*

    Ah, OP, I just did the same thing. Don’t feel too bad haha. I was asked why I left my second-to-previous job at a large national retailer. I left that job because the massive company was going in a direction that left long-time employees chaotically floundering in a variety of ways. I even tried to tone it down but I ended up talking wayyyy too much about it and, despite the rest of the interview going well, I’m pretty sure that’s why I didn’t get the position. So here’s my solidarity comment! We live and we learn :)

    1. Ama*

      I floundered my way through a few oversharing interview answers before I started practicing my answers to common questions in advance (or just questions where I feared I might start saying more than I meant to). You don’t want it to sound overly rehearsed but if you can come up with a few comfortable phrases to fall back on it really helps prevent the kind of oversharing that tends to happen when you are nervous in an interview.

      1. kwagner*

        Agreed! I wasn’t expecting to be asked about why I left, since I was in the middle of a new job, which I think added to the weirdness of my answer. Now I have a nice bland answer ready to go

  18. #1 The Larch*

    OP I do understand where you are coming from. My ExJob was a very similar situation. Truly a toxic culture and an environment where everyone was out for their own best interests. The best way to explain that situation is to soften the language and say something along the lines of “the culture of my former employer didn’t match with my expectations. I wish them well and hope they find/found someone more in line with what they are looking for.” My own issue with ExJob was how they handled training. I simply said “their training was disjointed and unstructured and had that been more structured and focused, I’d still be there.” It says that I liked the company and their mission but showed why I left. My two cents.

  19. HR Ninja*

    No matter what your truth is, there’s a big difference between “All of my exes were crazy!” vs “I haven’t been able to find the right match for me yet.”

  20. Alex*

    Ah, yes. The real reason I left my old job? I was getting paid at the lowest level (barely a living wage even though I had roommates) yet was getting assigned work that my boss or other more senior people were supposed to be doing, but also getting told there was no money for raises.

    What did I say? “I’ve realized I’ve outgrown this job and am ready for some more challenging work.”

  21. rayray*

    Thanks for posting this. I feel like my mind was read. I’m getting back to job hunting, simply put, my new boss is a terrible boss and I hate the job. There’s no room to move around, so leaving the company is my only option. I was actually thinking about submitting a question about this or waiting til Friday to ask others. This is great, because I was wondering how I’d answer the question tactfully and politely.

    1. TootsNYC*

      Here is your answer to this question:
      There’s no room to move around, so leaving the company is my only option.

      Everyone assumes that of course you will want to move up, partly for more money, and partly because people get bored with a job and want more-interesting work.

      1. Oh No She Di'int*

        Agree. This seems like a completely legitimate and neutral reason for leaving a place that doesn’t actually say anything negative about that work environment. You’re simply describing what it is.

      2. 1234*

        But this answer would only work if you’ve been at your current role for quite some time. “There is no room to move around” wouldn’t work if you’ve been there for 3 months.

        1. The Man, Becky Lynch*

          Yeah if you haven’t been there for at least a couple of years, “There’s no upward mobility available” is going to be met with “Yeah…most places don’t have any mobility for someone who’s been there for such little time…so…”

          If it’s been a short stint, the best response is that it’s a bad fit but in general, it’ll still make everyone pause a bit unless you click with them specifically.

        2. TootsNYC*

          You could conceivably say, “I know it’s been a short time, but I’ve realized there isn’t room for growth–I’m using old skills and not learning new ones, and their software and processes are outdated. There are still things to learn, of course, but not as many as I would like. I’m a little afraid I’ll end up stagnant, so I’ve started low-key looking–it can take a while. Your opening seems to have the opportunity for learning that I wish I’d gotten with this job.”

          1. rayray*

            Ok, I feel so seen. This is scary accurate to just part of the issue I have here. I know you just had an example but DANG. I could seriously use this almost verbatim.

    2. Librarianne*

      A simple “I’m looking for increased responsibility/to take the next step in career, and that’s unfortunately not possible at my current workplace” can also work. It’s what I said in my interviews, even though it was only 5% of the reason I wanted to leave my last job.

      1. rayray*

        Thank you, everyone! I appreciate your kindness in helping me figure out a good thing to say. I’ve been at the job 6 months which I know isn’t long. It just isn’t working out, and any of my friends I have talked to and commenters here on open thread Fridays have all advised that I look for something different when I have explained specifics. I actually stayed with my last two companies for about 6 years each, definitely not a job hopper so I feel okay having this one short stint on my resume.

        1. londonedit*

          Very late replying, but I think in your case if you get the ‘So why are you looking to move on after only six months?’ question it would be totally fine to say something like ‘As you can see from my employment history, I usually like to stay with a company for a good few years, but I realised fairly quickly that this particular job just isn’t right for me. I enjoy being in a role where I can [highlight one or two positives from the job description you’re applying to] and it’s clear to me that those opportunities aren’t likely to become available in my current position, so I’m looking for a job that will allow me to build on my skills and really put down roots’.

          1. rayray*

            Thank you! I appreciate the help and advise, I will probably bookmark this so I can refer back to it :).

            I doubt anyone is coming back for this thread, so I won’t waste time getting into details, but this job has just been difficult on me. I really dread it every day. I am hopeful that my job history will demonstrate that I do stick around and work hard, it just didn’t work this time.

  22. She*

    In one of my previous jobs, my manager left and my team was absorbed by a different manager. The new manager had a very negative management style that made me feel like I was a constant failure. Also, our team’s responsibilities had changed so much over time that my job felt like pure bureaucracy that didn’t actually contribute any value to the company.

    When I interviewed for a transfer into a different job title in another department, I told them that I had working in teapot governance for 5 years, and it was time to get back into a more hands-on role with teapots and that I was interested in broadening my skill sets. No mention of how I didn’t like my manager or that I felt like my job was pointless. I focused on why I wanted to move into the new role.

    1. SomebodyElse*

      I always think these are the best answers. As a candidate you want to show why you are going to something good vs. running away from something bad.

      I think it’s the same thing you would tell someone looking to buy your house. You’re going to tell them you love the house, and are sad to move, but you’ve outgrown the available bedrooms or found a new house that you couldn’t pass up because of the commute or garden or whatever. You are not going to tell the perspective buyer, that you’re tired of the roof leaking, only have one outlet in the bathroom and the squirrel infestation in the attic (well I guess you will when you fill out your disclosure form… but you know what I mean)

      1. Alice's Rabbit*

        Excellent point. Focusing on where you want to be is always great.
        “I realized I need to be able to unwind and recharge in the evening to do my best work, so I’m looking for a job that lets non-emergency situations wait until morning. ” It clearly says that your previous employer thought she owned your every waking moment, but without the drama of actually saying it. Also, it let’s them know that you understand the difference between day-to-day correspondence and a real emergency.
        It puts the focus on A) your needs and B) what you’re looking for in a new position.

    2. TootsNYC*

      my job felt like pure bureaucracy that didn’t actually contribute any value to the company.

      This would be a fine answer as well.

  23. Not a Blossom*

    I’m going to disagree with saying this: “but I got it wrong this time.” You don’t have to be negative about your previous employer, but if I were interviewing someone who said this, it would, rightly or wrongly, make me think they were to blame. I would say something about the work or the mission or the management style changing.

  24. Quill*

    I still get questions like this about when I left Lab From Hell two years ago, so I’m going to be scouring this comments section for advice.

  25. i_am_eating_cheetos*

    Thank you so much for this answer! I recently conducted a series of interviews and one candidate went in-depth about the toxic culture of her previous 6 jobs. Details like how much money the company wasted, and how her employers were mean to her. I don’t doubt they were bad situations, and I felt bad for her, but it was a terrible interview.

    1. PSB*

      That would immediately make me think, “If you meet a jerk in the morning, you met a jerk, but if you meet jerks all day…”

        1. Just Another Manic Millie*

          I’m retired now, but of the ten jobs that I’ve had (seven of which were put on my resume), six of them were toxic.

          Job #1 – I was told during the interview that the hours would be 9:00 AM to 5:30 PM Monday through Friday, but on my first day, I was told that my hours would be 9:00 AM to midnight Monday through Friday, plus 9:00 to 5:00 PM on Saturday, plus Sunday morning. With no overtime. I managed to leave at 9:00 PM on my first day. I gave notice on my second day, saying that I would work 9:00 AM to 5:30 PM Monday through Friday until they found a replacement for me. Two days later, I was told not to come back. That job did not go on my resume. TOXIC

          Job #2 – I knocked myself out being friendly and cheerful and doing as good a job as possible. I was never given the slightest bit of criticism. I was never told that I had made a typo in a letter or a report. (I was an excellent typist and I always diligently proofread everything before submission.) I was never told that I had handled a situation badly. I was never told that what I did or said was okay, but if I had said or done X, it would have been better. I was led to believe that I was doing a great job. Imagine my surprise when, as I picked up my supervisor’s mail to give to him, a piece of his newspaper tore off, and when I picked it up, I saw that it was an ad for my job! I asked him what was going on, and he said that he always fired his assistant before she was there for one year, so that he wouldn’t have to give her a raise, and she wouldn’t be able to take a vacation. TOXIC

          Job #3 – Even though it was at a family-owned company, and I left because they decided to stop giving raises to employees who weren’t relatives, I do not consider that job to be toxic.

          Job #4 – I was hired to work for a stockbroker, and I was told by the employment agency guy, the branch manager, the office manager, the stockbroker, the stockbroker’s son (who was also a stockbroker), and the sales assistant that experience working for a stockbroker wasn’t necessary. After I started working there, I found out that experience (which I did not have) was necessary, because they weren’t interested in training me. The stockbroker screamed constantly because I didn’t know how to do what I hadn’t been taught how to do. And he complained about me constantly to the branch manager, the complaints being boiled down to my inability to be in two places at the same time. Some times the two places were on different floors. TOXIC

          Job #5 – I was so happy to get this job (which was at a branch office consisting of three executives and two admins, one of which was me) after Job #4, and while I tried to do a good job, I kept a low profile. Nevertheless, one of the executives to me in fromt of the other admin that I was better at typing and shorthand than the other admin. She burst into tears, shouted “I’m going home!” and ran out the door. The next day, the branch manager fired me, saying that the other admin told him that if he didn’t fire me, she would quit, and she had been there for years, while I had been there for only eight weeks. The employee handbook said that employees who were fired before their three months of probation were completed were ineligible for rehire by any of their branch offices, so I was ineligible for rehire. Just because an executive thought that I did a good job. This job did not go on my resume. TOXIC

          Job #6 – The Job From H*ll. I won’t go into details, but trust me, it was just as bad there as any toxic job from H*ll that you’ve read about. TOXIC

          Job #7 – Not toxic.

          Job #8 – Another Job From H*ll. I was hired to be an admin, but it was bait and switch – I was told on my first day that I had to cover for the receptionist, who was on vacation, only to be told that I would do that job permanently, and when the receptionist returned, she would be given another job. And I eventually found out that there wasn’t even a receptionist on vacation, that they had planned all along to make me be the receptionist. The relief receptionist wouldn’t give me any relief so that I could go to the restroom – if she passed by my desk and I asked her, she ignored me and kept on walking. If I buzzed her, she would pick up the phone and promptly hang up on me. One day, when the office manager was out, she hid from me so that I couldn’t go out to lunch. Luckily, she passed by me at 4:00 PM, so I grabbed her and asked her to cover so that I could go to the ladies room. When she sat down, I said that I was going out for lunch, and I wouldn’t be back. I gave two weeks notice the next day, after I was there for three weeks. This job did not go on my resume. Glassdoor is full of complaints about this company. TOXIC

          Job #9 – Not toxic.

          Job #10 – Not toxic, even though the owner was a control freak, and said at first that the company would be closed on Monday, December 31, but then changed her mind and wanted me to come in that day. I would have been the only person in the office that day. Luckily, another employee persuaded her to change her mind and let me have the day off.

          1. Sal*

            you may be proving the point here! Explaining why something is toxic is always going to require a little more information than you want to devote to this question in an interview.

            1. Just Another Manic Millie*

              Sorry. Force of habit, I guess.

              Anyway, I’ll give you one reason why Job #6, the Job From Hell, was the worst job I had. The company never ordered pens, claiming that people always walked off with them, so we had to bring them from home. One morning, I opened my desk drawer to find it crammed full of the tops of Bic pens. Someone had gone to a lot of trouble putting them in my desk drawer. The office manager promptly showed up and accused me of having stolen all of those pens.

              I said, “I did not steal those pens. Why would I steal pens and leave all of those tops in my desk drawer for you to find? And why would I steal Bic pens without their tops anyway? The pens would make ink marks inside my pocketbook.” She grudgingly conceded that I hadn’t stolen the pens.

              But then I freaked out. I was convinced that one day, an employee might complain that he couldn’t find his wallet, and that after I left work (I let at 5:00 PM – everyone else left later), he might go into my desk, saying that he was looking for a stapler or paper clips or something, and then pretend to find his wallet there. He might even say that he had had hundreds of dollars in his wallet, and now all of his money was gone. The company would call the police, and they would all lie and say that they had all seen me hanging around that guy’s office that day. (They had gaslighted me before and had told lies about me before.)

              I freaked out so much that I made myself sick. I was certain that if this happened, I would get arrested, and I didn’t know how I would convince the policeman that I hadn’t done anything. I wasn’t even sure if a jury would acquit me. So I gave two weeks notice, and I was so relieved that they didn’t pretend that I had stolen anything during my final two weeks.

              Since they all seemed to hate me, and I didn’t know what I had done to make them hate me so much, and they never told me what I had done to make them hate me so much, I wondered why they had hired me in the first place.

              1. Diahann Carroll*

                What was your vetting process like when you took these jobs? Because some of this stuff sounds like it could have been avoided if you did some deep probing in the Q&A portion of the interview.

                1. Just Another Manic Millie*

                  I started my first and second jobs in 1973, so no internet. Regarding Job #1, I don’t know what I could have done to make sure that the hours I was told during the interview (9:00 AM to 5:30 PM Monday through Friday) would be the actual hours that I was expected to work.

                  Regarding Job #2, people might say that I should have asked “How long did the former employee have this job?” I never asked this question during any interview I ever had, figuring that the interviewer could lie, and I would never know. What’s funny is that only once, when I was interviewed for Job #10 (a company consisting of five people), did the interviewer (who was the owner) volunteer that the woman who had held the job had left because she wanted to work for a big company. After I started working there, the owner told me that the woman hadn’t left because she wanted to work for a big company – she left because she was fired. She told me that she fired the woman because she spent all day shopping online. Sometime after that, a co-worker told me that the woman had found a new job and wanted to give the owner two weeks notice, but the owner wasn’t in that day. The co-worker told me that he told her to send the owner an email, but the woman didn’t want to. So she waited a few days for the owner to return and then gave notice in person. Of course, it was less than two weeks notice, and the owner told her to get out immediately, and the co-worker said that since the owner told the woman to get out, she considers herself to have have fired the woman.

                  Regarding Job #4, since I was assured by six people that experience working for a stockbroker was not necessary, since I would be trained for the job, and one of the six people told me that he would be responsible for training me, I had no reason not to believe them.

                  Regarding Job #5, I don’t know what I could have done to avoid getting fired. There was no way I could ask during the interview if the other admin had insecurity issues. I didn’t flaunt my abilities. I just tried to do a good job and make them glad that they had hired me.

                  Regarding Job #6, I really should have left sooner. But my resume showed that I stayed at my first job (actually Job #2) for seven months, my next job for over eleven years, and my next job for five months. I did not include the eight weeks at job #5. Maybe that’s why they hired me. Maybe they thought that I was desperate since (they thought) I had been out of work for those eight weeks, and I would put up with anything. Maybe they were looking for someone that they could be mean to and would stay there and take it. One reason that I didn’t leave sooner is that I was afraid that I would look like a job-hopper, or maybe someone who just couldn’t adapt to another company after having stayed at one for over eleven years. But even if I had left sooner, it still would have been a Job From Hell.

                  Regarding Job #8, which was another Job From Hell, the ad called for an admin with a college degree who could type at least 80 wpm, and the ad said that there was “a unique opportunity for advancement.” I don’t know how to figure out from an interview that when you interview for one job, you’ll get shoved into another job on your first day. I told them that I did not consider working as a receptionist when I was hired to be an admin with a college degree who could type 80 wpm to be “a unique opportunity for advancement.”

                  At Jobs #4, #6, and #7 (which was not toxic), I got into trouble for not being able to be in two places at the same time. Being in two places at the same time means that someone might look into this office at 17 seconds past 10:19 AM and see you there doing X, and someone else might look into that office over there at 17 seconds past 10:19 AM and see you there doing something that probably isn’t X. Being in two places at the same time does not mean running back and forth and back and forth and back and forth between two places, because during the time that you spend running back and forth, you aren’t in either place.

                  But I finally learned how to figure out during an interview if being in two places at the same time would be required. Once, while being interviewed by two women, I put two and two together and figured out that for a good part of each day, I would have to be in two places at the same time. I asked them about this, and they said yes, and then they looked at each other with a look that said “This one is going to be trouble” and, as I expected, I wasn’t offered the job. Of course, if I had been offered it, I would not have accepted it.

            2. JSPA*

              Normally I’d ignore your comment (under the rule and corollary to the rule, no sniping at people’s writing and word choices / but even worse is to comment on those comments) except… you’re not debating grammar, you’re debating religious sensitivity. Surely people are allowed to please their own sense of decorum, manners, and whatever religious dictates they may have. Nobody’s required to spell out a religious or religion-adjacent term to prove they are “adult.” Neither do they have to put up with sexual language in the workplace to prove that “we’re all adults here.” Besides, you don’t know if there’s a kid reading over manic Millie’s shoulder. (We’ve even hashed through why some faiths use “G-d,” and some write “H-ll,” before).

          2. Diahann Carroll*

            See, I would only consider Job #4 here toxic because of the yelling. The rest of your jobs IMO were just bad due to incompetence and the cowardice/poor training of management. That’s another reason why people shouldn’t describe their workplace as toxic in an interview – definitions of that word vary.

            1. Just Another Manic Millie*

              Job #6, which I really didn’t want to go into, which I consider to be the worst one of my jobs, was plenty toxic. And there was plenty of screaming. Here are some examples:

              1) I was at this job in the 1980’s, when word processors were starting to come out. The office manager had a word processor, but I did not. I didn’t know how to use one. During my interview, she said that she would train me. She never did. She would type up lengthy documents on it and show them to the chairman for his approval. He always made changes in them. I was given the lists of changes to make. Since I didn’t know how to use the word processor, I would retype the documents on my typewriter. No one thought that I was using the word processor. I would hand back the documents along with the lists of changes. Then I would overhear the chairman complain that some changes had not been made. The office manager would say that I had typed up the documents, and he would scream and scream at me for not having made all of the changes. I would try to tell him that I had not been told about all of the changes, but he wouldn’t listen and kept screaming. Then I learned to make a copies of the lists of changes so that I could hold on to them and prove to him that I had not been told about all of the changes. Unfortunately, he always refused to look at the lists and kept screaming.

              2) Whenever the chairman was about to go into a meeting, he would tell me that if anyone called for him, I should give the call to someone else. But whenever those calls came in, the other employees refused to take them. They would pick up the phone and make personal calls so that I was unable to transfer calls to them, so I wound up taking messages. After the meeting, the chairman would find his phone messages and get angry that I hadn’t passed the calls along. I would tell him that the other employees refused to take the calls, but they insisted that they would have been happy to take the calls, but I hadn’t told them about them. The chairman would scream and scream at me. Whenever he left the office and called in to speak to a co-worker, the co-worker would say, “I’m on a really important call. Ask him to call back in a few minutes.” (The co-worker was really on the phone.) When I told the chairman this, he would scream “You put him on the phone right now!” Then the co-worker would tell the chairman, ‘I have no idea why Millie told you that. I wasn’t talking to anyone.” More screaming.

              3) I was supposed to start work at 9:00 AM, but one day, I was told that there would be an 8:30 AM meeting the next day with a client, so I would have to get to work by 8:15 AM the next day in order to make the coffee. In addition, I had to go to a bakery a half hour out of my way to pick up some danish for the meeting. (At least they gave me the money for the danish.) So the next day I showed up on time with the danish. The chairman decided that he wanted to dictate a letter. I said, “Sure, as soon as I make the coffee.” He insisted that I had to take the letter right then and there before I made the coffee. The office manager came in before I had a chance to make the coffee and screamed at me because I hadn’t made the coffee and had left the task to her. Then, after 8:30 AM, the client called to say that she was running late and wouldn’t get to our office until after 9:00 AM. Then the office manager and the chairman screamed at me because by the time she got to our office, the danish wouldn’t be fresh.

              4) I was hired to be a secretary and back-up receptionist, but on my first day, I was told that the receptionist had quit, so I would have to fill in for her until a replacement was hired. They never hired a replacement. It was extremely difficult for me to go to the ladies room or out to lunch, because it wasn’t anyone’s job to cover for me. There was no voicemail or answering service.

              5) To this day, I think the following was a plot against me. The office manager told me that a new co-worker told her that he would be coming to the office at 8:30 AM the next day, and he wanted someone there to work with him. “You’ll have to do it, because I’m certainly not going to do it!” she said. So I showed up at 8:20 AM the next day, only to find out that I couldn’t get into the office. I had a key to the front door, but not a key to the dead-bolt. It hadn’t mattered before, because no matter how early I got to work, there were always people in the office. But now it seemed that no one was there. Time kept passing by, and no one showed up. Finally the office manager showed up at 8:55 AM (no one else had shown up), and she asked me why I was standing in the hallway. I said that I didn’t have a key to the dead-bolt, and I had been standing there since 8:20 AM, and the co-worker who had said that he would be here at 8:30 AM hadn’t shown up. She screamed at me that he must have shown up before 8:20 AM and got angry that I wasn’t there and went somewhere to get coffee. That co-worker eventually showed up after 9:00 AM and didn’t say a word. I bet he never intended to get in early, and it was the office manager’s idea to make up the story and tell everyone to show up after 9:00 AM.

              6) A co-worker was in charge of getting breakfast for the chairman. Quite regularly, the chairman would tell him after eating half of his bagel, “I changed my mind. Take this back and get me a roll instead.” And the co-worker would not be given any additional money for it. The co-worker committed petty theft in the office to compensate himself.

              7) The office manager hated the chairman (we all did), and she would go around saying, “Dirty Jew, Dirty Jew.” A Jewish co-worker complained to her, saying that he found her remark offensive, and she said that she didn’t know why, because she was talking about the chairman, not the co-worker. There was no HR department. The office manager WAS the HR department.

              8) We were always closed on Columbus Day and had to come in on the day after Thanksgiving. One year, the chairman told us that we would come in on Columbus Day and get the day after Thanksgiving off. Fine, until the Monday before Thanksgiving, when he said that he had changed his mind, and we would have to come in the day after Thanksgiving. (But he wouldn’t be coming in.) People wanted to take the day off as a vacation day, but he said that four days notice was not enough. Luckily, he changed his mind the day before Thanksgiving.

              9) A co-worker went to Puerto Rico for a week during the summer. Before he left, the chairman decided that he had to come in on Friday, because Friday would be a busy day. (Fridays were nothing days in the summer.) So the guy flew home on Thursday night and came in to the office on Friday, where he (and everyone else) sat around and did nothing. He flew back to Puerto Rico Friday night. Another co-worker took a one-week vacation to a city a car-drive away. On Friday morning, the chairman wondered where he was. Why wasn’t he in the office? We tried telling him that the co-worker was out for the week, but the chairman insisted that he was supposed to be in the office that day, and he called the co-worker and screamed and screamed at him. He did not force him to come in, though.

              10) Once, someone threw out an empty box that had held Tetley bags. The chairman was furious and screamed and screamed and asked everyone if they had thrown it out. He asked me, and I said no, and he appeared to believe me. (I hadn’t thrown it out, which was a piece of luck, because if I had seen it, I would have thrown it out.) He was furious, because he hadn’t told anyone to throw it out. The next day, the office manager screamed at me for having thrown it out. I denied it, but she insisted that a co-worker had told her that I did. I asked the co-worker why he told her that, and he said that it was because he figured that I did. I got screamed at for throwing away milk that had gone bad, because, as the office manager said, no one had told me to do so.

              And there’s more. But believe me, this company was plenty toxic.

          3. i_am_eating_cheetos*

            And to prove your point, I did truly believe her—I don’t think it was just her, I think she had a series of bad jobs, especially as her position was administrative assistant. But hearing someone disparage so many companies in a row made me feel like I needed a shower, not like I wanted to spend more time with her!

          4. Goldenrod*

            This is a fascinating list, J.A.A.M.! It makes me realize that, in a way, every job I’ve had has been toxic …. :D Though, for years at a time, some of them were not, and some I would even describe as “dream jobs.” For a while. But then management (or something else) would change, and it would all go bad.

            1. Constantine Binvoglio*

              I hope you’re being facetious. Not only is this list stretching the limits of believability, but many of these are not what most people would consider “toxic” (a word that has no legal or clinical meaning, and which is severely overused).

      1. Oh No She Di'int*

        Exactly. I had an interview where the interviewee complained about the previous 2 jobs. That’s a far cry from 6, but even that was enough to raise eyebrows! Sure, it is absolutely possible to land in 2 toxic workplaces in a row. But given the lack of data–as Alison alludes to–you have to at least consider that that person is the problem, not the jobs.

        1. Just Another Manic Millie*

          Even though I had six toxic jobs, I never complained about them. All I ever said was, “I am looking to leave my current job because I want a change” or “I left my previous job because I wanted a change.” Sure, some companies tried and tried to get me to be specific about why I wanted to leave, but I refused to badmouth even the companies that treated me dreadfully. I kept saying that I wanted a change. Sure, some companies suspected that I had been fired from previous jobs. I couldn’t help that, but I refused to badmouth them.

          Now that I think about it, I realize that the companies that wound up hiring me didn’t ask me why I had left previous jobs. They just didn’t care. What they cared about was how I would fit in with them, not why I hadn’t fit in with previous companies.

      2. Lissa*

        Yeah, it’s like going on a date with a guy who tells you all about how every woman he was ever with betrayed him (ask me how I know, lol). Really raises some questions.

  26. Cucumberzucchini*

    I left a very toxic job, I was able to distill it down to some specific items that I didn’t want to find in new employee so I would say stuff like, “I’m looking for a place where you’re able to take your vacation time and where there is work life balance” that was only one of my toxic work place issues but something that was a biggie for me in a future job. So if the employer didn’t like that answer I could safely assume it would be another churn and burn you out type job.

  27. Curmudgeon in California*

    Yeah, definitely don’t call them “toxic”.

    At the very least, leave out “There was a lack of direction from leadership, which in my opinion was breeding chaos and fostering a toxic work culture where no one trusted or supported anyone.”

    Also, substitute “didn’t enable me to contribute ethically” for “didn’t align with my interpretation of our mission.” Your interpretation of their mission is unimportant from a management standpoint, whether you can contribute ethically (or effectively) is, IMO.

  28. Dust Bunny*

    I left my last job because . . .

    Official Job Interview Answer: I was looking for an opportunity to use my combined history and science/sorta-medical backgrounds.

    Unofficial Answer: . . . and also I was massively underpaid, tired of not getting benefits, and sick of the lack of respect shown employees by my previous employer.

    But it’s really not to your advantage to turn negative here. You don’t want to start a new job on that note. Your interviewers are not children: They know that people leave jobs for reasons that they’re probably not eager to highlight in an interview. You don’t need to spill all the beans.

  29. Me*

    Additional general language insight: saying “but” tends to negate the part of the sentance that came before it. It’s just how we process language – certain phrasing has connotation and you always want to give off a positive connotation in a job interview.

    So even if everything that came after the first sentence was different, with that “but” you already set up a negative vibe.

    If it helps think about why things like “I’m not trying to be rude, but” and “I’m sorry, but” always come across badly. It’s the but.

  30. ZuZu*

    I started interviewing for new jobs after only being at Toxic Company for 6 months.

    Of course, companies wanted to know why I was leaving. Actual answer would have been: It’s a six person office run by a nasty dictator with no oversight and a breeding ground for drama and makes me cry every day.
    Actual interview answer was: The role unfortunately hasn’t been the right culture fit for me. It’s a small, six person operation, and I’ve found that I function better in a larger organization with more chances for collaboration. This is why I’m excited for this role…blah blah.

    I wasn’t saying anything that was UNTRUE it just wasn’t the actual reason I was leaving.

    1. MistOrMister*

      I worked in a small office and loved it. I think there were 10 of us. At least, I loved it until someone was hired who I felt would be a bad fit during the interview process. They weren’t there long before it was clear things weren’t going to work out with both of us there and I had to leave, and that was one of the things I was coached to play up – the office being too small and wanting to get back to a larger place. (Sigh) I miss that place as it was when I started.

  31. SirIndy*

    I recently was asked a variation of this question in one of my interviews with a high level exec. I was asked what I liked least about any of my previous jobs… I was thinking of things like being in the military and my life being in imminent danger. I figured this wouldn’t really resonate, or could even be potentially inflammatory. In that moment I was a little flustered because I deal with some after-effects of being in combat, and honestly everything else I deal with in the business world seems super trivial. In that fluster, I said “I don’t like being asked to do illegal things.” I then expounded on that by recounting a situation where I was asked to doctor up documents in the middle of a SOX audit. I explained that I refused to perform said illegal action, went up the chain to report, and actually relieved myself of duty when the organization proved to be unsupportive of doing what was right.

    Looking back, that exchange could have been seen as really, really negative towards a previous employer. However, thank goodness, this was looked at favorably and I got the job. I guess it all really depends on the interviewer and the situation.

    1. TootsNYC*

      I think one thing that’s different is that you had a very specific example and you could describe it using nouns and verbs, and not so many subjective adjectives. And you were directly asked.

  32. Always questions, seldom answers*

    This is so helpful. I just had an interview and was asked why I was looking to leave my current role, and they mentioned noticing my last two jobs lasted just over six months each (this one and my previous one). I did say I wasn’t looking to leave, but was keeping my eyes open. Now I have some better ideas on how to better address this. “My role is more administrative than it was set out at the beginning” or “My previous position wasn’t the right fit” (although I’m not sure what else to say on that, as it was a highly toxic relationship between the boss and I… I tried to find solutions, and she said there was nothing more she could do… then worked on documenting any perceived mistakes and considered framing the issue as a mental problem)

    1. Another HR manager*

      I think you need to have a distinct answer for each position – For example, you could say that the 1st position was not a good fit for you (be ready with a specific – company too big, too small, etc) and then you jumped shipped too quickly into your next role and it will not take your career in the right direction. But include you have learned a lot about what you are looking for and what you can give (that’s the one, two punch). And then be specific about what you are looking for and what you can give. Not a long laundry list of what you need in a role — more emphasis on what you can bring. But get enough information about the culture so that you can give a best guess on whether it will work for you. And then you have to STAY in this job. If you leave quickly again, you will find it hard to be hired by good firms.

      1. Librarianne*

        Yup. You can always spin a negative into a positive. Suggesting that a previously hasty decision made you re-evaluate what you really wanted in a workplace is totally fine, but do be specific about what that particular company offers that’s so enticing (even if you have to stretch it a little).

  33. TootsNYC*

    it’s also just distracting to go on at any length, or even to bring it up.

    You want ALL their focus to be on you, and you just add more “static” to the “broadcast” when you talk about those things.
    You just don’t want to spend so many seconds of talking, or that much of their attention, on anything that isn’t “I’d be great at this job for this reason.”

    Also, later, when someone asks them about the candidates, you want them to remember you as “the person with that great project” and not “the person who left that toxic job.”

    They may not even think of it as a negative about you, but it is the absence of a positive.

    Be bland.

    1. Myrin*

      Yeah, apart from everything else Alison and others have already mentioned, the OP’s answer is just so long. I usually find it quite jarring when I ask someone a question I expect an answer of basically one sentence to, and they give me an essay in return. And that’s just in casual conversation – I’d assume an interviewer would feel this way even more what with time constraints and only wanting to hear specific data points, not stories.

  34. eeny-meeny*

    This one is hard sometimes!

    I held a job for a long time that I should have left much sooner. That’s awkward to say though, so I had to talk the company up while explaining why I needed to move on.

    The next one was harder. I was fired and the reasons given were…weird. I hadn’t been there long and I think mostly I was a bad culture fit, but, they didn’t say that and there was no way to easily explain the odd, odd review I’d gotten when I was fired.

    So, I thought about my time there. One thing that had happened was that they had told me I didn’t need X skill and it turned out that what they meant was, “You’ll learn that on the job with no one to teach you or who can help you trouble shoot this specialized software if things go wrong”

    And I told potential employers that they hadn’t thought I would need the skill, but it turned out they were wrong and I just wasn’t a right fit for the role.

    That’s not the whole truth, but, it’s a part that’s easily conveyed in an interview and won’t raise flags.

    And it worked. I’m at a job that is a much better fit for me in almost every way.

  35. JD*

    So what do I say to a potential employer, when the reason I left my last job actually was that I was fired?

    1. Alexander Graham Yell*

      When I was let go a few years ago I think I said something about, “I was hired to do X, but as the company grew they really needed somebody who could help them anticipate their needs in Y and Z and I just didn’t have the training to do that. We all tried to make it work, but ultimately it was better for everybody for them to find somebody with a more solid background in Y and Z.”

      Read: they were growing quickly, I had no clue what I was doing and nobody had time to train me to see if I even *could* be good at it. So it was bye-bye to me, hello to temp until they found the woman who is currently working there.

    2. Kiwiii*

      Talk about why you were fired, but in a way that describes why that won’t be a problem at the place you’re interviewing.

      1. JD*

        I like this approach but I’m about to be fired because they want someone whose mood is more stable. As a person who suffers from pretty severe depression, I can’t promise that my mood will stay consistent. (I know discrimination for mental health is illegal, but I don’t think there’s much I can do about it, as my employer is a huge company with power attorneys, and I’m certain they’d find a way to justify their actions.) Anyway, I am already panicked about how to tell a potential employer that I’m not pleasant all of the time. :-(

        1. Oh No She Di'int*

          “About to be fired”? How do you know this? If you’re really that sure of it, then my advice is to resign gracefully now. Almost everyone involved prefers that scenario over a messy firing. Then your firing problem goes away.

          1. JD*

            They put me on a performance plan, citing my moodiness. I would love to resign but there are absolutely no other jobs, I’ve been searching for over a year.

            1. Diahann Carroll*

              If you have not yet had a mental health evaluation and received a documented diagnosis, now would be the time to do so. With that diagnosis in hand, and assuming you’ve been with your company for at least a year and they have more than 50 employees, you could go to HR with your manager and discuss the possibility of you taking intermittent FMLA leave. Ideally, you would have told your boss sooner that you suffer from depression and were working on alleviating the symptoms through therapy – your boss may have given you more grace had they been made aware that you’re dealing with a serious medical issue. But since you didn’t disclose, then you need to do so now. Not because you expect to save your job (that may not come to pass, sadly, if your work just isn’t up to par), but to have it on file as context for why your attitude problem was the basis of the PIP.

              As someone who suffers from depression thanks to OCD and other childhood traumas, I sympathize with your situation. I’ve never been fired, least of all as a result of my sometimes less than stellar disposition, but that’s because I made it a point to make the HR departments at my employers aware that I had these issues and would have the occasional “flare up,” even with therapy and other treatments. I’ve also been fortunate to be damned good at all of my jobs, so that also helped (people will excuse a lot when you’re the fastest or most accurate or hardest working employee). I hope that, going forward, you’ll feel more comfortable tackling this issue in the workplace head-on, and that you can somehow salvage this position. And maybe it’s not even this position – maybe your manager can help you transition into another role within your company that will be less stressful to you in your current state of mind?

              Good luck to you.

              1. JD*

                Thank you for a thoughtful and caring response. Unfortunately (perhaps), my employer is well aware of my well-documented and ongoing depression, but they continue to give me feedback like “you must be more upbeat”. I already did FMLA once, may do it again, but I suspect it will hasten my firing (again, I know this is illegal, but this company has zero awareness nor sensitivity about mental health).

    3. Some Windex for my Glass Ceiling please*

      It was a conscious uncoupling?
      If it is for cause, then I think you have to be straight about this sort of thing. But brief. And acknowledge your responsibility for what happened. Indicate lesson learned.
      But if this was not your fault, then you have to finesse your account so that the employer does not come off in a negative light. “Mutual agreement to part ways” or something like that. Save the details for the water cooler conversations.

    4. 'Tis Me*

      It’s probably partially dependent on why you were fired?

      If it was at the end of the probation period and the reason was the job they needed you to do just didn’t match the one they envisioned when they hired you, and it wasn’t good fit on either of your parts, you say that.

      If you’d been there a while and the role changed to primarily include tasks outside of your core skillset and they didn’t offer training opportunities to develop into the changing role you say something like “Unfortunately the business needs for my position were changing faster than the training on offer could support. While I was happy there for X years, once the role ceased to primarily call on [skillset that the new job wants] and started to focus increasingly on [advanced technical skillset the new job is unlikely to need as they have a dedicated department to handle those requirements] it made more sense for them to hire in somebody new with formal training and experience doing that. Of course, this means that I fully appreciate all of the work that goes into [new skillset] and have a more in-depth knowledge that most people doing [primary role] have and I’m really excited that it sounds like the position you’re hiring for would primarily allow me to focus on [existing skills] while also offering opportunities to work collaboratively with [Department].”

  36. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

    I have left two jobs because of a terribly toxic manager and in both cases I avoided mentioning anything negative about the organization or management. In one case, I highlighted how the new job was going to let me work in an area I gained some experience in with the job I was currently in at the time. In the second I mentioned that the next 5 year strategic plan didn’t allow for me to take on anything new or career enhancing and that the job I was interviewing for would. Remember, the interviewer doesn’t care too, too much about your old job. They really want to hear about how the job they have will fit your experience and interests.

    1. Catsaber*

      That is the strategy I used when I left my previous two jobs. And the statements were true! What was also true was that my directors were bonkers, but no one needed to know that.

  37. Lucette Kensack*

    I left my last job in what sound like similar circumstances (except for the big one — luckily, I was able to get a new job before I got to the end of my rope at the last job).

    What I (truthfully) say about my transition is that I realized that the organization’s operating values — not it’s stated mission — were out of sync with my own values about how we do our work. I genuinely have no criticism of their values; I just don’t share them.

  38. Miranda Priestly’s Assistant*

    Whenever an interviewer asks “Why are you looking to leave your last job”, you should really answer “Why do you want this job?”, which effectively answers both questions. It’s more straightforward if you’re switching industries, because your answer can just be “I want to enter this industry due to xyz”. If it’s the same, just say “this role has more…than my current job”

    1. MissDisplaced*

      Isn’t that kind of not answering though?

      “Why are you looking to leave Stark Enterprises?”
      “I was really excited about this position because I want to get back to designing teacups.”

      Huh? I mean maybe sometimes you can pull that off, but it will be difficult if they go to a follow up question.
      I mean, this is really hard if you are interviewing for a very similar role at another company that isn’t an increase in responsibility. Though I agree OP should drop the toxic stuff.

      1. Oh No She Di'int*

        I mean, I don’t think you answer it quite that way. Try:

        “Why are you looking to leave Stark Enterprises?”
        “This job has a more of a focus on teacup design than my current job, which I really miss.”


        “Why are you looking to leave Stark Enterprises?”
        “Because I really want to get into teacup design, which seems like an exciting industry to me.”

        Those seem like perfectly reasonable answers, which I would accept as an interviewer.

  39. Another HR manager*

    We just hired someone who said:
    “In Jan 2018, the company was purchased by a venture capital firm and there have been a series of management changes. My role has moved into handling IT related work rather than data analysis. This data analysis position looks like it will put my career back on the path I am interested in.”

    What I heard was:
    “The sale took the company away from its key mission and management changes have been messy. I end up putting out fires rather than doing my work. I am interested in leaving AND your position looks like a good match for where I want to go.” So I shared more about the position and the stability of our company.

  40. Alexander Graham Yell*

    You know, I’m about to out myself as somebody who watches WAY too much trashy TV but if you ever really want to watch somebody teach people how to speak about things diplomatically, media day on Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making the Team has some solid gold.

    One woman this year was asked why she left LA and came to Dallas to try out and she said something about how the dance scene in LA was really competitive and individualistic and she likes people who want to be on teams, and was told, “Now see, you’ve just insulted all the dancers in LA. How about just saying, ‘I tried it and the style of dance just wasn’t for me and I’m really excited to be in Dallas and have a chance to…”

    Ultimately, you want to say enough that people are aware that you’ve thought your decision through and not so much that you risk stepping on toes. You never know what somebody’s background is!

  41. Toni G*

    My boyfriend had a terrible boss his first job out of university. The boss would rant and rave and my boyfriend described him as acting like a lunatic.
    He was looking for a new job – several interviews, no offers. I asked him what he was saying, and he said, “the truth!” proudly!
    I was in shock…you don’t call your last boss a lunatic and say you have to get out of there. Especially not in a small industry where everyone knows everyone! I suggested that he instead say that he was currently working in a small family business where most of the upper management roles were filled by family members. Someday, he would like to move up in responsibility and title, and there was no upward movement at his current company.
    He was annoyed with me. Couldn’t understand why I insisted that I was only being logical.
    He got the next job he interviewed for. Admitted afterwards that he told them what I said to say.

  42. Brett*

    It might be good to try to focus on something really specific that would be a straw-breaker for lots of people.
    Last workplace had a bizarre toxic culture and was rampant with discrimination. I worked in a unit that was attached to the wrong department, and, as a result, was completely undervalued by leadership. And I had to work with people whose workplace behavior was absolutely bizarre and extreme bullying.

    But I never had to say any of this, all I had to say was, “I am leaving because they froze all raises, including cost of living increases, in my first year in 2008 and they just extended that freeze through 2020.”

  43. CupcakeCounter*

    “Management and I had different visions of my role in the long term and the company as a whole was a bad fit for me. I opted to resign earlier this summer without another position lined up as the timing was beneficial on both sides. I had just wrapped up several key projects and nothing new had hit my plate as summer is our slow time so transfer of duties and impact to the business was minimal.”

    Swap out a few things to make it more “your” story but this is a pretty professional sounding reason that also addresses why you left without a job lined up.

  44. c56*

    Depending on the company you’re applying with, some good general responses:
    -Too big/corporate (if you’re going somewhere small); too limited (if you’re going somewhere big)
    -Commute is too long
    -Culture was too [insert the opposite of new company’s culture here] for my tastes
    -Really like [this aspect of my job that new company’s position emphasizes], want to do more of that
    Or, if you’ve been there long enough, “it’s time for something new.”

    1. MissDisplaced*

      What about

      Company no longer supporting my division/team/program
      Rescinding work from home policies
      Changing the scope of your duties or job role

  45. Alice*

    Plenty of great answers already, so I’ll withhold mine. This would have been useful a few months ago while I was searching for my own diplomatic answer to this question. (Although I scoured AAM’s archives and somehow managed!)

    I was very good about not letting interviewers know I was leaving because of bad management. I was the blandest of the bland. “I was hired to do X and Y but I’ve ended up doing only X, and I really want to focus on Y.” Which was true enough! I just omitted the several other reasons such as my boss’s incompetence.

    The only time I almost slipped was during a final interview with both HR and the manager present. I was asked how I handle a disagreement and I talked about a specific instance when me and my boss had “differing views” over which software to use. I wanted to say “of course her stupid option didn’t even meet the minimum requirements” but I managed to stay neutral as I explained how I’d made my case to my boss and eventually accepted her decision. The HR person started to say “I don’t understand all the technical details but I think you handled it well” and the manager was like “well I *do* understand the technical details and you were bloody right too”
    I wanted to cry because of course a moderately competent person would see my boss was an idiot, but I somehow held it together and stayed neutral. Alison has impressed on me the importance of not dumping on previous employers. There must be some truth to it because I received an offer from that company the very next day. :)

  46. Catsaber*

    Hi OP, I left my last job because the department was very toxic, my manager was lazy/reactionary, the dept head was disorganized and would not prioritize/set boundaries with customers (also he was totally conflict avoidant, unless he was guaranteed to “win”), and it was just an overall mess. I had many, MANY bitching sessions about this with my husband and friends.

    So I focused on more concrete things as my reasons for leaving. I took my complaints, wrote them out, and analyzed them for things that are objective:
    “they are focusing more on X and I’m looking to move into more into Y, because [insert neutral-sounding reasons]” = they turned our reporting environment into an unusable mess because no one wanted to maintain the environment, except me (but for some reason they wouldn’t let me even though I volunteered)
    “I’m seeking more challenging opportunities to work with Y and Z” = I was constantly turned down when I asked to attend training for things we desperately needed (even free training classes!)

    I hope this helps and that you find a new job soon!

    1. Wrench Turner*

      That’s a good one I’ve used. “I was looking for training and growth opportunities that never materialized.”

  47. Rebecca*

    For me, even though the OP’s answer is worded professionally enough on the surface, what it telegraphs to an employer is “I’m perfectly willing to talk sh!t when given the opportunity.” Perhaps that’s not exactly fair, but that is what some interviewers will take from it.

    The fact is that many, many, many job seekers are looking to leave toxic situations or at least situations that have become untenable in some way. The best course of action here is to pluck out a kernel of truth and go with that for the purposes of the interview.

  48. ZS*

    Great answers already provided that are as vague and bland as needed for an interview. You don’t want the interviewer to really remember your answer compared to others.

    For me, it was poor management, poor pay, and too many admin tasks being piled up that didn’t utilize my skills at all. I translated that in the interview that my past job (current during the interview) was changing and I could see on the horizon they needed the position to become something else that I could not provide, and this interviewing position was perfect for my newly chosen career in the same field (prospect research in fundraising).

    Good luck!

  49. Garlicky*

    OP sounds like she is still suffering PTSD from her shitty previous job to me.

    After leaving a terrifyingly toxic work place/industry, I constructed a narrative as to why I decided to change, in my case, careers. My friends know the real story of the hell I was put through, but I have never told anyone in my new profession (at interviews or otherwise) what transpired.

    The story I tell is all true, but from an objective perspective that affirms the knowledge that everyone has about problems with that particular industry. For example, “well, you know how emotionally demanding nursing is, and I stopped being able to give that much of myself after a decade on the job”, etc. This, I intersperse with a personal anecdote about my interest in my present career, which meant that it was all perfectly natural to leave the previous job.

    With practice, this becomes natural; and in time, the PTSD goes away, so OP will no longer need to keep reliving the nightmare and talking about it to others.

  50. Wrench Turner*

    Maybe it depends on the industry. I work in the trades and got fired in retaliation for whistle blowing. I told my current job exactly that; I stand by my principals and don’t get paid enough to lie to people. I promise honest constructive feedback from my observations, including where I can probably do better, and if they don’t like hearing what I see, then they need to do better. I was still hired on the spot. You never know.

  51. LL Cool Butts*

    Is there a similarly-bland way to say, “I was told I would be promoted to position X and after three years of no progress on that, I gave up”?

    1. 1234*

      I would look at Danger: Gumption Ahead’s post above at 3:16PM. I think that is in line with what you are looking for and it doesn’t say “my current job won’t promote me” which leads interviewers to think “Well, their current job might have a good reason for promoting them…”

      1. PJs of Steven Tyler*

        This is totally true. One former colleague mentioned to me on her third week here that she left her last job because her manager told her there that she could not be promoted; I immediately wondered why the manager had said that and found out after a few months that it was probably because this colleague was only doing about 35-40% of her job duties here. As I noticed more and more work being left undone, my mind went back to that previous manager’s words and everything clicked.

    2. Librarianne*

      Absolutely. You say that you’re looking for increased responsibilities and/or to advance your career, but that’s unfortunately not possible at your current workplace. (It’s the main reason I gave during interviews when my last job denied me a promotion that the departmental director specifically told me to apply for.)

      1. LL Cool Butts*

        Thank you, that’s very helpful. I’m obviously more bitter about it here than I’d ever show in an interview, but it really grinds my gears because it randomly will be dangled like some sort of prize. After the second year of promises (“We’ll start training for it soon!”) I stopped taking it seriously and have assume the promotion simply isn’t going to happen.

  52. Lauren*

    Out of curiosity, is there a point after you’ve been hired where it’s appropriate to share “omg, toxic” details or is that always going to be TMI in a workplace?

    I find that after a certain point it can be hard to talk about my last job without sounding cagey because sooner or later all paths lead to chaos… And frankly, the chaotic stories are the interesting ones. But is this a situation where I just need to keep changing the subject to something neutral forever?

    1. Catsaber*

      I think it’s okay to share some stories after you have established yourself. I still wouldn’t “bash” your previous employers, especially if it’s the most recent one or you still have to work with them, but over time, as your new coworkers get to know you, I think it becomes to loosen up and share some details. The main point is that you don’t want to be known as The Complainer before people have a chance to get to know you and your work. I transferred departments at the university I work at, and I’ve been in my current department for 3 years now. I would say, within the last year or so, I’ve been a little more open about some of the problems of my last department – but that was after my boss and coworkers experienced those problems themselves. I’m still pretty diplomatic in how I talk about those problems, and I try to keep it focused on processes/procedures and not people.

      But definitely know your audience. It could be 6, 12, 18, 24 months before it might be “appropriate”. Or it could never be appropriate. It just depends on your work culture.

    2. Close Bracket*

      When you have reached the point where you think your stories are funny instead of traumatizing, you can share them. :)

  53. Marissa*

    Seems like a lot of the comments are saying the same thing. I just want to chime in and say OP I struggled with this question during my own job search last year and definitely botched it a few times (usually when I was asked follow up questions, so try to be prepared for those as well). It can be hard not to say negative things about a workplace when you know it was a terrible place to work. Try to keep it simple and since you left without anything lined up, which generally suggests there was a major issue, try to highlight some of the other things you’ve been up to the last 4 months. I think if you say it was time for a change and leaving allowed you to….travel? volunteer more for something important? spend quality time with your family that you’d been missing out on, etc…you can more easily transition to what you are looking forward to in a new role and get the interviewers thoughts away from why you left your previous gig.

  54. ainnnymouse*

    I have that same problem, but I can’t really find anything good to say about my previous job. Plus it’s a well known company for treating it’s employees like garbage. Interviewers see the name of this company on my resume and make a face at it. They have a very bad reputation, but I have to keep it on there because it was the company I stayed the longest with.

    1. EG*

      This is actually a big advantage to you. I once hired someone who did bad-mouth their employer a bit in the interview, but it was a workplace that had a bad reputation. So, while I had some concerns about their judgement in saying something negative in the interview, I also had enough context to understand that their judgement about the workplace was probably correct. And it has actually worked out well.

      Basically, if you can read the room (and you see interviewers make a face), then I think you are OK to acknowledge that your problems with previous job are the problems that are publicly known. I would look for a diplomatic way to acknowledge that or gesture at it, without seeming overly critical. You might also consider how you address your decision to work there, given the generally bad reputation (where you unaware? needed a job and hope you could make it work?).

      For example, I might say: “I left company X because of the long hours / low pay / high turnover (whatever the known issues are), which are really an outlier for our industry. When I accepted the position I thought I would be able to balance the long hours / low pay / high turnover with the growth opportunities / chance to work on the mission (whatever the positives were) but at this point, I’m ready for a better / different balance.”

      But I’d be curious what others think.

      1. ainnnymouse*

        This did sort of work to my advantage in a recent interview the person interviewing me said that she had a person come from that same company and complained about the same thing I did during the interview.

  55. Frankie*

    LW, you don’t mean it this way, but if someone said that to me in a job interview I would assume they were one of those people who says, “I have a big personality” or “I have pretty strong opinions and I’ll let you know about them.” There’s an attempt at “discretion” in the formality of the language, but it doesn’t really get there. You have to get way more sanitized than this, and don’t take the opportunity to kind of wink/hint that there’s more to the story, since that will just give the impression that you’re eager to bring drama to the workplace.
    The problem is that I’ve heard the above from people who really did work in toxic environments, but more so from people who just wanted to have things their way and couldn’t handle being managed. An interviewer isn’t going to know which kind of person you are and your story invites them to speculate on that.

    Make the story less about leaving your old job and more about what you’re looking for in your new work. It seems like you’re just trying to be truthful and transparent and above board, but you’re probably doing it at the expense of their sense of your professionalism and savviness.

  56. TheCommenterFormrlyKnownAsRUKiddingMe*

    OP listen to Alison!

    Not to be unkind, at all, but very honestly my eyes glossed over before finishing the first sentence. If I were interviewing you, I’d likely pass just because I have no idea if your assessment is accurate and/or (and this is important) you are a complainer/whiner/bellyacher/critical of everything type…which I just wouldn’t even want to take a chance on TBH. Way, way, way too much here. Just be unremarkable!

  57. Misclassified*

    What if you left because they were misclassifying you as an independent contractor and basically froze you out after having to go to the IRS?

  58. Blisskrieg*

    Part of what I’m screening for in interviews is an awareness of professional norms, because when my direct report is facing customers I need to reasonably expect how they are going to communicate, and that nothing will be too “out there.”

    Therefore, rightly or wrongly, I am usually less interested in the answer to this and a few other questions, than in whether the person interviewing understands the professional norms surrounding interviewing, and does not badmouth a past employer. (I’ve worked for horrific employers! I know lots of people have! But my main concerns is that the person has enough wherewithal not to get into this during an interview).

  59. Gobsmacked*

    Fair or not, I have never hired anyone who badmouthed a previous employer. I’ve been on the other side, and fired someone for playing on her cell phone instead of doing her job, or the person I found wandering around on the roof of the building drunk, or the guy who ran out the back door and scaled the parking lot fence when he heard the sheriff’s department was at reception asking for him, and so on. All of those people have a different self-serving story about the mean lady who fired them for no reason, or for a bunch of trumped up reasons, or unrealistic expectations, etc.

    All I know in an interview is what the interviewer is telling me, and the chance that your perspective is skewed is not non-existent. You might in fact just be prone to drama, or refuse to accept direction, or any of a number of problems I don’t want to deal with. It’s just not a chance I’m willing to take.

    There’s been a lot of good advice here about coming up with a more positive spin on things. Don’t air dirty laundry in a job interview.

  60. Akcipitrokulo*

    “While I enjoyed (something good), I felt I wanted to focus on (something about the job your going for) / I felt it wasn’t quite the right fit and I want to move my career in (direction relevant to this job.”

    Or if there is a mundane reason, just give it blandly – but with the positive bit “I loved X, but unfortunately…”

    I left ToxicJob once – when interviewing, I didn’t mention their forgetting to pay me once, stiffing our landlord, issues about my expressing breastmilk, having two bosses where one had a dual role so they reported to each other… I reported to both and they didn’t like each other, inflexible, made clear they were unhapoy I left when son was taken to a&e…

    “Why did you leave?”
    “They moved office to central London and the commute was too difficult.”

    Something like that – even if it isn’t something they changed but you realised – “I thought the pay/commute/whatever would be something I could manage, but I really do need (what new job has).”

    The thing is that this is not the place to explain why oldJob is bad. It will make your candidacy a lot weaker; they do not want someone who a) might badmouth them in future and b) doesn’t get business norms that you don’t do that.

  61. Amethystmoon*

    Yeah, you can’t be too honest with your interview answers or throw people under the bus in them. I left my last job because I had 1. a co-worker with way, way too many issues and I was always staying late to fix easy mistakes he should have tried to mitigate but didn’t, and 2. there was a toxic manager there who wasn’t even my boss, but liked to berate me in front of the entire team for little things. But when asked about it, I gave an answer that I was looking for something different to do that was more challenging. Even when pressed, I stuck to that answer and got the job.

    1. Amethystmoon*

      Also, I was interviewing at the same company and with a manager who had been my boss back when I was a temp and hadn’t been hired on yet. I refused to be negative about the team I was currently with in the interview, even though I easily could have been. I do think that helped me.

  62. Pennalynn Lott*

    After just starting a new job in June, I made the decision to start job hunting again a few weeks ago.

    Senior managers are quitting left, right, and center; our VP is a self-absorbed narcissist who has never done anything wrong in her life (unless it’s a witty story about how it was actually the right thing to do); my direct manager (who was also the direct manager of the Senior Managers who have quit) is a micro-managing clock watcher who can’t remove roadblocks or help answer questions because he has no idea what we do, and he treats *everyone* as if they’re just a handful of seconds away from stealing his wallet; I’ve been given senior-level work to do but I’m just entry-level staff (and paid as such); I have no direction or guidance and I fight back tears almost every day.

    But what I tell recruiters is: “When I interviewed for this job, I was led to believe that my work location would be X, which is ~15 minutes from my house. But on Day Two, I was informed that I’d actually be working out of location Y, which is over an hour away from my house. I’ve given it my best shot and have tried very hard to make it work, but that long of a daily commute is just not sustainable.” Every single one has been completely sympathetic and happy to present me to their clients.

  63. Memememe*

    This was me recently. I just said “I loved the job but it wasn’t a positive environment.” That was all and it was good enough.

  64. MistOrMister*

    I generally leave a job when something happens that’s,the straw that broke the camels back, as it were. A good head hunter coached me once with suggestions on how to spin departures, because I think I was being too negative when discussing them in interviews. There was a big reason why I left my last place and a WHOLE heck of a lot I could have said in interviews, but I keep it at it was a small place and someone was hired for 1 skill and expected to share my job, I could see there wasn’t enough work to sustain us both and left as the boss really,wanted someone with the skill she had and I felt he would,have let me go first if things got tight. Which is completely true but not the biggest factor in my decision to leave. It’s been years since I used that head hunter but still every time I go on an interview I think about her advice and I run back through my history and make sure I can remember the non-negative answers for why I left each place and apply new ones to newer jobs. I forgot myself once and I can tell you, it really does make a,diference. I could see the by the interviewer’s expressions that I wasn’t coming across well when I was being completely forthright about why I left one place, and I figure something like that might be going on with OP. We might be justified in how we feel towards our old,places but the interviewers don’t know that and it makes us look difficult/hard to get along with/etc in an interviewer’s eyes, unfortunately.

  65. Alice's Rabbit*

    “My former boss was a very forceful personality, which made him difficult to approach.”

  66. Scredly*

    In my last job search (a couple of years back) I flat out said that the ethics of the leadership of the organization I left did not match my own, and that I was unwilling to work for an organization willing to be dishonest with donors about how their money was used. That’s just about verbatim what I said, and generally, it was positively received. I don’t have the experience of Alison, but short, concise and honest seemed to work for me.

  67. Bryce with a Y*

    I faced a situation where the duties of the job changed significantly such that they focused heavily on things I liked doing a lot less and was worse at than what I was originally hired to do, and I explained it by saying, “Basically, what happened was that they said, ‘You’re a great drummer, but we need you to play the guitar.’ And in doing so, they simply handed me a guitar and expected me to play it without much guidance or training in how to do it, even though only some of the skills matched.”

    A lot of interviewers got a kick out of that, and on the first day of one of my new jobs, my boss said, “I know you’re a great drummer, and I won’t make you play the guitar unless you really want to.”

  68. MissRed*

    This definitely something to soften during the interview. If your work culture fits later, *maybe* bring it up with work friends when discussing hard past jobs. I wound up doing that when having a chance to laugh over the toxic chaos of my last job with enough distance to be able to laugh at it. But, still, when interviewing my answer was, “Oh! I planned on moving to a new state, so it was no longer to keep the job with the distance.”

    On the flip side, I had a friend who passionately hated where he had worked before, who wanted to explain, full tilt, everything that had made him leave the previous job. OP’s answer is definitely a more sedate version of what he was planning, but, remembering how hard we tried to talk him out of it, I have to second Allison’s advice. Just find a kernel of mundane truth to use as your reason for leaving.

  69. Nobyl*

    Two years ago today was my last day at a toxic job as a manager. I struggled with how to say why I left a job after a year without one lined up. I kept it short, pleasant and honest. I told employers, “While I really loved the job, the culture wasn’t a fit.I decided to focus my attention on finding a job that has a positive and healthy work environment.”

    Most places I interviewed either commented that was a wise or brave thing to do. The only time anything else was said was when I was interviewing for my current job which is at the same company as my toxic job. It’s a huge organization– one of the biggest employers of the large city I live in. My current job is at another facility across town from my last job. I started as a temp in the job, so I knew my boss/one of the interviewers well. And she made a comment after someone asked me why I left before. And my boss commented that, “I was a saint for dealing with Dolores Umbridge for an entire year.” and everyone nodded in agreement.

    I think you can be honest, but be positive about it. If anyone asks further, then I would be completely honest. Just about everyone has been in a horrible job situation and doesn’t blame people for leaving bad situations like that!

  70. Zach*

    This is also essentially *begging* them to lowball you on salary if you actually secure an offer- even if you aren’t, it makes you look desperate for a job, which is already a risk since they know you currently don’t have a job (unless I’m reading your question incorrectly).

  71. Afiendishthingy*

    My workplace is in utter crisis. Including myself, five people that I know of (on a team of about 30) have given notice or are planning to do so ASAP. (I gave a long notice period, but I’m out on November 22.) Only one of those five has a job lined up. My coworker just got offered a job that I actually have an interview scheduled for. She is going to turn down the offer because the position isn’t a good fit for her interests, but I think I might like it. Anyway, I feel like there’s a good chance they’ll ask about my workplace and why Im leaving. I told them on the phone that the team I was assigned to last year was eliminated to budget reasons, but they had a position on a team I’d worked a lot with as well before. And that position is a bit different because it’s working with Llamas and I’m really more comfortable working with alpacas and vicuñas. (All true). I also said that the company as a whole and the Llama Team in particular is going through a lot of changes, it’s a difficult transition, and it’s interfering with my ability to be effective as a Llama Trainer.

    Is that ok? Too much?


  72. nonymous*

    My own situation (I start my new job on Monday!!) was where a new supervisor arbitrarily decided that my duties were reduced to the crummiest 25% of my job without documenting that change. I’m not sure if I would have eventually be fired (for not doing my job according to my performance elements), would have to go through a lengthy CYA documentation to demonstrate she was deliberately preventing these tasks or eventually change her mind. But in the five months I reported to this person, it was really obvious she needed to lash out to feel secure. There was a crystallizing moment for me when she “bonded” with a new hire by comparing his family to her landscaper.

    But what I told the new place was that when my previous supervisor retired the process of onboarding a new supervisor gave me a chance to look at my position from a new perspective and I realized just how many of my projects are in a maintenance phase versus active development.

  73. Afiendishthingy*

    What about saying you’ve been dangerously understaffed for months and there is no sign that the situation is likely to change?

  74. CM*

    FWIW I think the wording advice is good, but it sucks that the convention is to lie about this stuff, and that convention is part of the reason employers get away with such shitty behaviour. :(

    1. Door Guy*

      You shouldn’t lie, but airing all the dirty laundry from your current/most recent employment has no place in an interview. You are trying to sell yourself and your skills in an interview, not explain to them all the reasons your last job was horrid and you just have to get out of there.

    2. HigherEd on Toast*

      I honestly don’t think it’s lying. The same way that you wouldn’t unload about your past in a high-stakes situation with a client you just met or a manger you want to impress, you don’t unload about it to an interviewer. Saying that you left to focus on new goals/in search of a better culture fit/to find a place that’s more in line with what you want from your career isn’t less “true” than “Toxic, toxic, toxic,” a word that is only more “honest” in being more biased and subjective.

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