how do I tell interviewers why I’m leaving my job without badmouthing my employer?

A reader writes:

Is it badmouthing an employer if it is the truth?

I have worked at my current job for almost 15 years. My boss is an attorney in a solo practice. He is planning to retire at the end of this year. In the past five years, he has gone from five employees to one as the practice winds down. I was planning to stay with him until the end, transitioning to part-time and using that as a step down toward early retirement or a type of sabbatical before returning to full-time work. He pushed to have me go down to four days after Thanksgiving, even though the workload was not quite ready for that. Since I was now part-time, there was no Christmas bonus and I was not going to accrue anymore PTO. I told him I was fine with that as long as I could use my accrued vacation time and sick days. I have four weeks of accrued PTO and figured I would not use all of it before the firm shut down anyway. He has now revoked my accrued PTO and expects me to work with no vacation or sick days at all.

I am currently job hunting. I don’t want to walk out because I don’t want him to be able to use that against me in a reference. The last paralegal/office manager left over a year ago, and he has done nothing but badmouth her even though she was a very good employee and had been with him for over 20 years. I have been here for so long that the attorneys and office manager I worked for at my previous job are retired. I think I could win a labor board dispute even though I live in a very employer-friendly state. But I don’t want to fight, I just want out.

I know you are not supposed to badmouth an employer in job interviews, but what if the fact is that he stole from me? Can I say calmly that he revoked my accrued PTO and I decided to look for another job?

You could, but there’s no need to when you have a much less dramatic explanation for why you’re leaving: your boss is winding down the firm so he can retire.

As a general rule when interviewers ask why you’re leaving your current job, it’s better to avoid answers about disagreements or drama, even when you’re not the source of them. There’s always a chance that they’re going to wonder if there’s more to the story or if you’re interpreting it in the most inflammatory way. But even when it’s clear that’s not the case, you want them to remember you as the candidate with the impressive skills in X, not the one who was screwed over by an incredible jerk of a boss.

In your particular case, the answer you proposed — that your boss took back your accrued PTO — isn’t all that far toward the drama end of the spectrum. You could cite it if you had to. But there’s no point in using it when you have such an easy, bland, utterly unremarkable answer right there for the taking. You’ve been there 15 years, he’s closing down the firm, done.

In fact, whenever you’ve been at your current job for at least a few years, you can just cite that — “I’ve been here X years and I’ve enjoyed the work, but now I’m ready to take on something new.” That’s almost always preferable to explaining that your employer sucks, even if they do. Bland and easy is just always a better choice for this question, as long as it’s plausible.

There are times when it won’t be plausible, though. For example, if you’ve only been in the job for five months, you can’t say you’re ready to take on something new (at least not without looking extremely flighty). In cases like that, look for the most neutral, low-drama way to explain the situation. “They brought me on to do X but it turns out they really need Y” is fine to say when it’s true. So is “We’ve had a lot of turnover and I’m looking for somewhere more stable” or “My team regularly works 60-hour weeks” or “I’m looking for something with more predictable hours” or “Budget cuts have me concerned about the stability of my department.”

You mentioned you were worried about badmouthing your old employer, but that convention is more about subjective assertions — like “my boss was a nightmare,” “the leadership was in chaos,” “the culture was toxic,” etc. Since your interviewer doesn’t know you well, they won’t know if your assessment is reliable or if you’re just difficult/dramatic/have bad judgment. But that doesn’t mean you can’t share a quick, objective fact to explain why you left/are looking.

Also, often a good answer can be, “I’m not actively looking, but I saw this job and was really interested because of X.” So you’re talking about what’s drawing you toward the new job rather than away from the old one.

But go for bland and unmemorable whenever you can (just don’t be vague to the point of meaningless).

{ 212 comments… read them below }

  1. Akcipitrokulo*

    Yep. Leaving my nightmare job, didnt mention the hassles over expressing milk, the stress, the owner that forgot to pay me and the dodgy running out on landlords…

    “The office moved to central London, and I didn’t want to commute.” had interviewers nodding and mentally ticking off that box before I’d finished the word London.

    1. GammaGirl1908*

      You don’t have to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. You need to say just enough of a true reason to check the box.

      You also don’t want them to get hung up on it, which is the reason to stay bland. You want to get through it and get on to the good part: selling your experience and skills.

      1. Random Dice*

        I am just going to SWAG and say that 60-80% of people leave because of something or someone toxic or broken.

        When I ask that question to a candidate, I figure that they likely have baggage and sore spots, and I want to see how professionally they answer.

      2. WantonSeedStitch*

        Yup. I left my long-ago awful job primarily because it was a horrible, toxic environment and I was on the verge of a breakdown over it. But when asked in interviews, I said I was looking for someplace with more opportunities for career advancement. That was also true: the only things I could be in that place were an admin, a sales person, or a tech support engineer. I had zero interest in sales and no background in engineering. I didn’t want to make a career out of being an admin. So I told people a true reason for wanting to work elsewhere, even if it wasn’t my main reason.

        1. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

          I did the same in a recent (successful!) job hunt. I had ended up in a role that was fine, but not all that interesting to me or as connected to my education / skillset as I’d like. Over the last 9 months there have been various changes in my chain of command and these folks have made changes that made me miserable, primarily around micromanaging. That was the catalyst for thinking about where I wanted my career to go.

          During discussions about new opportunities, I focused on the first bit – I wanted to shift back to a different kind of role – and said nothing about the rest. Ditto with explaining to my current colleagues why I was leaving. (I tried to offer gentle feedback to my chain of command about the lack of autonomy, but both people’s reaction was explaining why they micromanage). Like GammaGirl1908 said, my response was the truth. It just wasn’t the whole truth.

      3. Kat*

        The less drama the better. “My boss is winding down to retirement and closing the practice”. Her boss is a jerk but new employer doesn’t want to hear all that.

        1. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

          Yeah, my guess is that this question doesn’t have to be that deep. It probably is sometimes, but a lot of the time, they don’t really want to delve into why someone is leaving. They just want to close the conversational loop (thanks, Captain Awkward!) and see if there are any red flags about professionalism. So things like “the owner is winding down to retirement” and “I want to take on more of X” are more than sufficient. I used the “more of X” rationale recently and nobody batted an eye.

          1. Hannah Lee*

            Exactly. As with most interview questions, it’s helpful to try to think about *why* an interviewer is asking the question. In most reasonable employers’ cases, they are wondering two things:
            – does your reason for leaving your current/prior job line up with your reasons for being interested in their opening, company (so that they can expect you’ll be reasonable happy there and stay)
            – are you a drama llama / problem child who is has a high risk of creating a lot of management work, hassle for them. This not only includes figuring out that a candidate was justifiably fired for cause, a reason that would make the candidate a bad fit, but also whether the candidate is someone who just can’t let stuff go, or doesn’t understand professional norms*

            As a candidate, you want to answer that question in such a way that the answers to those questions are YES and NO … so that the interview can quickly move on to other things.
            One way to think of it is every minute in an interview you spend hashing out stuff from prior jobs that isn’t about how your skills, experience, interests are a fit for the new company you’re talking is a lost opportunity.

            *obviously, if you’re dealing with entry level candidates or people from different work environments, backgrounds, you might want to make some allowances for people who are unfamiliar with your industry’s professional norms, or who might take the question very literally in a “tell me the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” way, but still might be a very good employee.

      4. Fishsticks*

        Yep. Real reason: “I was fired because the company culture was being rapidly overtaken by specific religious fundamentalists who all graduated from a single university and only want to work with each other and I no longer ‘fit’ and was forced out.”

        Interview answer: “The company decided to go with a change of direction and needed to pare down staff.”

    2. tamarack etc.*

      Yup, and there’s also the aspect that, justified or not, the OP’s (or candidate’s) baggage from the previous job is not something that’s the new employer’s responsibility to deal with.

      Sometimes it’s appropriate – or just feels truthful – to mention bad experiences, but you always want to do it in a way that sounds you’ve worked through the issue and can succinctly summarize it. One sentence, two max, delivered with a smile. In this case, for example, if the OP wants to say more than “practice winding down”, it could be “The office is currently winding down, and this introduced an amount of friction that made me think this is the right moment to move on.” or “The owner of the practice is preparing for retirement and that really changed the atmosphere.” or even “The office was winding down and :smile: suddenly there were conflicts about things that should really have been settled, like PTO and hours, which was disappointing to me. So I’m looking for new opportunities.”

      But really, given that “The office is winding down and I though this was the right moment to move my career to a new place after 15 years” sounds more attractive to the employer than “The office was winding down and I stuck it out until the last paperclip was disposed of”, there’s no reason for the OP to mention the PTO theft.

      Thing is, when it comes to serious accusations, any fair-minded business partner – however outwardly sympathetic – will reserve judgement. So if you force the interviewer into even deciding whether they believe you or would like to investigate further, the interview is already in a zone you don’t want it to be in. Especially if you come in with feeling blazing. And that’s true however justified!

      Sure, it’s not that I wouldn’t hire someone who explained to me in an interview in minute detail that their previous employer treated her crummily and took away accrued PTO, but I would have to see some evidence that this is not a person who’s having an excessive reaction to a management decision they didn’t like. And the effort to come to the conclusion is taken away from exploring skills and the role. If the candidate is supremely suited, sure, it would be fine. But if it’s a narrow decision between two candidates who both have pluses and minuses that come out roughly equal, I might go with the other person.

      1. Friends of English Magic*

        Yep, there are ways to translate these things into professional-speak. In my interview for my current job, I said something about limited development opportunities and having really enjoyed working on [higher level projects] when the opportunity came up, but my current employer now had less need for me to do that and needed me to focus on [nitty gritty work that I’d been doing for a long time]. I did not say “I got totally sidelined after maternity leave when they decided to keep on the person they’d hired to cover for me and give her all the stretch projects that would previously have been mine”. Which would have been true, but would have raised the possibility that I was just not very good compared to this other person (which was of course my deep-down fear after this situation happened, but the new job seems very happy with my performance).

      2. Grammar Penguin*

        Seriously, why isn’t “my employer took away all PTO” a sufficient reason to give? Do we need to pretend that an employer reducing pay or benefits, even eliminating sick days, is a perfectly reasonable thing to do and not valid reason to leave all bu itself?

        1. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

          It totally is. But does bringing it up in an interview do the candidate any favours? Taking away someone’s PTO is an awful thing to do and that attorney deserves to be publicly shamed. But I don’t think that talking about this in an interview is likely to benefit the applicant.

        2. MCMonkeyBean*

          It’s perfectly sufficient, it’s just not really relevant to the employer.

          Honestly I think for this very specific situation I would personally lean on the “my job was made part-time” angle.

      3. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

        Great explanation, tamarack. I hadn’t thought about how bringing up these kinds of things shifts focus from the things that show why the candidate is a good fit for the role to trying to make assessments about the situation the candidate described. It can end up being a distraction.

    3. tamarack etc.*

      ROTFL. We had “the office moved out of central London to Teddington – didn’t want to commute”. (I stayed. It was fine. Teddington is nice.)

      1. Friends of English Magic*

        Not sure why that’s ROFL – Teddington may be very nice, but trying to commute there from north London, or even south-southeast London would significantly add to one’s travel time compared to central London!

        1. MCMonkeyBean*

          I took as them laughing just because that commenter’s example was the opposite of their own experience (an office moving TO London vs AWAY from London)

  2. Riot Grrrl*

    A job interview is not a confessional.

    There’s almost always some aspect of the job hunt/prospective job that can be phrased both honestly and positively. Some version of “I’m looking for new challenges” is almost always safe and can be made reasonably true enough if not completely accurate.

    1. Dust Bunny*

      So much this. You don’t owe them the unvarnished truth.

      I left my underpaid, no-time-off, zero-respect job because I was “looking for a position that made use of my degree”. Which was also true. I didn’t need to tell them that I was fed up with the scheduling baloney and lack of benefits.

      1. Just Another Zebra*

        Exactly! Pick a reason that is true, even if it isn’t the primary (or even secondary) reason you are leaving. The owner closing the business is SUCH a giftwrapped answer. I’d stick with that, OP.

        1. tamarack etc.*

          Seconded. Not “I can’t stand the marketing software industry any longer” but “I’m super interested in X industry and am looking for positions that make use of the skills I developed in Y industry.”

        2. Where’s the Orchestra?*

          Agreed! Don’t look the gift horse in the mouth and use the reason that is perfect: my boss is retiring and preparing to close the business.

          For other situations, I agree with others focus on what excites you most about the new opportunity and less on what is wrong with the old job.

      2. 2 Cents*

        I like to save the *real* reason I left for a good six months to a year after I’ve joined the new company and they know me (and my work), so it’s more like spilling the tea (to quote a young person) and less like badmouthing them during the interview. It’s been especially fulfilling this time around because my old company is a vendor for my new, much larger, much better-paying company.

        1. allathian*

          Yes, this.

          Once you’ve been hired, a good manager will understand that you left your old job to get away from bad management, if you’re using coping mechanisms that you developed working for an abusive manager who was both a micromanager and expected you to read their mind, and always found fault whatever you did, but aren’t appropriate in an environment that expects more autonomy from employees. Granted, you usually have some time to adjust, because naturally enough new employees require more supervision than established ones, but when a manager has been abusive enough to cause PTSD, it can take years working for decent managers to learn better coping mechanisms.

        2. Fishsticks*

          Gosh, yes. Then it can become a kind of bond, especially when enough time has passed that some of the bitterness is gone. I made a passing comment the other day about how “people leave bad managers far more often than they leave bad jobs, because a bad manager can ruin even the best job but a bad job can be bearable with a great manager,” and it led to a fun chat about past bad managers and honestly I felt like we… kind of had a team-building moment out of it.

    2. Lacey*

      Yes. Vent to friends and family – for prospective employers you’re both just trying to see if this role is a fit for you and you for it.

    3. Still trying to adult*

      Oh, the cliche’ phrases you can use, if you say them with heartfelt sincerity..

      I’m looking for a better opportunity

      The job was not was I was expecting/led to believe

      The job/workplace is not a good fit between us.

      The work duties changed from what was described….

      Ultimately, my favorite is to talk about what you want to do going forward – increased responsibility, greater challenge, learn new skills, etc. It’s kind of like how a politician or celebrity: If they don’t want to answer that question then they grab the question, and pivot to the answer they want to give.

      So it helps to think about the whole job search process as ‘Where do I want to go?’ instead of ‘How do I get out of this frying pan?’ Cuz if you’re just looking to get out of the pan, you might end up only in the fire. Yes, it can take real effort to look out farther than the edge of the pan, but the payoff is enormous.

      1. The Cat's ass*

        Well said! When i was desperate to get out of a dead-end job with Hellbeast jr as a boss and a couple of old crappy sexist doctors, I tried to phrase it in my head as running towards a great new opportunity instead of running away from the above. And the payoff was pretty damned good!

      2. Ask a Manager* Post author

        I want to stress, though, that interviewers are very, very likely to ask for more details about many of these (like it wasn’t a good fit or it wasn’t what you were expecting). You can use that basic framing but be prepared to say more if you do.

        1. DyneinWalking*

          I’d expect that “bad fit” especially could be dangerous if it wasn’t actually true (just a stand-in for “toxic working conditions) and you were looking for a similar job at a different company. Like, if the old job was a bad fit wouldn’t this similar job be just as problematic…?
          And “bad fit” in a company culture sense might also not sound so neutral and objective if the company isn’t notorious in the industry for bad practices. It might just as well mean “I have the right to ‘freedom of speech’ but they are oppressing me whenever I say something racist/ableist/sexist”.

          I’d try to stick as closely to the truth as possible and to be prepared with a few specific and objective non-vague examples

    4. MassMatt*

      Love “a job interview is not a confessional”. I would also add, a job interview is not therapy. It’s natural to feel angry or hurt about being laid off, or having to leave a job because the environment is terrible or your boss is really nasty–but the job interview is not the place for it!

      1. Dust Bunny*

        Seconding this. You’re totally allowed to be angry/fed up/etc. but this isn’t the place to beat that rug.

        The boss here is a jerk but “retiring and closing the practice” is a pretty unquestionable reason to be job-searching.

        1. Grumpy Elder Millennial*

          Exactly. It raises zero questions because you cannot continue to work for a boss who has retired and closed the company. So you can spend more of the interview time talking about stuff that demonstrates how you’d be a good fit for the role.

    5. pope suburban*

      I think this is really important. I have worked in some deeply, deeply dysfunctional offices and I understand how bad they can make you feel, and how living under a microscope makes you feel like you need to overexplain every single detail. I also get that interviewing may either put you on edge that the new place is just as bad somehow, or bolster your professional confidence and make you want to feel fully seen and validated. I get both aspects, and I have to say, what kept me hanging on by my fingernails at my last job was hearing, “Wow, no, that’s abnormal” from successful working people. But you gotta sort that out and get your perspective check on your own time; the interview is not the place to feel vindicated, even if someone who does actually appreciate you seems like a great candidate for that. This is just another way that one’s normal meter can be affected by a bad workplace, and yes, stepping back a bit and realizing that an interview has a fairly narrow and specific role in your working life is key.

      1. Happily Retired*

        +1 I love the insight that working in a dysfunctional workplace can skew what seems to be professional in your interview for a new job. So it’s not just that the weirdness from Old Job can affect you negatively in New Job, but if you’re not careful, it can also keep you from getting New Job!

    6. I am Emily's failing memory*

      Yep. As a general rule, don’t give answers that don’t give your interviewers any useful information for assessing your suitability for their open role. Disclosing interpersonal conflict with someone who’s a stranger to them doesn’t give them any clues at all to whether you’d be happy and productive in their job.

      Best case scenario, it’s a waste of however many seconds worth of your limited interview time that you spent giving the answer. Worst case scenario, they have some kind of negative reaction to it, and it’s an unforced error because you had no good reason to bring it up at all.

    7. WoodswomanWrites*

      I was recruited for a position and anticipated they would ask why I wanted to leave my current position. What I wasn’t ready for was their asking why I left my position before that one. Because it caught me off-guard, I responded that there were challenges at the management level. As soon as I said it, I knew I’d goofed but I was able to correct by saying that there was litigation involved, and they were fine with that. At least I didn’t blurt that my former employer had to hire an attorney to remove a problematic VP whom they finally fired after my departure. Phew. They offered me the job.

    1. irene adler*

      Do you get any follow up questions when you state this?
      Something along the lines of “why do you want to leave current position?”.
      If so, what is a good response?

      1. Pool Noodle Barnacle Pen0s*

        I have had good success with “I feel like I have hit a ceiling here” or “the hierarchy is rigid and people tend to stay for a long time, which overall is a good thing but it makes it difficult to move up.” Some version of “I want more opportunities for growth.”

      2. TootsNYC*

        I would contrast the two organizations, if that’s true. Moving from a small org to a bigger one: “I’d like to have the experience of working on a larger team, inside a larger, more structured organization. I’ve gotten the small-shop experience, and I think it would be good to be somewhere more corporate.”

        or vice versa.

  3. Pudding*

    One of my mentors told me that this question and “tell me about yourself” are really just “why do you want this job?” framed differently. She said if you think about your answers in that context, you’ll fare better. That strategy has helped me!

    1. Cat Tree*

      Yeah, I think hiring managers could do a better job of asking the question, but most of us are looking for that info. I’m not looking for someone to prove to me that it’s OK for them to be job searching and I get to decide if their reason is good enough. It’s tricky because some hiring managers *do* look at it that way, but they are the minority.

      I just want to understand why the person applied for the position. And I’m not looking for effusive praise of the company or the role (which has happened and is actually a red flag). I know candidates are usually applying to multiple jobs and I just want to know what piqued their interest to apply to this specific one as they’re scrolling through lists of job postings. There isn’t a right or wrong answer and it’s really not meant to be a “gotcha”.

      1. TootsNYC*

        I hire copyeditors, and I always ask candidates: What do you like about copyediting?

        I don’t care what they say; I just want them to talk about it. I’ve gotten some fun answers over the years; the best was the guy who said he liked to read, so copyediting let him do that for a living. And someone else said it makes them feel smart, to know all sorts of persnickety rules.
        Not one time has an answer been the one thing that would knock them out. It doesn’t usually translate into the “THIS is the one” feeling, but it lets me know something about how they approach our field, and it does weight the scale a bit.

        1. Timothy (TRiG)*

          My answer would be that I do it anyway, so I may as well get paid for it. I’m constantly mentally adjusting comma placement in things I read, and being pedantic about semi-colons. (I actually work as a programmer, though.)

        2. Cyndi*

          Maybe this is pedantic of me, but I like that you phrase it as “what do you like about copyediting” rather than “why do you like copyediting.” I feel like it rescues you from the implied assumption that a candidate is passionate about a job.

      2. Keeley Jones, The Independent Woman*

        Exactly. “Why are you interested in this position?” really is a better question. Does it really matter why they are looking in general.

  4. Totally Minnie*

    Also, if the boss is still badmouthing other people who have left and you’re worried about him giving a bad reference, it’s okay to search out other reference options. If you still have contact info for the people you worked with who have retired, check in with them and see if they’d be willing to be your references. One of the people I gave as a reference for my current job is my retired former boss, and she was happy to vouch for me.

    1. Uranus Wars*

      Or the person he is currently badmouthing. I have used colleagues that can speak to my work or that have been project managers on projects that I have worked on for references for things I need if a manager isn’t available or someone I want to use.

      1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

        Was coming here to suggest this. Talk to the folks who worked at this practice with you and get them to serve as a reference instead of the person who isn’t being reasonable about people leaving when he has announced his intention to retire and close the practice.

    2. Bad boss haver*

      The other people the boss badmouthed are also good references – when I was job searching, the other person my boss also ran off has a good reputation in the field and was about a year out from his experience with my ex boss, so I know for a fact a couple recruiters asked him what was up in my old company.

    3. Grammar Penguin*

      I can’t help but think his badmouthing the former coworker is just making him look like an ass to reference checkers. She worked for him for 20 years.

      I’d think that anyone who sees that and then hears him talk her down is going to wonder why, if he was so dissatisfied with her work, did he keep her on for two freaking decades?

  5. Minerva*

    You can get out and try talk to a lawyer about your accrued PTO payout, doesn’t have to be one or the other. Depending on the state that could be hella illegal (though boss may also not care because the business is dissolving).

    1. Random Dice*

      Mine too. You don’t get to revoke benefits like that, but without a substantial cash equivalent.

    2. MassMatt*

      I know this is not what the LW was asking about, but I’m surprised Alison did not address revoking PTO already accrued. I can’t imagine this is legal in any state. Tell you you won’t accrue any more PTO moving forward–crappy but legal. Revoking time already earned–seems like a retroactive pay cut.
      And while it’s surprising a lawyer would do something illegal, I’ve read enough letters here to know this is sadly not uncommon.

      I would definitely explore getting paid for the PTO, as well as what other references you can use–chances are this jerk is going to badmouth you no matter what you do.

  6. Squirrel!*

    Separately from this, you may want to look into your state’s labor laws* about PTO. There are many places that have laws which require employers to pay out any accrued PTO when an employee leaves/retires. You might be entitled to some sort of payment in this case.

    *Just because the boss is a lawyer, doesn’t necessarily mean that they are knowledgeable about labor/employment law, and/or aren’t above breaking the law either.

    1. Sandy*

      Sometimes lawyers are the worst that way, because they know just how far they can push the envelope and/or figure they can get themselves out of whatever trouble they get themselves into.

    2. Art3mis*

      I was going to say this too because in a lot of places PTO is earned and not something you can just waive away. I’ve also known folks who worked for lawyers and they would say that they are the worst at bending or breaking labor laws, so definitely do not assume that what they are doing is legal.

      1. Random Dice*

        My husband’s company has been bought 3 times. Each time he’s lost all his banked leave, which stinks, but he gets a nice bit of cash for it, which is good.

        This boss did the former without the latter.

    3. Barbarella*

      OP won’t have any PTO when they leave, so there will not be anything to pay out. I don’t think that will come into play here.

      State labor laws on “use it or lose it” PTO policies might come into play. Lots of companies revoke PTO at the end of the year by having caps on what rolls over–and sometimes that cap is zero. Those companies generally make that clear so people can plan to use their PTO, but if someone plans poorly or has bad luck, that PTO is gone, and it’s legal.

      I wonder what laws that govern roll over look like in states where pay outs upon leaving are mandatory.

      1. MassMatt*

        They won’t have PTO to pay out because the employer arbitrarily revoked what she had already earned. This has nothing to do with the op planning poorly or having bad luck. She earned the PTO and the boss is taking it away.

      2. Squirrel!*

        > OP won’t have any PTO when they leave, so there will not be anything to pay out. I don’t think that will come into play here.

        Wouldn’t all employers just revoke all PTO when an employees puts in their notice, and then claim they don’t have to pay anything out, because the employee had to leave? I get what you’re saying, but the boss is clearly a bad actor here, so trying to argue the literalness of what’s going on doesn’t have any bearing. The OP could be entitled to that leave, because of the bad faith actions of the employer.

        1. Barbarella*

          Well, most employers are not bad actors. Some employers have written policies that spell out when PTO is revoked, and some states mandate that employers follow their PTO policies. So we are back at, depends on state law.

      3. Orora*

        HR Director here. Barbarella is correct. Once you’ve actually accrued the vacation or leave, many states say it must be paid out if you leave.

        Employers can set parameters around how you use it (including use it or lose it policies and accrual caps) while you are employed, so the employer may be within his rights to revoke it, but my state says, if you accrue PTO, it’s yours, no takesie backsies. So again, check your state laws to see if this is legal in your state.

    4. Luca*

      Lawyers are human too, and can do stupid things when they should know better.

      I knew someone whose many strengths could be cancelled out by one weakness: he was sometimes temperamental. The final nail at one job was hom landing the employer on the wrong end of a potential wrongful termination lawsuit.

      1. CatBookMom*

        Back in the 1980s (yeah, dinosaur era) I was a CPA in a small firm. The *worst* offenders of the benefits rules were a) small medical groups, b) small law firms. They’d offer pension benefits beginning to vest after 3-4yrs, and – just coincidentally, of course – find other reasons to fire their employees just before that vesting date. Back that far ago, the IRS and the state wage & hour commissions had more agents, more teeth, for small business audits, and some of those offending businesses did get a stinging bite in the arse.
        That same small CPA firm I worked for tried to do me out of my own accumulated pension, but I very carefully made sure that my “I’m quitting” day was quite a bit past the anniversary date, and I had good personal friends on the CPA oversight board.

  7. Cygda*

    Even if the OP didn’t have the very good reason of their employer planning on closing his practice — the fact it’s such a small business means that the explanation that “It’s a small business that has no opportunity for further growth or advancement from my current position” is another response that tends to be universally accepted by employers.

  8. Charlie Rose*

    I would second the suggestions to see what avenues you could pursue to get your 4 weeks PTO back/paid out.

    I would also suggest that you ask the current boss for a written reference so that when the time comes that the practice is formally closed, you can use that instead of having prospective new employees contact him. I am not in the USA, and written recommendations are common in my country. Anytime someone is laid off, they received a minimum of 5 written recommendations from the employer that is laying them off as part of their severance package.

    1. Fluffy Fish*

      Written recs like that generally aren’t given a lot of weight in my experience in the US because anyone could have written them. We wouldn’t consider it at all.

      Some places will send a form to references by email to complete but most reference checks are by phone.

    2. KatEnigma*

      In the US, the only place that written references are still common is in Academia. In so many instances, there wouldn’t even be a way to submit the reference in that way- it’s pretty much universal forms and you have to give the input exactly how they expect it, or you won’t even make it past the computer screening.

      And as mentioned, the reason they aren’t a thing anymore, is exactly because anyone could have written it. They want to be able to call HR at a business number that they can cross reference for a little accuracy.

      1. Random Dice*

        I check LinkedIn recommendations. I learn a lot from the recommendations they give others, and that others give them.

        1. Fluffy Fish*

          This is a bad idea. I would not consider those at all. You really have no idea how much any of those people know about the employees work.

          1. MassMatt*

            I agree. Linked In actively promotes making recommendations, I used to get many “suggestions” for people in my network, the skills I was asked to endorse were often quite random but also for people I had not worked with at all.

            I would put a bit more weight to someone posting a short testimonial about working with them, but many jobs/fields (such as mine) don’t allow that.

      2. Samwise*

        And not throughout higher ed, either. Faculty positions, especially tenure track.

        Once I moved out of faculty positions and into academic-adjacent, I never again needed a written recommendation for a job application. Phone calls. People want to talk to your references.

      3. allathian*

        Except that there’s no HR in this case. I’d suggest getting in touch with former coworkers for additional references. 15 years is a long time, and I wouldn’t expect any references from that far back to be particularly accurate, and they absolutely wouldn’t have much to say about what the candidate is like as an employee currently, even assuming the LW has an employment history that goes further back than that.

  9. Just Another Zebra*

    When I interviewed for my current job, I was making a jump from specialized retail. I didn’t mention the fact the business was collapsing financially, or a toxic coworker, or the new store manager who couldn’t manage anything on her own, or the assistant manager who was just lazy, or even the district manager who had all the wrong priorities.

    “I’m looking for something more consistent than commission-based retail” was both bland and true, even if it wasn’t the primary reason.

  10. Lacey*


    For one job I just absolutely was going to lose it if I stayed much longer and in interviews I just said, “The business is changing, so I’m looking for something more in-line with my skill set” which was also true.

    For another one, I’d been fired but even though I was being thrown under the bus to save my boss’ job, I just told them that while it had seemed like a match in the interview, they really needed someone with more skills in X than they had previously thought.
    Which again, also true.

    1. Fluffy Fish*

      ” while it had seemed like a match in the interview, they really needed someone with more skills in X than they had previously thought.”

      That is a brilliant answer for positions where you have been fired.

  11. Barbarella*

    You should probably check state law on whether revoking PTO is stealing. Lots of companies revoke PTO via “use it or lose it” policies. It really stinks that he decided you lost yours and isn’t letting you accrue more, but you definitely should check your facts on whether he stole from you before you announce it to other people, especially in a job interview.

  12. Quality Girl*

    Well this is a big load of bs and I’m sorry you’re going through it. In my field 4 days a week (or 32 hours/week, 0.8 FTE) is considered full-time with regard to benefits.

  13. Skytext*

    I don’t have anything to add except your boss is a dick. Doesn’t give you a Christmas bonus because he forced you to go to part-time only 3 weeks before Christmas? After you worked for him for 15 years? And you’re his only employee? (It’s not like he has other part-timers not getting a Christmas bonus who might be resentful if you got one, even though you worked more than 11/12ths of the year and should’ve at least gotten 92% of your usual bonus).

    1. Grammar Penguin*

      Not to mention trashing someone who’d work for him for twenty years. I’d love to hear his answer when a reference checker asks him, “so if she was that bad at her job, why did you keep her on for so long? Why didn’t you let her go in the first decade?”

  14. Ready for more*

    I gave a bland, very neutral answer once, and the HR manager said “ Hmm. That’s nice and it’s what you are supposed to say. But why are you really leaving a job you’ve been at for years?”

    1. TootsNYC*

      My reply was, “Because I’ve been at it for years. I’m looking for something fresh, and maybe something that offers me a chance to learn something new, even if it’s just a new system, or working with some different people.
      “Since I’ve been there so long, I don’t -have- to leave, but I’m ready for something different. Stagnation is not appealing, and I feel I’ve gleaned as much new learning out of this place as I can.”

      1. Luca*

        Yes. An interviewer and I hit it off on stagnation because she’d felt that way about her previous firm. I couldn’t think of the word, but she did it for me.

    2. irene adler*

      Apparently, it’s okay to have a work history of several positions of a few years each.

      But leaving someplace where you’ve been working well over a decade? That’s practically blasphemy.
      Clearly you are successful at current company as evidenced by the time worked there. So what are they expecting to hear?

    3. Tired of Working*

      I’ve gotten the same thing. The interviewers asked me over and over and over why I was REALLY leaving. I had a feeling that they thought I had been fired and were waiting for me to admit it. (I hadn’t been fired.) I guess the interviewers couldn’t imagine leaving a good job (or at least a job that I didn’t find the need to criticize), so they concluded that I must have been fired.

      Eventually I figured out that the companies who hired me never questioned me as to why I left a previous job.

      1. Cedrus Libani*

        I do think you have to give them SOMETHING – not the whole load of dirty laundry, just an actual reason why you might like their job better than the one you’ve got.

        I had a super-awkward interview early in my career, where I was working at a startup but interviewing at a direct competitor, and they wanted to know why. The startup had less than two months of runway left; I wasn’t supposed to know that, and it definitely wasn’t public knowledge. So, I was sitting there, going: “Um. New opportunities? They’re new.” I’m a terrible liar, even by tech standards. A three-year-old could have told you that I was hiding something. I should have just leveled with them: “Look, we both know I’m under NDA. I love my job, I’m great at it, my boss will tell you the same…and I’m here.”

        1. DyneinWalking*

          I do think you have to give them SOMETHING – not the whole load of dirty laundry, just an actual reason why you might like their job better than the one you’ve got.

          Exactly. I’d reframe any questions about your reasons for leaving as “Please tell me in a believable way that you would stay at this job we are offering and that we wouldn’t want to get rid of you once you start with us. Give us reasons that do not have us question your competence, professionalism or ability to get along with others.”

          If you’re leaving a job for one that’s basically the same with the (hopeful) exception that the new company treats its employees better, I’m sure it would be safest to give some factual examples of the mistreatment. Not as a way to air old employer’s dirty laundry, just matter of fact: “I loved the job itself, but the pay was always late/I had 4 managers in a single year/I wasn’t granted a single day of leave for years/I worked overtime every day/they wanted me to break the law/…”. You shouldn’t go on and on about it but make it short and to the point and unemotional. If that’s the case, it won’t come off as venting but just as a reason – a reasonable one that doesn’t imply incompetence or unhinged behavior and that reassures the interviewer that all they need to do to keep you longer is to clear this very low bar.

          If your answer is short and to the point, it shouldn’t come off as venting but will simply convey “I won’t leave new job anytime

    4. Observer*

      I gave a bland, very neutral answer once, and the HR manager said “ Hmm. That’s nice and it’s what you are supposed to say. But why are you really leaving a job you’ve been at for years?”

      Well, that depends on the answer you gave. In this LW’s case, the answer is built into the original response – the business is closing because the owner is retiring.

  15. Hamster Manager*

    I had an entertaining one recently who ranted about how much of a narcissist their employer was. Weirdly did not more forward!

    1. 1,000 Snails in a Lady Skin*

      My most entertaining one was (pre-Covid) where they REPEATEDLY brought up how much they hated their commute. Just unprompted kept bringing up the commute to the point where it was a red flag that we couldn’t move on to other topics!

    2. Hannah Lee*

      I had one who, without any political prompting from me, went off on political rants, both about why they left one job and also to explain why there was a gap on their resume.

      Even if some of what they were saying wasn’t factually incorrect compared with reality, just the eagerness to trash talk and rant about stuff that had nothing to do with the job or our industry or their qualifications was a flag for me.

  16. Radioactive Cyborg Llama*

    Boy, this guy really deserves to be in a bad spot when the LW leaves. All his own doing.

    1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

      I wonder if being in a bad spot when people left earlier than he wanted them to is why he’s badmouthing those that have left.

      But still – you have announced an intention to retire and close up the business. Expect that your employees will begin looking for their next opportunity as soon as you finish that meeting.

  17. Qwerty*

    Think of the “why are you leaving” question as employers doing a comparison between what you don’t like and what the new role would be. It’s a way to nicely mention something that would be a deal breaker. Strict business hours vs flex scheduling. Travel time. Work hours per week.

    For example, I’ve had a lot of juniors tell me they are leaving their old job because they weren’t getting mentorship. Means that I need to be more clear about the level of support they’d get – if we do a lot then yay it’s a selling point; if we don’t then I have to warn them and risk losing a good candidate to something that is a better fit.

    Sometimes there’s no special deal breakers about the last place which is why so many people use generic stuff like “looking for new challenges”.

    1. I am Emily's failing memory*

      Yep, this is exactly it. Essentially, your presence here tells me that you’re willing to leave your current job, either because you want something it doesn’t have, or you don’t want something it does have. I just want to make sure that we don’t have the thing you’re trying to get away from, or we don’t lack the thing you want enough to consider leaving a job over not getting it, because that would be evidence of a mismatch in fit.

  18. TootsNYC*

    always focus on a positive thing–a thing you DO want–and not a negative (a thing you don’t want or are trying to get away from).

    So: “I’m looking for a more structured environment that promotes growth,” instead of “my current job is toxic.”

  19. Alabamajama*

    I’m in a similar situation but as the reference: a junior employee I supervise is looking to bail after less than a year due to let’s say wildly unethical behavior by the grandboss. I get asked as his main reference about why he’s leaving. I want to flag that it is because it is a really bad situation overall and not because he’s flighty, but I don’t want to overdo it or undermine his salary negotiations by giving the impression that he’d take any job to get away from the one he’s currently in.

    1. Fluffy Fish*

      Can you say something along the lines of you’re not entirely sure given its not somethign you talk abotu (seriously its a weird question to ask) but that hes very talented and deserves room to grow which isn’t really possible in his current position.

      Its true, not wanting to stay under an unethical grandboss does mean its not possible for him to grow at your company.

      But its positive and speaks to his work which is really what they’re looking for. They’re just trying to make sure he’s not incompetent or a jerk and about to be fired.

    2. Janeric*

      I’d ask him about what narrative he’s using — and then reflect that in your reference.

      BUT. I think as a reference you could say “To be honest, upper management has made some very weird decisions lately, many people here are seeking other options. You understand that I can’t share specifics. He does great work, I’m going to do my best to retain him, but I understand why he wants to explore other opportunities.”

      You don’t have to be specific, you can give him a bargaining toehold, but you can be like “it’s definitely us”.

    3. Political consultant*

      As a hiring manager, I’ve had references talk about candidates leaving after short tenures because of a toxic culture or bad boss — it’s a service to the candidate to mention it, because it does validate that they’re not flighty, while allowing the applicant themselves to stay focused on low-drama explanations and keep themselves above the fray. It’s never made me think the applicant is desperate or would take any job. But perhaps you could try including something like “I’ve encouraged him to look at other options as a result” if you want to make clear he’s being selective and not rushing to leave.

    4. I am Emily's failing memory*

      I feel like that’s a super awkward question to ask someone’s manager! Not that it surprises me that it gets asked anyway, but you’re kind of asking the manager: who do you blame for the employee leaving – the employee, yourself, or your bosses? The manager didn’t agree to be a reference so they could be pushed to choose between speaking poorly of the candidate and airing dirty laundry about the place where, unlike the candidate, the manger still intends to remain employed.

      1. Fluffy Fish*


        That is why in my answer I specifically did not say talk to the employee or indicate to the hiring manager that you talked to the employee.

        People do not talk to their boss about why they’re leaving in most cases. We should not be encouraging that as a normal question.

  20. NDA*

    How would you handle cases where you were forced to sign an nda that prevents you from saying ANYTHING negative, even if true? (I would obviously not fabricate anything!)

    How would you handle behavioral questions like, tell me about a time when you disagreed with your boss.

    I’m probably excessively worried, but in addition to not being able to say anything negative, I had to waive my right to sue or pursue legal action while my employer retained the right to sue me.

    1. Fluffy Fish*

      So you would never want to say anything negative answering that question anyway. What they are looking for is that you are mature adult who can handle differences.

      For example you would maybe talk about a time when you felt something wasn’t the best option, so you made a respectful pitch describing business reasons why you felt a different approach was warrant. Ultimately your boss decided not to go with your option which you respected (lie if you didnt) because you understand many times a manager has a higher level view and things wont always be done they way you would do them.

      1. NDA*

        What I signed was the result of having my lawyer negotiate for me. :/ The original document was even broader in scope.

        I was not in a place to refuse signing the document unfortunately. Though in hindsight I sure wish I had!

    2. I am Emily's failing memory*

      I am not a lawyer, but I’ve signed a similar document in the past and a lawyer advised me that a judge would not generally uphold it restraining my truthful speech in personal conversations, that I had mainly agreed I wasn’t going to do something like talk to the press or publish a book about my experiences.

      1. Eyes Kiwami*

        Yeah, I don’t think that kind of NDA is legally or practically enforceable. How would you possibly sue someone for complaining to their spouse about work, or saying in a private interview why you’re leaving your old job? NDAs are usually about public speech and trade secrets.

  21. Don't kneel in front of me*

    Whoa whoa whoa–are we just gonna’ gloss over the fact that OP’s boss is quite literally stealing one month of pay?? Accured PTO is a form of compensation because you earned it when you worked for it. He doesn’t get to revoke it just because he wants to, and you should not be shy or feel bad at all for demanding (and following up, legally) for an entire month of pay.

    1. Barbarella*

      I don’t know if that’s true. Companies pretty commonly revoke accrued PTO at the end of the year when they don’t allow it to roll over to a new year. OP should check state labor laws on revoking PTO.

      1. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain*

        Yes, the OP needs to check her local laws. It’s not true in all places, but it is true in some. For example, California considers vacation time as earned compensation but not sick time — they are two buckets — so I can get my vacation paid out when I leave, but I lose my sick time. They can also cap it at a certain amount, so if I don’t use vacation time at all, it will stop accruing until I take some, which is effectively “use it or lose it.”

    2. Lady Blerd*

      OP has stated that they know they have recourses for that in spite of living in a state that is favourable to employers

    3. asterisk*

      Not necessarily. That’s why they use the word “accrued PTO” instead of “earned PTO”. Most commonly in the US, vacation and sick leave are privileges. They are not required by law.

      I think I remember reading somewhere that they make the distinction in policy documents and employee handbooks because if they use the word “earned,” then it implies that the employer is obligated to pay them out. If they’re merely “accrued” they can be taken away, limited, reimbursed or not reimbursed, etc.

      1. Barbarella*

        “Accrued” means “earned but not used.” So if I have earned 15 days of PTO and used 5, I have 10 days accrued.

        Whether or not an employer can take away accrued PTO depends on state law. Revoking some amount of unused PTO at the end of the year is pretty common.

    4. Dust Bunny*

      No–it’s been discussed above, it’s just not clear if the OP lives in a state where her jack*ss boss can legally do this.

    5. Observer*

      Depending on the state and other specifics, it may be perfectly legal for the boss to rescind the PTO payout.

    6. GythaOgden*

      Use it or lose it is very common in the UK, and almost universal (as in there may be some companies that roll it over but I haven’t encountered any). Generosity is often paid for in flexibility; few countries have laws that are not going to balance the two competing needs, even if they look good from the outside. (Many UK companies take a Christmas shutdown for three days between Xmas and NY, and that often comes out of the 20-day legal minimum alongside Christmas, Boxing Day and NY Day being three paid Bank Holidays out of a yearly total of 8.)

      That said, unused time here is paid out on leaving a job, although that would really depend on when you leave — if you leave having taken AL than you would have accrued pro rata, then you have to pay it back, so it’s done the other way as well. Companies want people to take holiday — at least, mine does — and the incentive is losing it at the end of the financial year.

      1. MsSolo (UK)*

        One of the differences in the UK is your employer has to let you take leave – if they deny you a specific set of dates they still have to let you take the same amount of leave during another point in the year. If they keep denying leave during the year it can lead to a mass absence in December (or March – whichever cycle you’re on).

        Most employers I’ve worked at have allowed a small amount of roll over into January to make sure the books are clear. I’ve had to get special permission to roll over more than a week by demonstrating I had a plan to use it (honeymoon). As you say, a lot of it is about making sure they don’t have to pay it out if you leave. I’m currently in my notice period, and my manager is freaking out a bit that HR could insist I take two weeks of leave during it rather than pay it out.

  22. Baska*

    Yep. The one I’ve used personally: “My office was relocating to a part of the city that would require a one-hour commute each way” as opposed to “The management was in turmoil and my most recent manager wouldn’t let me go on the vacation that had been approved a year in advance.”

    Another gem: “I was the first person in this role after they’d merged two separate positions and no one had realized how outside-of-business-hours commitments would be required for the merged position, and I value a work-life balance” as opposed to “They were running me ragged trying to fill two separate positions at once, one of my two bosses had a bad habit of screaming in his office, and I was so stressed it was making me physically ill.”

    It’s all about phrasing lol.

  23. ResuMAYDAY*

    At some point OP is going to want to have a friend or service conduct a reference check on her behalf. (The employer will think it’s a new employer, but the responses go directly to OP.)
    Do this first, so that the retiring employer won’t have the chance to ruin any good prospects.

    1. Janeric*

      Would it be reasonable to be like “My former supervisor has retired but I think X person could speak accurately as to my work” in this situation?

      1. Barbarella*

        Well, not in *this* situation, since OP is the only employee left at the moment, and the practice is closing.

        In a situation where the boss retires but the company still exists and there are still coworkers who can speak to OP’s work, then yes, that would be completely reasonable.

  24. Unkempt Flatware*

    As a tangential question: is there ever a safe time to take the offer to give your boss feedback when you resign? My boss is shocked I’m leaving and it’s because of him and his lack of leadership.

    1. Falling Diphthong*

      There is a nonzero number of bosses who would take the feedback to heart and really change what they did going forward.

      But it’s nowhere near 50%, and much more likely to be an opening to argue with you about how you’re wrong.

      This sort of truth telling can make sense if you’re really invested in the relationship–say you decide to be the person who tells your brother how the common factor to him getting fired all the time is himself–but if your ongoing relationship is going to not exist, or is going to be you hoping for a good reference from this person, refreshing truth telling probably isn’t called for.

    2. Fluffy Fish*

      Probably but given the number who would take it very badly, I wouldn’t bother.

      Its not your job to fix a companies problem and frankly you can’t. Even if you could safely give feedback its still on them to implement.

    3. Anonosaurus*

      Personally I would not give feedback in this situation (or would keep it bland and general). There could be blowback for you, and if the boss was open to accepting and working on his skills deficits then you probably wouldn’t be leaving anyway – so why risk it?

    4. I should really pick a name*

      I feel like the more the boss needs it, the less likely they’re going to take it.
      Also, there’s a difference between giving that feedback to your boss, or to one of their superiors (though even then, only do so if you don’t fear any repercussions).

  25. Falling Diphthong*

    There are a lot of daters out there whose exes did genuinely bad things. Like, an outside observer would say “You are the reasonable one, Complainer, and your ex was in the wrong.”

    But explaining how your ex is in the wrong is a really bad opening for meeting people. Even would be platonic friends or members of a hobby group–you don’t want to be the person who ties everything to how Ex was the Noodle Incident of relationships. For would be romantic partners who would be directly replacing Ex, it’s even more of a red flag. Once you know these new people well, hilarious tales of Ex’s shenanigans, or Old Boss’s shenanigans, can start to feature here and there. But not when you’re introducing yourself.

    1. Cyndi*

      This works the other way around, too! I’ve had bosses who loved to complain about the previous people in my role, and it’s never been a good sign.

  26. Janeric*

    I didn’t tell the boss who hired me for my current job why I wanted to leave my previous job until his last day.

    (I was doing a heartfelt “really appreciated working with you, your excellent management helped me normalize after leaving a pretty weird situation and I very much appreciate it.” thing.)

  27. Jinni*

    LW a boss isn’t the only reference. I suggest you and your former co-worker agree to be references for each other.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Agreed, but keep in mind that you can be asked to supply managers as references. (I always want to talk to a least a couple of people who managed the person.)

      1. Somehow_I_Manage*

        While they can ask that you provide specific people as references, it’s reasonable to tell potential employers that you are evaluating your options privately and given the uniquely small nature of the firm, you’d prefer to offer them other former colleagues as references so as to not jeopardize your current employment.

        /It’s important to point this out, because for some people the etiquette in this regard can be confusing. I’ve met at least one person who listed a boss as a reference from a job they were *fired* from, because they assumed they had to. Would you believe they did not get a glowing reference?! :)

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Whoops, yes, I wasn’t thinking about the fact that the suggestion was for the current job. You can always decline to offer your current manager so that you don’t jeopardize your job; you just want to be able to offer managers from previous jobs.

          1. emmelemm*

            But if you’ve worked at the same job for, let’s say, 15 years or more, and it’s a sole owner business, that one person has been your manager for the last 15 years. And while you may have had jobs before that, and even managers you’re still in touch with, AAM wisdom would say that all those references are too old to be useful. So what do you do then? Other than feel stuck for all eternity.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              You’d explain the situation and work with the hiring manager to come up with others for them to talk to — just go into it knowing that you might need to offer up a wider range/variety of references than normally. (If you’re really stuck and willing to do this, sometimes you can offer copies of your performance evaluations from the current job. Sometimes just the fact that you’re making that offer will be reassuring.)

              1. allathian*

                Assuming a small business even does any kind of formal performance evaluations, which is by no means certain.

                Granted, the way the employment market works in Finland is very different from the US, but one of my aunts worked as an admin for a small business for more than 20 years before she retired, and once when I happened to mention a performance evaluation I was nervous about, she told me that she’d never had a formal performance evaluation at her job. To be sure, she worked to live and to have something to do when her kids were old enough to go to school, and she wasn’t interested in career advancement. A more career-oriented person probably wouldn’t have stayed for more than a year or two.

                What’s often said about German Lutherans and feedback also applies here, particularly for older generations. People generally didn’t expect to be thanked for doing their jobs, and as long as your manager didn’t have anything negative to say about your work, you could assume you were doing well. Thankfully things are changing as managers are realizing that people generally do better with some appreciation and thoughtful constructive feedback.

  28. Not a SuPURRvisor*

    I did the positive “I’m looking to advance my career and you have amazing opportunities” during the interview

    And then after I was hired at the first happy hour I admitted I was also leaving because I got screamed at for listening to a virtual training they wanted me to take with my headphones when they hadn’t supplied me with a speaker.

  29. Mark*

    Regarding removing PTO already owed, check and see if this is allowed in your state. In mine, all earned but unused vacation time (not sick) must be paid out upon termination. The employer doesn’t have a choice. It’s a relatively simple process to go after it, at least it is here. You’d file a complaint with the Illinois Department of Labor, and at most have to go to a hearing. It’s not a “take to court” kind of thing, and you don’t need an attorney.

  30. Lex Talionis*

    Is it legal to revoke accrued PTO? I would find out before the firm is dissolved. Would be ironic if one of boss’s last acts was illegal…

    1. KatEnigma*

      Likely yes. When you go from FT to PT (or you quit) in many States, you aren’t entitled to any of your accrued time. I imagine a lawyer knows at least that much of the law in his jurisdiction. Had LW gotten the promise in writing, that might be different.

      1. Ariaflame*

        So it’s legal to screw over workers by both reducing their hours and taking away leave at the same time.

          1. Grammar Penguin*

            You can request your leave. Your employer can deny it. In many states, they can promise it to you, deny your requests, never pay you for it, and it’s legal.

            “Take your leave every year.” isn’t that helpful when people don’t actually have control over it.

  31. KatEnigma*

    Look LW, at some point, a hiring manager knows you will leave their firm. Every employer has issues, and they don’t want to worry about whatever truth telling you might do on your next job search, even if they completely believe what you’re saying. You want to be memorable for your skills, not your job searching story.

  32. RB*

    They can’t take away your accruals. That’s like pay you’ve already earned. You should take the time off anyway — make up something about family emergency or medical emergency — and then put in for the sick pay or vacation pay when you do your time sheet. I mean what kind of payroll system, even for a sole proprietor, allows them to just wipe out accruals?

    As for going to four days a week, that’s not part time and even if it were, you’d still accrue sick/vacation based on those hours, since accruals are usually based on hours worked. So at 32 hours a week, you’d accrue at a rate equal to 4/5ths of what you used to accrue.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      In most states, it’s legal to have use it or lose it systems where your accrued PTO is wiped out the end of every year. For it to be illegal, the OP would have to in one of the states (which unfortunately are not in the majority) that treated earned vacation time like wages and prohibit use or lose it, etc.

      1. Can Can Cannot*

        Some states defer to company policy, requiring a pay out of accrued PTO if company policy says that will be paid when an employee leaves. But if there is no policy, or if the policy explicitly declines to pay out PTO, it wouldn’t need to be paid.

      2. Emmy Noether*

        I’m not in the US, and primed to believe any sort of horror stories about labor rights there, but there is a fundamental difference between:
        a) warning people in advance that PTO is systematically set to 0 at X date, when there is sufficient opportunity to take it before X date
        b) saying “btw, starting next week you don’t have PTO anymore and your accrual is gone” with no chance to use it before that.

        (a) can be legal, doesn’t mean that (b) is.

    2. One HR Opinion*

      “As for going to four days a week, that’s not part time and even if it were, you’d still accrue sick/vacation based on those hours…”

      This may be how things should work, but there is no Federal law that even requires paid time off at this point. So unless there is a specific state law around this, he can be required to work 4 days a week and not get any paid holidays, vacation, sick, etc.

    3. Observer*

      As for going to four days a week, that’s not part time and even if it were, you’d still accrue sick/vacation based on those hours, since accruals are usually based on hours worked. So at 32 hours a week, you’d accrue at a rate equal to 4/5ths of what you used to accrue.

      Nope. 4 days could be 28 or 30 hours (under 30 is the most common version of PT I’ve seen, others use >= 30) And, although morally it shouldn’t be that way, many companies to do not allow PT workers to accrue PTO.

      They can’t take away your accruals. That’s like pay you’ve already earned.

      Nope. In most of the country, that’s perfectly legal. Good companies don’t do that. But this guy is a jerk. So, unless he is forced to behave, he’s going to squeeze the OP for every dime.

    1. I should really pick a name*

      I believe the LW is trying to.
      But there’s no guarantee they’ll find a job before their boss retires, and even if they do, a prospective employer could contact their current employer as a reference.

  33. Anonymouse (for now)*

    I was just let go from my job after 7 months technically because “wasn’t meeting expectations”. However, they never gave me any feedback or follow through. I was chasing the owners down for meetings, and when they finally made them, would cancel right before it was scheduled. When I asked for particulars on where I wasn’t meeting their expectation, they couldn’t (wouldn’t ??) give me any. Everyone one else including the VP’s were constantly telling me I was doing a great job and they appreciated the work I did…?

    However, as they did give me a severance, a family member suggested that I say I was laid off and not use the company as a reference. The company was laying off several employees so that is not completely out of the realm of possibility. But this is the first job that I was ever fired from (been working for 30 years) and never experienced this. How do I approach it?

    1. Eyes Kiwami*

      I don’t think you can be “laid off” if you were terminate for performance reasons. It doesn’t matter whether their performance standards are reasonable or not. It also doesn’t matter if they give you severance or not. “Laid off” means the business economically can’t afford to keep you or no longer needs the role.

      It does make a difference which one it is if you’re applying for unemployment and because of what the company will say when called for a reference/background check (even if you don’t list them, if it’s on your resume they might call anyway). You should clarify with your company how they are classifying it.

    2. should decide on a name*

      As someone who has been scapegoated like this more than once, I’m so sorry you’ve been through this. It’s awful. I am glad that you got so far into your career before experiencing it, though!

      The fault here lies entirely with management, and in many of these cases, it’s not just that the concerns or issues weren’t communicated, it’s that there actually wasn’t a real or genuine performance problem present in the first place. You’ve been made to take the fall, for whatever reason, but the fact they paid severance indicates that someone knows this wouldn’t pass the sniff test.

    3. Aspiring Chicken Lady*

      “I was let go as part of a company layoff and received a severance package. I had good feedback from coworkers about my performance.”

  34. LinesInTheSand*

    When I coach people on interviewing, I like to say “there are no villains in your job stories.” When relating anecdotes about prior employers, even if there was a bad guy in real life, find a way to tell the story that sticks to business. Business is what you’re there to talk about, and keeping things focused on that keeps the interview running more smoothly.

    Also, there are some stories I just don’t tell in interviews.

  35. Cohort 1*

    When I was 18, I worked for a city pool as a lifeguard. That pool employed two of us who took turns as inside person taking money and handing out locker keys, and outside person watching the swimmers. In case of emergency, inside person had to lock up the money and get outside in response to a blown whistle. The pool would have at least 50 people in it. The following summer I applied in a different city for the same job. They wanted to know why I wasn’t going back to City A. I danced and dodged answering truthfully, but they persisted with the question. I finally blurted out, “Because there isn’t enough coverage and somebody is going to drown in that pool! I don’t want to be there when it happens.” I was their first pick for City B pool. There were 10 of us and I did end up rescuing a kid that summer. All was well.

    1. tamarack etc.*

      A good example of how context matters. A teenager who a) tries to wriggle out of saying something bad about their former employer and b) when they actually come out with it, it turns out to be a safety concern? Hired.


    Chances are if the LW is applying for positions in the legal field in their area, then it is already well known that her boss is an asshole and retiring- closing his firm would mean that existing clients are looking for someone new, and word travels fast. It is also highly likely that LW’s previous coworkers who had already been downsized have been interviewing and spreading the word as well. If it were me, I would simply state similarly to what Allison stated ” My current boss is closing his firm in preparation for his upcoming retirement, and I am the last employee left as it approaches. After 15 years in his firm, I am looking forward to some new opportunities.” This statement will tell an interviewer a lot if they are paying attention.

    1. tamarack etc.*

      Good point.

      The OP is already coming across as conscientious and loyal. No need to say anything that might lead the interviewer’s mind in a different direction.

    2. Grammar Penguin*

      Excellent point. If this how he does business and he’s been in business so long that he’s now retiring, I think it’s likely that his reputation in your local legal community reflects his business ethics. So his reference, good or bad, may carry less weight among potential employers in your field than you think.

  37. Peanut Hamper*

    My last boss (also a small company; only 13 people when I left) was a raging alcoholic. He was violent, he liked to gaslight people, he thought he was a brilliant businessman when all he did was throw money at problems, thought every employee was out to get him, thought we never worked hard enough, had a drug problem, liked to send angry/drunk texts long into the evening (I changed my phone number twice to get away from this), and (with a cavalier disregard for cliché) was sleeping with the #2 in the company.

    But I had been there for six years, and so “I’m looking for new opportunities to learn new things” worked for me. Nobody batted an eye at that answer.

    1. Unkempt Flatware*

      Extreme projection! I learned years ago that when someone accuses you of wild out-of-left-field things, they are doing the Thing or something similar.

      1. should decide on a name*

        I learned years ago that when someone accuses you of wild out-of-left-field things, they are doing the Thing or something similar.

        This is so, so true. Like the ex-boss who used to blame brand-new people for problems that had existed for months or years before the person was even hired. And the other ex-boss who used to try to distract from her own extensive performance problems by manufacturing documentation to try and prove the fault lay with talented team members she found threatening, no matter how ridiculous or even impossible the accusations were.

    2. NotRealAnonforThis*

      We either worked for the same raging alcoholic, or there is more than one of these creatures.

  38. Eddie Crane*

    I always pivot to talking about why the job I’m applying for excites me, and explain what is different about it.

  39. tw1968*

    Am I reading this right? This guy had you move to 4 days a week for the last month of the year, so, you worked 2-3 days less in December, and he used that as an excuse to deny you a Christmas bonus because…the other 11 months of full time work don’t matter? And then says he’s taking your vacation days as well? What a POS! Use every legal method you have to extract every dollar you are owed from this guy!!!

  40. TomatoSoup*

    I think part of the reason that citing a valid and completely true but negative reason for leaving is can make the interviewee look bad is that it is a huge tonal shift from the rest of the interview. Most of the interview is talking about what you have achieved and will achieve and how much you like the prospective employer, etc. Then, all of a sudden, you’re going on about something super negative. That change can be really uncomfortable.

    I say this as someone who other people often choose to confide in. Sometimes it’s family and sometimes it’s basically a stranger. I don’t know why. This big emotional thing suddenly drops into the middle of the conversation. It can feel like a bucket of ice water was just poured on me. I imagine that getting an earful about the dysfunctional behaviour of a group of strangers has a similar impact.

  41. Luca*

    If I hadn’t gotten out sooner, I would have had a built-in reason for leaving a past employer.

    When I joined the firm my local office was newish, not quite a year old. It didn’t grow as they were envisioning, so I left. Much later I found out that had been a sign of big problems at the top. They finally merged with an industry behemoth to survive, and the behemoth’s local office was a killer commute for me.

    As it was, the lack of local office growth was the reason I gave in interviews.

  42. should decide on a name*

    Why do so many interviewers insist on asking why you’re leaving your current job, and/or why you left a previous job? Research shows people usually leave because of reasons including subpar/bad management, subpar/bad pay, lack of advancement/training, a big life change (moving far away; having a baby; etc).

    Sometimes, there is a significant trauma behind why they leave a job (unlawful firing; bullying; etc). More and more people also have NDAs that cover everything, even if the NDA only had to be signed because of the nature of the work, and they left on good terms.

    The likelihood of getting the “real” reason is extremely slim, and not just because of what Alison says above about it reflecting badly on the candidate.

    Then again, I also don’t understand the insistence on reference checks, and especially the insistence upon at least one of those people being a manager. What if your manager literally doesn’t understand your job, and has nothing to do with your work? What if your manager bullied you, or threw you under the bus to save themselves, or gives bad references to anyone who dares to leave their employment?

    1. Grammar Penguin*

      Also: since it seems to be the widespread convention that nobody will say anything negative, even when true and an obviously good reason to leave, how can hiring managers use answers that they know will be partially true at best? Seeing how someone answers a question about a crappy previous employer may be a good test of someone’s diplomacy and tact, but are those qualities essential to the job function? Someone might be very good at their actual work but really bad at playing conversational games. Talking about something truthfully without actually mentioning the thing is a skill, but is it an essential skill for this job? If not, don’t make it a necessary requirement for hiring.

      Also, also: I think in a broader sense, this taboo against truth does our entire working culture a disservice. Employers would benefit from knowing that people *really do leave* when they are treated poorly, and that the problem of poor treatment is more widespread than they think.

      I mean, say Employer Y has 10 applicants come over from Employer X. If one says they’re leaving because of unfair treatment while nine give the bland, standard answer (they just are ready to move on, etc.), then the one is the outlier and there likely was no unfair treatment and employer Y need not worry about losing people over things like this.

      Reverse the ratio so only one applicant gives the blandard reasons of ready to move on, etc. while nine say because they’ve been treated badly. Employer Y now knows that such treatment will cause an exodus, not maybe but definitely, and they have solid proof that their better treatment of employees gives them a competitive advantage over Employer X.

    2. miss_chevious*

      I do both of these things. Re: asking why you’re leaving, I need to know that you can be diplomatic. My job requires telling people things they don’t want to hear all the time, and the people I hire need to be able to handle uncomfortable situations with a level of professionalism and tact. If I ask you why you’re leaving and I get a rant and a lot of personal details, that’s something that will make me cautious about hiring you. I wouldn’t mind hearing something from OP along the lines of what other commenters have suggested — “my current boss is winding down in anticipation of retirement and, as a result, I’m looking for a position with more predictability around hours and benefits” or something similar — but if I get a fifteen minute diatribe about the boss, that would be a challenge.

      Re: references, I ask for these as well (although I agree that asking your current boss is not something most people would be willing or able to provide). I have heard some surprising things, both good and bad, from people that the candidate has chosen to speak for them.

    3. Critical Rolls*

      This has a couple of underlying assumptions that aren’t supported. It assumes that a non-negative answer must be deceptive and useless, which isn’t the case. It’s very possible give a truthful, instructive answer that focuses on what you want to move toward more than what you want to leave behind.

      References… well, it’s not a perfect system, but an interview by itself and a work history on paper, as provided by a candidate, isn’t going to tell the whole story. We’ve certainly seen plenty of people write in about how someone who aced an interview turned out to be a poor fit — or, conversely, interviewed not so well but turned out to be a great hire. It’s a little hedge against a misleading interview in either direction.

      We can’t structure all our practices around the assumption that everyone’s a liar or a bad actor. Nothing would get done. Why even have interviews? The panel lies! The candidate lies! The references lie! It’s important to be *aware* of the possibility, but operating with it as a baseline assumption is a problem.

  43. Madame Arcati*

    It’s a slightly different situation but I think the message is valid: A colleague of mine Edward, my peer, had had shall we say a slight disagreement with another peer, Bertha, because she had dealt with him in a way that was unfair. I’d say poor judgment not malice but still, she did him dirty. Bertha then took up a temporary promotion (mat leave cover) to manage both me and Edward. I only recently found out about the disagreement fully (I’d had a vague idea) and his depth of feeling over it – he was very angry underneath and felt deeply wronged. My immediate impression was, goodness me how very controlled and professional he’s been over the past months; he hasn’t treated Bertha in any way but politely and cordially, he hasn’t badmouthed her or been obstructive, or even just a bit awkward in a way you couldn’t really complain about. He really went up in my estimation.
    So I suppose what I’m saying is, here is an opportunity to rise above it all and be the professional, to show the world you are better than this. Or if nobody else ever finds out what an idiot your ex boss is, you have that satisfaction of knowing you have left it all behind and haven’t presented yourself as bitter or dramatic.

  44. Nico*

    Ok but arent there exceptions to discretion?

    Ie “I left Enron because nothing made sense” would be a better answer than blah blah platitude career blah?


    “No, Musk is even worse that you imagine”

    1. Critical Rolls*

      I mean, if your boss is a public garbage fire, the interviewers aren’t actually relying on your assessment of the situation. But even then, a candidate would probably be better served to say, “It was pretty bad. But I’d rather focus on what I’d bring to your company as a Grade 6 Llama Technician.”

  45. Aphra*

    I know from bitter experience how awful it can be working for sole practitioners. In my first post-qualification job the solicitor I worked for refused to give me a raise until I gave him my written notice. When it got to the third time, I actually did quit. I discovered later that he gave me a bad (and untrue) verbal reference, never provided a written one and badmouthed me around town to other solicitors and barristers which, had they not known my work, could have seriously damaged my professional reputation. Several years later I’m head of department and a fellow HoD is recruiting, comes to me for an informal chat about previous employer who has applied for the job. I’m not ashamed to say that I thoroughly enjoyed giving the (true, unembellished and without mentioning his regular daytime drinking) facts about the guy and prevented his application progressing. Karma? I don’t know but schadenfreude? Oh yes.

  46. H3llifIknow*

    Can we pause for a moment on “he revoked my accrued PTO”?? That sounds wildly illegal, and definitely unethical to me. Is there no recourse for that???? I am absolutely gobsmacked at how equanimical the LW is being about all of this. He sounds like a petty tyrant, but I think I’d absolutely HAVE to fight him on that point alone!

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