27 September 2023

Past masters: Why we shouldn’t bad-mouth an old boss in a job interview

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Caroline Zaayer Kaufman* says that in a job interview, our answer to a question about our previous boss can reveal whether we’re a team player or a back stabber.

Photo: IndypendenZ

When applying for jobs, you already have your references — people who you know will sing your praises — lined up.

But in an interview, sometimes you’ll be the one asked to give perspective on your current or most recent boss.

As it turns out, most jobseekers don’t exactly have the best things to say about them — to us, at least.

In a 2018 Monster poll, the majority (76 per cent) of US respondents said they currently have or recently had a toxic boss.

That’s compared with the minority (5 per cent) of respondents who are BFFs with their boss and 19 per cent who described their boss as a mentor, or someone they can learn from and know has their back.

The bad bosses, however, can best be described by our respondents as power-hungry (26 per cent), micromanager (18 per cent), incompetent (17 per cent), or just never around (15 per cent).

But regardless of whether your previous boss was your best friend or your worst enemy, talking about them to a prospective employer takes a little tact.

“How you describe past relationships speaks volumes about you, not the boss, which is why interviewers pose the question,” says Elaine Stirling, a Toronto-based communications consultant.

Interviewers are looking for a few different things when they ask this question: how well you handle being put on the spot, how well you play with others, and how you like to be managed.

Come prepared to answer, so you don’t get caught off-guard and say something you’ll regret.

Be positive — even if it’s difficult

The experts agree that saying something positive about your former boss is the only way to answer this question — regardless of your true feelings.

“If a candidate rants negatively about a prior manager, the interviewer often considers the employee the problem and will be hesitant to make the hire,” says Lynne Sarikas, Executive Director of the MBA Career Center at Northeastern University in Boston.

Obviously if you had a great manager, acknowledge that and specify what made them so great, Sarikas says.

“If, on the other hand, you had a more challenging relationship with you manager, proceed cautiously.”

You want to highlight positive aspects of your manager’s leadership style and what you learned from them, says Marti Benjamin, a career management coach.

If the interviewer pushes for some sort of criticism, say something that ends on a positive note.

“You may want to acknowledge that while you had very different styles, you found a way to work together to deliver results or meet customer needs,” Sarikas suggests.

“Be prepared to give a specific example that can be shared in a positive way.”

You say: “My boss was strong-willed, which sometimes made it difficult to communicate new ideas; however, we always managed to talk it out and find solutions that were best for the organisation.”

Bring it back to your strengths

Your answer to this question can indicate how you like — or don’t like — to be managed, says sales trainer Cheri Farmer.

“How does that mesh with my own management style?” she says.

“Would this be a relationship that works?”

The interviewer may also be testing to see what you’ll be like to work with, Farmer adds.

Will you make a positive contribution to the organisation’s culture, or will you need to be refereed?

Whatever the reason, remember they are interviewing you, not your former boss, Sarikas says.

“Keep the focus on what skills and experience you bring to this position,” she says.

“Let your strengths show in your answer and move the interview on to more important questions.”

You say: “She was so effective at advocating for our department. I learned a lot from her about how to diplomatically manage people, keep communication lines open between departments and how to advocate for the team.”

Demonstrate discretion and loyalty

By asking this question, an interviewer might also be testing to see how you would handle sensitive inquiries from customers, colleagues or others.

“I’m not necessarily looking for loyalty to the boss, but how loyal are they to the organisation?” Farmer says.

“When they leave our organisation will they talk smack about it?”

Many applicants fail to realise that their criticism of their boss is often perceived as their unwillingness to accept accountability for their own actions, Benjamin says.

“I never asked candidates about their former bosses, but far too many felt it was reasonable to offer their assessment anyway,” she says.

“I always believed that if they’d criticise their former manager in an interview, they’d probably also criticise me or their co-workers were I to hire them.”

You say: “We had our differences, but I thought it was important to stay focused on our goals and to set up my manager — and my team — for success.”

Know what to leave out

While you should always be honest in a job interview, there are certainly details that don’t need to be shared, especially if they have the potential to cast you in an unflattering light.

* Caroline Zaayer Kaufman is a contributor to Monster.

This article first appeared at www.monster.com.

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