Re-Thinking What We Say About a Former Boss

by Alan Rider

As a career advisor for over a decade, I’ve coached many mid-career clients through job transition. While working on interview skills, one constantly recurring theme has been the question of what a job seeker should say about a difficult former boss. How can a candidate stay truthful while also avoiding derogatory statements that can bring an interview to an end?

The Problem

Clients I’ve worked with have confided a lengthy list of complaints against former bosses – some of them outrageous: Everything from ordinary management incompetence to more serious issues like broken promises, financial malfeasance, taking kickbacks, racial and sexual harassment, drug and alcohol abuse, and blatant favoritism for relatives and close friends in the workplace. Numbers of my clients have come for career help after being terminated or side-tracked because they discovered a boss engaged in unethical activities. Some, with legal help, have been able to seek and obtain resolution of their grievances. Sometimes it’s been the clients’ choice to just put the whole matter behind them, by simply pursuing new positions and getting on with life.

But whatever the clients’ move-on strategy might be, all such job-seekers are faced with a problem. When they get to the point of interviewing for their next job, how do they deal with the inevitable “boss question” that comes up in virtually every behavioral interview, the question variously phrased as: “Who’s the worst boss you ever had?” or, “Tell me why you left your last position,” or, “Have you ever been fired, and if so, why?”

Repeatedly, my clients and I have been nonplussed by a tenet of behavioral interviewing that seems to be unquestioned by recruiters, HR professionals, and managers: The seemingly iron rule that we are never supposed to speak ill of a former boss.

First, let me acknowledge the very good reason why hiring managers do need to ask the “boss question.” Its purpose is to ferret out the perennially disgruntled employee who resists authority, teamwork, and oversight. No one wants to work with a person who is always discontented, who spreads a pall of distrust and cynicism in the workplace. The “boss question” is one tool that all managers (myself included) use to uncover potential attitude problems in interviewees.

So the issue before us is not whether we should use the “boss question” or not. I assume that we will, and fully intend to continue using it myself. But I do want to question the way that we use it, and explore appropriate candidate responses.

On the Employer’s Side

Too often hiring managers glibly (and mistakenly) imagine that any negative answer to the “boss question” immediately disqualifies an applicant. Recently, a friend who is a hiring manager told me about an interviewee: “I was so excited about this candidate; he seemed to have everything we were looking for,” she related, “So you can imagine how disappointed I was when he said something negative about a former boss. I really wanted to be able to hire him…”

My friend’s assumption was that any negative remark about any former boss disqualifies a candidate. But why do we unquestioningly assume this? What if the candidate is right? What if the former boss really does deserve critique? Are we being ethical if we expect interviewees to hide unhappy truths from us, or even lie to us so that they won’t be disqualified in the interview? Does our overly-rigid adherence to this “iron rule” of interviewing help or hurt the recruiting process? Are we losing good candidates because we don’t sufficiently nuance the way we use the “boss question?”

I believe that this is the case, and that as HR and management professionals we need to look beyond simple answers. The crucial point is not the fact that a candidate had a problematic former employer. Most of us have had that experience at one time or another. The reality for which we should be probing is what the candidate’s future work attitude will be. In fact, a candidate who left a dishonest former employer, because they had ethical problems with the “bad” boss, might be exactly the kind of dependable contributor we want to have on our team.

We need to not reject such candidates too quickly, but take their negative comment on the former boss as an invitation to probe more thoroughly and learn the candidate’s attitudes toward authority and teamwork. We should take their report about a poor former work situation as an invitation to deeper dialogue, not as the final judgment that they have a poor workplace attitude.

On the Candidate’s Side

However, from the other side of the desk, the problem looks quite different. While hiring managers have the power to reflect upon and adapt the way they use the “boss question” in interviews, candidates are at the mercy of their interviewers’ preconceptions, and must focus instead on how to survive.

Years ago one of my clients had a CEO whose legal problems and improper business practices were widely publicized in the press. My client did nothing wrong and resigned for ethical reasons; but the “iron rule” that kept him from criticizing his former boss’ behavior became a continuing issue as he interviewed for new positions. His interviews ended abruptly when he critiqued his former boss, and also when he did not. He repeatedly had to deal with assumptions that he had also committed improprieties; but the “iron rule” kept him from criticizing the previous employer to defend himself.

In such situations, my clients and I have pieced together positive answers to the negative “boss question” by focusing on future goals rather than on past difficulties. To answer queries about bad bosses or work situations or being fired, one helpful response can begin, “I’ve actually had that experience and learned a lot from it…” Another pro-active approach can be, “I’ve had a number of managers, all of whom had different styles; from each one I’ve learned practices that I want to emulate and others that I want to avoid…”

The trick is to deflect attention from the former boss’ eccentricities and problems, and instead toward one’s own professional learning, growth, and positive attitude. It can be done.

ALAN RIDER, MCDP, who serves as associate editor for Career Convergence’s Non-Profit Dept (and Organizations Dept) . He can be reached at Email: the_riders@hotmail.com

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