Lately I've been doing a lot of thinking about how I present myself in interviews, and a big part of that has been unpacking my feelings about my last job, which really was not an ideal position for me. Most of my interviews have involved some questions that either directly asked why I'm no longer with my last company or asked me to talk about something I did or experienced there. While I do have some positive outcomes from that position, sometimes it can be hard for me to find the silver lining of a job that felt so wrong for me.
One of the easier questions for me to answer is why I'm no longer with the company. I don't have a standard script, but I usually mention that the work I was doing didn't really align with my career goals, and when I wanted to transition to work that more closely aligned with what I wanted to do in the future, the company was supportive and hired my replacement on my current project so that they could transition me to a new project - but then discovered that due to some restructuring and changes in the roadmap, they no longer hard any work for me to do.
I don't generally specify that I was let go (I usually say something like "that was the end of my time at the company"), but if I'm specifically asked, I will say that while it was the company's decision to let me go, I was already starting to look because I didn't see this position contributing to my career goals. I do this because I want to be honest about the circumstances, but also because I want my interviewers to know that I wasn't planning to stick around in a dead-end job much longer, and that I do have goals that I'd like to achieve in my career.
Talking about why I'm no longer working at that company is easy - but talking about my time there is a lot harder. One of the most common pieces of interview advice that I've seen is not to badmouth or say negative things about your current or former company. Not only does it make you seem like someone who only sees the negatives, but it's really never a good idea to burn bridges, especially when it's possible that your experience there is not the norm and your interviewer may have heard different things about the company than what you're telling them. But how do you avoid speaking negatively about a company or job when you really don't feel at all positive about that experience?
For myself, there are three approaches I've used, depending on the situation:
- Find the Positives - As much as my last job was really not the right position for me, there were some good things that came from it. I learned a new skill, even if it's not one I ever want to use again. I learned about working as part of a team (something they tried to teach us at my coding bootcamp, but which you can really only learn from experience) and collaborating on large repositories. I was fortunate to have my first exposure to markdown in Gatsby, which is something I'm using to write this very blog. I worked with the best group of smart, driven engineers that I've ever had the pleasure to know, and even 6 months later, I still miss having the opportunity to learn from these people every day. While I wouldn't consider my last job to be an overall positive experience, there are certainly some positives, and I try to focus on those when I'm talking about the experience.
- Focus On My Experience, Not The Company - I try to avoid making broad statements about the company and the department, and instead focus on my personal experiences. When I talk about the fact that I wasn't given the opportunity to do the work I wanted to do, I say it just like that - not that the company didn't allow people to do that kind of work, just that I didn't have the opportunity. The company/position that was very wrong for me may be absolutely perfect for someone else (and in fact, a lot of the awesome people I worked with were very happy and flourished there), and I don't want to make it sound like a terrible company or terrible position just because it wasn't right for me.
- Answer Direct Questions Honestly, But Briefly - If there's a question that I feel I just can't answer without saying something negative, I give an honest answer, but try to be brief about it (and maybe even add some positive). For example, if I'm asked about relationship with my direct manager, I will say that the department grew quickly and my manager didn't have the time to work with each new engineer individually, but I was able to find someone else to somewhat serve as my manager and advocate for me. I acknowledge that my relationship with my manager was not the best, but also say that I understand why and I was able to find someone to act somewhat in loco manageris (I may have just invented that phrase). If you feel that to honestly answer a question you'd have to be negative about your last company, that's okay - but try not to seem like you're harping on the negative.
When you're leaving (or have recently left) a not-so-great job situation, it can be hard to avoid being negative about your current or former employer. But it's important to try to focus on the positive. Your interviewer probably understands that not everything about your current/former job is perfect (after all, if it was, why would you be interviewing for a new job?), but they probably want to see if you can re-frame the negatives or counterbalance them with positives.
These strategies work for me because while my last job wasn't ideal, it wasn't truly toxic or harmful to me. If you're coming from an environment that was harmful to your health or where you experienced discrimination or harassment, it's important to mention the negative aspect (unless there's legal action involved that would limit what you can say), but if you can focus on a positive (something you learned from the experience or support you received from the company and co-workers) or you have direct knowledge of why the company you're interviewing with would be a safer environment for you, it's good to mention that as well.
Everyone has negative experiences in their work history. Your interviewer understands that. What can set you apart from other candidates is how you address those negative experiences - do you focus on the negative, or move on from the negatives and try to focus on the positives. Focusing on the positives can be difficult sometimes, but our ability to learn from bad experiences makes us stronger - as candidates and as human beings.