That could easily feel like a trick question if your last experience ended badly, or even if it was amazing. So whether you left of your own accord or got pushed out the door, how do you talk about a former employer honestly, without laying it on too thick or openly criticising them?
Here are five golden rules to help you come out on top.
1. Be honest
Whether you stretch the truth a little or tell a barefaced lie, it will catch up with you eventually. Some recruiters inquire about candidates before or after an interview, by contacting your former manager, for example. You might as well be above board right from the start, just make sure to do it with tact and diplomacy.
Were you fired?
Own it! Your future employer is not interested in who was right or wrong, but in what you have learnt from the experience. Before your interview, try to put your previous experience into perspective. Make a list of all the challenges you faced and then note down everything you learned from the experience and how you would handle things if it happened again.
Did you resign or have to negotiate a severance package?
Play the honesty card and be positive about it. Explain what forced you to leave and why; what you started to look for after you left the company. You are allowed to have disagreed with your former manager, or to have simply wanted something else after a relatively positive experience. These are all good reasons for leaving, as long as they are explained in the right way. The recruiter should not get the impression that you are hot-headed and impulsive, so justify your actions.
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2. Stick to the facts
Being vague is very tempting. But “I didn’t agree with the company’s overall strategy” is not a good enough explanation for a recruiter. Stonewalling will make them think that you have something to hide. So tell them, for example, “New investors chose to relocate some of our production overseas and the sudden loss of consistent contact with those teams meant that my job became less interesting.” If you do not clarify why you left, they may try to find out from someone else, such as your previous manager or former colleagues.
Be constructive and show that you made a conscious decision to leave. For example, if you have said that you are now looking for a new challenge, make sure that you can explain what you are expecting and the skills that you would like to strengthen.
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3. Do not belittle or idealise your previous boss
What does it take? Self-control and moderation. Whether it’s warranted or not, blatantly disparaging your old company is off-limits. Your potential employer may start to picture you doing the same thing about them in the future. You may come across as resentful or as someone who cannot take criticism. Explain what you learned from it instead and what you would prefer to happen in the future. If you are worried about losing your cool on the day, prepare something precise that will get your point of view across without making you sound bitter. Then learn it off by heart and stick to it. It will allow you to show that you have moved on and have put things into perspective. “My idiotic boss gave my job to someone else,” then becomes, “I found myself in a confusing situation that became too political. So I decided to leave so I could focus on improving my skills rather than staying in a difficult situation.”
If, however, your previous experience was a real pleasure, your boss was heaven-sent and your colleagues became your best friends… lucky you, but don’t go too far in your praise. Whether your enthusiasm is real or fake, your potential new boss might find it a little suspicious that you are leaving such a great set-up. What happened? Did you make a massive mistake during a project? Were your aspirations so disproportionate that your previous company couldn’t meet them? Were your salary demands unreasonable? Will you enjoy working at their company if you are still in love with your previous one? Figure out how to let them know that you are now looking for something new elsewhere.
4. Do not sell yourself short
This is a trap that people often fall into, particularly in cases of dismissal. More and more people are being made redundant or losing their jobs now, but someone who has been laid off is not necessarily a bad candidate and it’s up to you to prove that. As much as it is recommended to admit your mistakes after having been fired, be aware that there is a fine line between self-deprecation and seeing things with the benefit of hindsight. In the first instance, you seem like you are determined to reveal all your shortcomings but in the second, you explain how and why things happened and how you are going to avoid them recurring.
Need advice? Have a look at this TED talk by Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist and author. She explains the connection between posture, hormone levels and self-confidence. Her “power pose” which you are supposed to practise discreetly in a side room or in the toilets just before an interview should give you a real confidence boost.
5. Do not dwell on the subject
It’s best to wait until the recruiter brings up the subject. When they do, don’t waste too much time on such a delicate subject, as that could lead you to slip up. Long and exhaustive explanations waste precious time that could be used to talk about other things. In addition, it might make the recruiter wonder about your ability to summarise things. It’s up to you to show that your experiences, whether they have been positive or not, are in the past and that you are now looking forward to the future.
Talking about your experience can feel awkward and many candidates don’t practise doing it enough, which makes them lose points. However, it is a pivotal question, because it reveals your capacity to analyse real subjects and put them into perspective. So prepare yourself, learn to discuss the subject with ease and confidence so you can turn even the most difficult experience into an asset during any interview.
Translated by Mildred Dauvin
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