You’ve had one, I’ve had one – here’s how to talk about it in an interview

Bad experience on the job? Speaking to it in an interview doesn't have to be hard. Here's what to focus on.

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Most of us can relate to going through a bad experience throughout our careers, some of us, unfortunately, more than once.  Anything from a terrible boss, to being fired, to dealing with a difficult peer/colleague, to a toxic work environment, the list goes on and can all be attributed to bad experiences on the job.

The truth is, when it comes to our careers, there are times we fall short, even when we do our due diligence to make the right choices with the information we have.  For instance, we miss a sign, ignore that feeling we might have about an opportunity whether it’s the people, structure, culture, etc.  Before you know it, we find ourselves choosing a company that ultimately is in misalignment with what you’re looking for and what’s right for us.

A bad experience on the job is simply a misidentified career opportunity.

When we go through such an experience, it typically follows us in our next career opportunity.  You’re at an interview and suddenly find yourself having to explain this terrible experience you’ve gone through, to a potential employer.

As an experienced recruiter, this is where my empathy and compassion kicks in instinctively.  From a talent attraction perspective, as the first person and the ‘face’ of the organization, my job is to simply gather information and listen to these candidates who are considering us as a potential employer.

What are the facts they’re sharing? 

What did they learn from this experience? 

How did this experience shape what they’re looking for in their next opportunity? 

Does the company I represent align with what they’re looking for?

Oftentimes, if the experience is short enough to leave off their resume, most people may leave off a bad work experience entirely.  In some cases where you’ve been at an employer for at least a year, I would recommend keeping it on and speak to them as learning experiences.

People can often get caught up in how to best explain these experiences in an interview, as so many people are concerned with being judged and overlooked as a potential candidate simply by being honest.  Remember, interviewing is a practice to cultivate over time, which is why I often will coach candidates on how to best communicate a misidentified career opportunity during an interview.

As a candidate, what you want to keep in mind is, focus on YOU and YOUR role in the work experience.  The details are less important than what your role was in the situation and how you will use what you learned, moving forward.  Always focus on the positives and focus on what you learned to apply to your future work.  What were your takeaways?

I learned several months into this opportunity that I value a culture that embraces different perspectives and new ideas…

I learned that I work best with a collaborative and supportive team and want to be part of an organization that fosters and values teamwork…

I work well with leaders who support my growth and challenge me to get to the next level…

I want to be part of an organization that has a clear vision and direction and has their workforce/people as their top priority…

Yes, it depends on the question you’re being asked, but these are some great examples of what some answers could look like.  It focuses on what you’re looking for and has a positive response vs. focusing on the experience itself and getting into details.

As a recruiter/hiring manager, I’m sure many of us can relate as we’ve ALL had terrible work experiences throughout our careers.  Try and be mindful that going through a bad experience in one’s career regardless of how significant it was, is not easy for anyone.   It can be a sensitive topic and difficult to articulate in an interview, without coming across as negative.  While we all naturally sit in judgment, keep an open mind in your assessment as the experience is a blip in a story that covers an overall background, skill set, and work experience.  This should far supersede any misidentified career opportunity.

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