How Do You Explain a Bad Work Experience in an Interview?

by iSphere on June 25, 2024 in Blog, Career Advice

As much as we hate to admit it, some jobs are waking nightmares. Freddy Krueger running your daily stand ups or handling your annual review couldn’t be much worse. The good thing is that these terrible jobs don’t have to last forever (search our opportunities if you’re in one now), and one day, you can let go of the headaches and drama once you’ve left.

That is, until you need to talk about them during your next job interview.

Though not every company is going to ask you about bad work experience, you should always prepare a thoughtful response to the question. The reason? Your interviewer wants to know how you’ve dealt with uncomfortable, stressful, or complicated situations.

If you want to nail your interview – sharing the experience and not simply airing grievances – here’s how to craft your response.

Limit Your Complaints and Talking Points

One way to keep any discussion of a bad job from sounding like an unhinged viral rant is to limit what you’re going to say. Even if you were frustrated by several factors (overreliance on legacy technology, oppressive micromanagement, prickly coworkers, etc.), you want to narrow down your talking points to what’s relevant to your story.

Think of your response as having a set starting point, an end point, and the actions you took to bridge the two. For example, if your achievements were routinely undervalued at your last job, you don’t need to also bring up the brutal commute, unergonomic chairs, or loud office environment that shames any Red River Rivals game. Stick to ways in which your boss or coworkers overlooked your contributions, and most importantly, how you took action to overcome that.

Additionally, it’s important to keep your language as neutral as possible. Any complaint that feels negative or petty might make managers feel like that’s the energy you’ll bring to the office. So, cut out the scathing review or find a way to give them the right spin.

Highlight Your Positive Actions

When asked about a bad work experience, it’s important to read between the lines, because your interviewer isn’t just asking about your work history. There are a number of unspoken questions packed into this one:

  • How do you solve problems?
  • Do you exhaust every option before you leave an organization?
  • Do you communicate with management when you’re unhappy?

Whichever story you choose to highlight from your negative work experience, you need to be able to focus on the positive action you took to make changes or rectify the situation.

Was there a hostile coworker on your team? Talk about how you tried to constructively address the issue with the person and your boss, presenting solutions and compromises in the hopes of creating a healthier work environment.

Was there poor collaboration between the different functions of the team? Describe the steps you took to foster communication, identify shared obstacles, and even about their domain.

Did your boss or a project manager leave deliverables in the lurch? Tell your interviewer about the ways you filled in the gaps, communicated updates to clients, and coordinated with your peers to accomplish major milestones.

Even if your efforts didn’t fix the underlying problem (some soil isn’t right to plant your roots), your actions showcase that you’re proactive and won’t sit idle when you can impact change.

Focus on Your Lessons Learned

What’s the moral of the story? Every bad experience offers some lessons learned or growth made, if you look for positive takeaways. Just make sure your interviewer knows how you plan to turn the bag of lemons into limoncello.

Let’s say you took actions to remedy the bad experience. You’ve absolutely accumulated some valuable skills or perspectives along the way. If you were a front-end developer who needed to take a more active role in back-end development or project management, those are skills you can leverage in your new job. Or if you were the one to try to mend fences with a toxic coworker, then you’ve dabbled in people management, which can help you rise into leadership down the road.

Sometimes, the lessons are not the skills you picked up, but the insight you gained about your own workplace needs. Maybe you felt isolated in a 100% remote job and realized you need face-to-face interaction at least part of the time. Or you might have realized that you need hands-off management, or you’ll feel suffocated. You could also talk about how considering the past job showed the importance of your next job reflecting your own values, work ethic, or ideal projects.

Conclusion: Turning Horror Stories into a Hero’s Journey

With all these tips in mind, the final step is to bring everything together. Write a response (on your own or with the help of ChatGPT) so that you have all the talking points solidified. If you’re working with an IT staffing firm, run it past your recruiter to make sure you haven’t accidentally stepped onto a landmine.

In fact, working with iSphere’s recruiters can put you ahead of the game. We can help you craft responses to common interview questions to address the needs, goals, and preferences of the companies you apply for. That way, you can leverage any past nightmares into a sweet dream job.

Tired of bad work experiences? Check out our jobs to start searching for your next great fit.


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