So, You Left a Toxic Work Culture – How Do You Explain That in an Interview?

Where do you even start?

Sometimes a good company goes bad. This can be for a range of reasons: from sketchy financial situations and harassment issues to nepotism and endless gossip. The possibilities are practically endless. Regardless, the result is the same—you probably leave.

But while interviewing with new companies several of them ask why you left your previous job (especially if you weren’t there for very long).

How are you supposed to respond? Should you tell the truth? Or do you need to dress it up as something else? The answer is a mix of both.

Tell the Truth (But Maybe Not Every Detail)

Being honest about why you left a job is a good thing. But try to keep your emotions and the specific details out of it. For instance, if you left because of nepotism, stay away from saying “I left because the CEO only promoted friends and family members into leadership positions.” This makes it sound like you were bitter about the promotion landscape, and might have been coming up for excuses why you weren’t promoted.

Instead, go with something along the lines of: “I was ready to take on more responsibilities and enter a management position, but the company decided to go in another direction. While I respect that decision, I believe I’m ready for a position like [name of position you’re interviewing for], and am excited to take that next step.”

This way you’re staying truthful, but keeping the focus on you as a productive individual and your own career hopes and dreams.

Keep the Focus on You

Don’t spend too much time talking about the culture and misdeeds of your last company. Your interviewer wants to know more about you as a job candidate not about how your last company was run. Keep emotion out of the interview, give a quick soundbite about why you left that job, and continue to keep the light on yourself and why you’re perfect for the position you’re interviewing for.

If you spend too much time talking about how bad your last job was, your potential employer might think that’s how you’ll talk about their company in the future.

Show What You Learned

Try not to place all the blame on that old company. What was it that finally made you leave? Focus on that element, and turn your leaving the company into a learning experience.

For instance, perhaps there was uncontrollable gossip in the office due to a lack of clarity from management regarding the future of the company. Instead of saying that you left because “people wouldn’t stop talking about me behind my back,” opt for something positive:

“There was a lack of clear vision for the company going into the future, and this trickled down into discontent among employees.  To be honest, I wasn’t sure where things were going either. However, I eventually realized that sitting around wondering about things wasn’t going to do anything to change my circumstances. I researched ways for the company to improve, and brought them to my supervisor to forward up the chain. When no action was taken regarding those concerns, I decided to leave the company. I wish them all the best, but I think for me, personally, it’s time for a change.”

Have you ever left a toxic work culture? How did you handle it? Let us know in the comments section below!

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23 Responses to “So, You Left a Toxic Work Culture – How Do You Explain That in an Interview?”

  1. Shanna #

    Thank you so much for listening and addressing the issue I asked about. I appreciate the feedback and have other questions as well.

    November 7, 2018 at 5:32 am Reply
    • Movin' On Up Staff #

      You’re welcome Shanna! Feel free to comment with any more questions or concerns.

      November 7, 2018 at 7:49 am Reply
  2. Danita #

    jUST what I needed to know right at this time in my current toxic environment!!!


    November 7, 2018 at 5:49 am Reply
    • Movin' On Up Staff #

      Good to hear, Danita!

      November 7, 2018 at 7:49 am Reply
    • Linda #

      Just watch for the follow up question when you say something like, “…And the company was going in a different direction…” They’ll ask what direction was that, or…what do you mean? So you’d have to have an explanation other than that they promoted someone else instead of you (to the management position you were looking for, etc).

      November 7, 2018 at 6:09 pm Reply
  3. Kenneth Scott #

    Very helpful and will apply all tips given.

    November 7, 2018 at 6:27 am Reply
    • Movin' On Up Staff #

      Awesome, thanks Kenneth!

      November 7, 2018 at 7:47 am Reply
  4. Elizabeth #

    Great responses, and I appreciate their usefulness. I’ve been looking for ways to describe the situations I’ve found myself in without sounding bitter or defensive. I don’t think I’m either, but finding the correct way to couch these discussions has been a challenge.

    November 7, 2018 at 8:43 am Reply
    • Movin' On Up Staff #

      Thank you Elizabeth!

      November 7, 2018 at 8:51 am Reply
  5. Joe #

    Just left a very toxic environment. This will help in future discussions by remembering to keep the focus positive. Thanks!

    November 7, 2018 at 9:38 am Reply
  6. Brenda #

    Great info. In a toxic dead end situation & looking for employment elsewhere. This is very helpful, as I do like to be honest but didn’t want to focus on the negative in an interview

    November 7, 2018 at 10:44 am Reply
  7. Aurora #

    This was great & so informative!! It is as if you were reading my mind!! I will most definitely take these pointers into mind when I interview!!! THANK YOU!!!!

    November 7, 2018 at 3:18 pm Reply
    • Movin' On Up Staff #

      Thanks for the comment Aurora! Hope all your future interviews go well!!

      November 7, 2018 at 3:21 pm Reply
  8. Matt #

    I was recently on an interview. I tried my best to quickly explain why the culture was toxic. (Basically CEO resigned Sen VP took over and started cutting heads of those she held a personal vendetta against.) The interviewer wouldn’t let it go. He kept bringing it back up and tried to keep probing deeper, as if I was hiding something. He was relentless. What should I do in that situation.

    November 7, 2018 at 6:24 pm Reply
    • Movin' On Up Staff #

      Try moving the conversation in a positive direction. Something along the lines of: “Essentially, I just wasn’t sure where the company was going. I didn’t see myself fitting in long-term. That’s actually something that interested me in your company. I really feel like this is a place where I can build a lifelong career and develop my skills as a [position name] because of [insert reason here].” That way you can refocus the conversation on the position you’re interviewing for and why you’re a great fit.

      November 8, 2018 at 4:56 pm Reply
  9. Kim #

    Just today I left the question blank on an application and have pondered with the words to easily edit my decision to find other employment after 7 years with me being 45 years old. Thank you with all sincerity for a wonderful article and using a title that encouraged me to read it.

    November 7, 2018 at 11:26 pm Reply
  10. Happy Applicant #

    Thanks for your guidance. It will really help in my next interview.

    November 8, 2018 at 10:56 am Reply
  11. Deborah Bush #

    I was talking about this,this morning .Thanks you it helps alot.

    November 8, 2018 at 3:32 pm Reply
  12. Kelly Powers #

    This was an interesting read.
    Thank you for the information – very helpful.

    As it turns out, I recently left an extremely toxic working environment (I am thrilled to be gone) this will help me discuss without too much or too little info with future employers.


    November 8, 2018 at 7:14 pm Reply
    • Movin' On Up Staff #

      Thanks for reading Kelly!

      November 12, 2018 at 11:51 am Reply
  13. Mara #

    Thank you, that is great information and very helpful!!

    November 9, 2018 at 6:37 am Reply
  14. Deborah Johnson #

    Thank you! This is a very important topic!!! I will share this information with my friends.

    November 12, 2018 at 4:07 pm Reply
    • Movin' On Up Staff #

      Thank you Deborah!

      November 14, 2018 at 2:20 pm Reply

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