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!


  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.

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    2. 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).

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  2. 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.

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  3. Joe

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

  4. 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

  5. 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!!!!

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  6. 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.

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      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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.


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  9. Donald S.

    Have worked in a domestic setting for umpteen years whereas I’ve expected to be just like a family, but the director had other plans and the situation was such that I could not stand to work there anymore. Had so explained the situation in a few job interviews as something that was beyond my ability to deliver on, rather than to blame the director or his other hires for anything.

  10. Donald S.

    A great article! My reason for leaving a toxic workplace is that for a domestic household like position, had generally explained that both the responsibilities and hours I was granted went beyond my personal ability to deliver on. I did so on terms of explaining such as my weakness, rather than to say anything derogatory about the employer or the business. Had stated that business (actually a non-profit organization) had served a great cause, and did so on a slim budget of voluntary donations and tuition payments, never accepted any grants from any local, state, or Federal agency.

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