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Is it PC to call your ex-employer a moron?

By CrazyJub in Op-Ed
Fri Feb 01, 2002 at 10:22:45 PM EST
Tags: Help! (Ask Kuro5hin) (all tags)
Help! (Ask Kuro5hin)

Some of you might of already had this experience, when interviewing for a new job, how do you explain your last boss what a lunatic, without coming off sounding like one yourself?

Last year, I accepted a position at a newly funded software company, that "at the time" sounded like a chance to ride the wave and make a small fortune.

This company was going to change the world with it's new product, and revolutionize the way people do business and use....stop me if you've heard this before. I won't go into specifics, for the sake of anonymity, and you will understand why very shortly:

My boss was a complete wacko.

I didn't know this at the time, and when I was courted away from my existing job I was already unhappy, so I saw this as a way out. I was wined and dined, and sold a huge salary increase, and a chance to work with a small team on this new software. It was, at the time, the chance of a lifetime.

I accepted the job and gave two weeks notice where I left.

It took about 3 days to figure out what a mistake I had made, and going back was not an option.

Late night meetings, weekly company and product direction changes, the boss telling people who worked there that they knew NOTHING about (insert job function here) even though the boss knew even less about the same function or duty. The boss played people against each other, sabotaged peoples work, even through the boss had instructed them to do that exact thing 1 day before, and all this with no product release in sight.

The stress was unbelievable. I had no where to go, no one did. We were all scared of this boss every single day. What was next? Who knew? Mood swings, raving speeches, and worst of all this moron made NO SENSE WHATSOEVER.

Tall tale? No, this is all true, just don't ask me for details.

Anyway, after all the money ran out and the investors found out what a lunatic this boss was, the company was forced to cut back to the bare essential staff, and let me (and 5 others) go. All this after 3 months. Boom.

So, fast forward to the present, and now I'm interviewing for jobs. The question always comes to :

"Oh, tell me about COMPANY. Why did you leave your last job to go there? Why did you leave COMPANY? What do they do?"

Truth: I was tricked into working for a crazy person, for a company that had no real success of releasing a product. My fault, sure I'm not innocent, I should have seen it but I was already unhappy (looking back, that's not exactly true) and they caught me at a very vulnerable time. After everyone with money left, they canned the lot of us.

Now, it would be easier to say that the company folded, which isn't hard to believe given the times, but it's STILL IN BUSINESS. And with no revenue! None of us ex-company people can figure it out? How are they staying afloat?

Anyway, what would be the correct way to explain my experience to a potential employer, without breaking the first rule of interviewing: Never speak badly about your last employer.

Has anyone else had this happen to them? How did you get through it?


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Is it PC to call your ex-employer a moron? | 28 comments (26 topical, 2 editorial, 0 hidden)
Never, never talk bad about previous employers. (4.87 / 8) (#2)
by chipuni on Fri Feb 01, 2002 at 12:48:10 PM EST

Not just in interviews. They might wear aluminum hats to keep the zeta rays from reprogramming their brain. They might howl at the moon, wear a werewolf suit into the office, and sniff at your butt when you enter the office. They might bolt their desks, computers, and chairs to the ceiling and work that way.

Never talk bad about previous employers.

The world has grown tiny, and what you say will get back to your old aluminum hat and werewolf-suit, upside-down boss. There go your references from him... and likely from others, who won't talk to you, because you spread stories. Even wackos have friends.

By the way, could you pass me the ladder? I need to be right-side up; my werewolf suit is starting to itch.

Perfection is not reached when nothing more can be added, but only when nothing more can be taken away.
Wisdom for short attention spans.
References? (4.00 / 2) (#11)
by priestess on Fri Feb 01, 2002 at 02:42:41 PM EST

Hummm, I guess if he's actually prepared to give you a good reference that may be good advice. My experience with the nut-job's I've had to work for is that by the time it gets to looking for a new job they're unlikely to write anything nice about you, if they bother to return the envelope at all. Sometimes is might be better to get your opinion of them over before the new people ask for a reference. Luckily, last time this happened to me my immediate supervisor was fired around the same time so I could reasonably honestly give his home address for the references and get a sane man's writing rather than the crayon-scrawl of a madman.

Heh, there was quite a support group of ex employees for that particualar loony for a while, backing each other up and offering references to each other and things.


My Mobile Phone Comic-books business
[ Parent ]
What's wrong with a werewolf suit? (4.00 / 2) (#13)
by fluffy grue on Fri Feb 01, 2002 at 04:44:43 PM EST

Seriously, I thought you were a furryfan, meaning you understood that sort of thing. ;)

(Actually, I've never fursuited, though back in my larval stage I thought fursuiting would be neat.)
"Is not a quine" is not a quine.
I have a master's degree in science!

[ Hug Your Trikuare ]
[ Parent ]

*grin* I am... (4.00 / 1) (#17)
by chipuni on Fri Feb 01, 2002 at 08:52:41 PM EST

Just FYI... I am a furryfan. However, when I'm at work, I don't wear werewolf suits, or sniff people's butts. (And I only howl at the moon after midnight.)

And I would run away from someone who went to work in a werewolf suit. Unless the werewolf suit was part of the job....
Perfection is not reached when nothing more can be added, but only when nothing more can be taken away.
Wisdom for short attention spans.
[ Parent ]

Um, yeah (3.00 / 3) (#19)
by fluffy grue on Fri Feb 01, 2002 at 09:13:45 PM EST

Like, I'm already well aware of what your K5 username expands into. Not to come off as a stalker or anything, but I also know that you used to be one of fEk's housemates and so on. You don't have to explain things to me. :D
"Is not a quine" is not a quine.
I have a master's degree in science!

[ Hug Your Trikuare ]
[ Parent ]

Question (4.00 / 2) (#15)
by Simon Kinahan on Fri Feb 01, 2002 at 05:51:45 PM EST

Then how do you handle the inevitable "Why are you leaving InsanityCorp ?". Its my policy never to lie in job interviews. Even being slightly economical with the truth, will get you into trouble if you get the job.

If you say "I want to try X", that will get you into trouble if you don't really mean it. Similarly, saying "I just felt like a change" is going to make you look wetter than the South Atlantic.


If you disagree, post, don't moderate
[ Parent ]
You say (4.50 / 2) (#16)
by vambo rool on Fri Feb 01, 2002 at 07:33:08 PM EST

"Their focus has changed."

"I've completed my assignment and I'm looking for something new both inside and outside the company."

If they've eliminated your department, say so. That's what happened to me.

There is a lot you can say without "lying" or talking trash. No one wants to hire someone who talks trash, because they know they'll be next. The interviewer doesn't know whether to believe you or not, it's the first time you've met.

Look at it this way: Say you ask a girl out (or even better, a blind date) and during the evening, she says something like, 'the last guy I went out with was such a total jerk (include elaboration).' What conclusion do you draw from that? Do you know the guy? Is she telling you the truth or does she talk trash about every guy she goes out with? What's she going to say about you to the next guy she goes out with?

[ Parent ]

There's no need to be insulting (5.00 / 1) (#23)
by Simon Kinahan on Sat Feb 02, 2002 at 09:37:54 AM EST

If I went out with a girl and she said "my last boyfriend was a total jerk", you're right, I'd think badly of her. On the other hand, if she said "he's a really nice guy, but I couldn't take the way he flirted with other women", I wouldn't necessarily (unless I intended to flirt with other women :). She is criticising her ex, but she's showing self-awareness, and acknowledging that people can differ without either person necessarily being in the wrong. Thats *good*.

Similarly, if I'm interviewing someone and they say "my boss was a total jerk", I'd think badly of them. If, on the other hand, they say "I really enjoyed that job at first, but I found I couldn't achieve anything significant, because my boss took too much control over my work", thats OK. That person is showing self-awareness, and acknowledging different point of view, and also showing that they like to work independently and have a degree of ambition. Chances are, if you're last job really was unpleasant, your interviewer may have seen CVs and conducted interviews with your colleagues.

The trouble with the mealy-mouthed solutions you propose is that they can lead to trouble. "Their focus has changed" when it hasn't (and the IT industry is so incestuous, your interviewer will know), will make you look out of touch, or mark you out at dishonest. "I'm looking for something new", is only OK if you really are. If you say that, and then go on to say "I'm looking to carry on with the same kind of work", you look inconsistent.

You can be honest without painting anyone else in a bad light, even if you do in fact think that person is a total jerk. Its important to do so, both in relationships and at work, because you won't have to remember what you told someone, and you'll come out of it looking better.


If you disagree, post, don't moderate
[ Parent ]
Hey, I like that (4.00 / 1) (#24)
by vambo rool on Sat Feb 02, 2002 at 10:03:31 AM EST

"I really enjoyed that job at first, but I found I couldn't achieve anything significant, because my boss took too much control over my work",
That says all kinds of things. It says you're a self-starter, you have pride in your accomplishments and that you like to get things accomplished rather than just doing the work. I like the word "control." You're not complaining about "direction" but "control" implies micro-management.

Most excellent.

[ Parent ]
I'll have to remember that. (none / 0) (#27)
by Coldfire on Sat Feb 02, 2002 at 01:26:24 PM EST

I'll (hopefully) be interviewing soon, and my now former boss was <i>very</i> much a micromanger. It was suffocating and absolutely boring at the same time. (Probably one reason they let me go, I had run out of problems to solve and I'd gotten their HP server running itself.) Thus, if I'm asked, "What did you think of your former management?" I'll try to say something along these lines instead of "Oh God, they were such a fascist.."

Just pay attention.
[ Parent ]
What to do... (4.00 / 3) (#3)
by jeffy124 on Fri Feb 01, 2002 at 12:49:45 PM EST

When the interviewer asks about your previous employer, just say you were laid off because of a budget cut. It'll be very easy for them to believe given the current state of our economic system.

But if they press forward and ask why the budget was cut, just tell them your group had a lousy manager that mismanaged his funds, and his superiours cut his budget upon realizing that. You could probably also get away with saying your boss was also canned.
You're the straw that broke the camel's back!
On the right track (4.00 / 1) (#18)
by pyramid termite on Fri Feb 01, 2002 at 09:02:24 PM EST

When the interviewer asks about your previous employer, just say you were laid off because of a budget cut.

This is the proper way to handle this question, and has the advantage of also being the objective truth.

But if they press forward and ask why the budget was cut, just tell them your group had a lousy manager

No. It would be much better to say that the company needed new investment and was unable to get it in time to retain people.

Now the question I'd dread would be the classic, "Which did you like least about the last job you had?" If applying at a stable company, one could reply that the uncertainty of the company's future bothered one. If applying at an unstable company, I'm not really sure, but tact is always recommended.
On the Internet, anyone can accuse you of being a dog.
[ Parent ]
Tact can still be effective (4.00 / 2) (#4)
by rasilon on Fri Feb 01, 2002 at 01:12:46 PM EST

"Operationally sup-optimal" said with the right tone of voice conveys the same meaning as "Utterly fucked up", but is less likely to get people annoyed. Anyway, "They failed to secure second round funding." is an accurate assessment of the companies state, it's true, accurate and polite. Ignore the fact that your old boss was FIT-H, that's irrelevant.

Deja Vu (3.50 / 2) (#5)
by bugmaster on Fri Feb 01, 2002 at 01:22:28 PM EST

Sounds eerily like my current company (actually... *looks at watch*... my PREVIOUS company). I bet you r lunatic boss's name starts with a "p"... Am I right ? Or are there MORE lunatics like that out there, running amok ? That's a scary thought.
Silent P (4.00 / 3) (#7)
by pbryson on Fri Feb 01, 2002 at 02:02:10 PM EST

To quote the Young Ones (old British comedy) "His name is Rick, but he spells it with a silent P." I once had an asshole boss named Rick. That line kept me sane and working there for months.

- - - - - - - - -
- - - - - - - - -

[ Parent ]
To Quote Tom Lehrer (none / 0) (#25)
by notcarlos on Sat Feb 02, 2002 at 10:17:03 AM EST

A quote and a song recommendation:

"I am reminded at this point of a fellow I used to know whose name was Henry, only to give you an idea of what a individualist he was, he spelled it H-E-N-3-R-Y -- the three was silent, you see."

and of course, Silent "E".

He will destroy you like an academic ninja.
-- Rating on Rate My Professors.com
[ Parent ]
You can be neutral (5.00 / 1) (#6)
by maroberts on Fri Feb 01, 2002 at 01:49:04 PM EST

Having worked for a number of UK companies that did not do exceedingly well, you can reasons for being terminated in a neutral fashion without slandering your previous employer.

On the one hand, it depends on how large a cog you were in the machine. If you were fired from a large company due to "downsizing" then it can hardly be your fault that the company hit hard times unless you were a senior manager or director.

If you did have a lot of control over your situation, then it would have been more honourable to seek alternative employment when you found that you couldn't get along with your boss. You can honestly say that you RESIGNED from your position due to a disagreement in company direction without any major loss of face, and in fact some employers will respect you for having done that. Even if pressed you should not give a reason for leaving as "because my boss was an ass", but put it in more neutral terms. And if asked, give examples of differences in the same non-personal fashion.

Being in charge of a company often doesn't mean you are able to be consistent; for example, as boss you may always feel you are a precarious financial situation, but conveying that information to your employees is hardly going to ensure that they stay where you need them. So most of the time you may be reduced to saying "The Future Is Bright"
until the bank tells you you have to downsize, in which case you have to change to:
"We're under pressure, but I can see lots of opportunity for the remaining employees and further downsizing won't be needed as soon as our product X hits the shelves"
The with delays to product X release, the bank may tell you to file for bankruptcy, in which case its time to tell your soon to be ex-employees the unvarnished truth!

The greatest trick the Devil pulled was to convince the world he didn't exist -- Verbil Kint, The Usual Suspects
Say the truth (4.00 / 2) (#8)
by inerte on Fri Feb 01, 2002 at 02:05:16 PM EST

C'mon, you don't want to work for another crazy boss. Anyway, almost any company that hires someone without his future boss getting to know the new employe, sucks.

And you should ask to meet your new boss too. Well, you said but didn't said: "Money was good but I was unhappy". What's good of having money and working/living unhappy?

When they ask you why you quit, give them this url, or a diskette with this text ;-)

I mean, sharing your feelings with a whole community of strangers, K5 readers, is really better than sharing it with someone who you will see daily? And that must respect you?

Just say you were fired, and you didn't liked your boss. When they ask why, try to make them laugh with the stories. It's a good start ;-)

I Cannot Tell A Lie. (4.50 / 2) (#10)
by priestess on Fri Feb 01, 2002 at 02:41:04 PM EST

I'm too bad at lying to have done other than explain that the last guy to sack me was just utterly mad, probably as a result of stress from the failing company. It was obvious that there was going to be bad feeling there though, I was going to have to ask for a day off for the Industrial Tribunal to try and get back some of the money the guy owed me if they gave me the job anyway. Besides, the old boss was hardly being subtle when he explained to the people left behind how me and the others who he'd fired the same day were "A cancer in the company" and how he was the master surgeon cutting us out to save the patient that was his company. By then everyone knew he was losing it though. I know for a fact that half of those left behind started looking for new work the very next day, boss-man had just fired two of his best employees! I mean the reason he told us we were fired was because we weren't working to save his arse hard enough. We were doing sixteen hour days for months but he wanted more. Moved a bed into the office explaining we need never go home again. Christ. Stress can really blow your mind.

Frankly, as was the case the other times I was told to walk before I walked, I was just glad to get out of the situation. Every time I'd been planning to quit as soon as the project was over so I was just saved from following up my professional curtesy and finishing the job. Shame they never seem to pay you afterwards though...

So I say let 'em have it at the next interview, make it clear you don't ever wanna be in that kind of situation again and it's a round-about compliment saying you don't think the new people will be like that. Worked for me anyway, I got that job and things just continued to get better after that.

(Goddamnit, first you all move the story on me then I accidentaly post Editorial instead of Topical. Bah)
My Mobile Phone Comic-books business
How about this... (3.75 / 4) (#12)
by Scandal on Fri Feb 01, 2002 at 04:01:44 PM EST

Ask yourself whether or not you really want to work for a company where being direct and honest about the insanity of previous work conditions is considered politically incorrect. Ask yourself whether or not you really want to work for a company where political correctness is the order of the day. You see, I don't think "the first rule of interviewing" is necessarily correct. The problem with bad-mouthing a previous employer is simply that -- you're bad-mouthing! Since many people cannot figure out how to convey the facts without going into a long, drawn out, overly critical tirade about a former employer, we have a rule that just says "No!" to *any* negative commentary about a previous employer. If you can state the facts without getting cynical, snide, or bitter -- note that this doesn't mean you have to pretend that you didn't have an opinion about it, as the statement "after three months or so, I really began to hate my job" is a simple fact and not a tirade -- then go ahead and say them. Chances are, you'll impress the interviewer. If your interviewer is someone who cannot handle a negative comment about your former employer, then I'll bet this same individual is only hiring politically correct employees, which is to say people who are going to make your former work place look like a breath of fresh air. If you think a know-best jackass of a boss is a problem, wait until you find yourself surrounded by pod people who point at you and whine in a high pitch when they realize that you're not one of them. You might as well show your true colors from the start.


Be Objective (5.00 / 6) (#14)
by Simon Kinahan on Fri Feb 01, 2002 at 05:38:03 PM EST

Sounds like you've had a bad experience there. My sympathies. I've never been through anything as bad as what you have, but I have left one job because of fairly serious disatisfaction after getting caught up in political infighting. I have the very good fortune of now working for very sane people in a very friendly environment and have discussed this question of what say about former employers with several people, including those who interviewed me.

The best advice I can give is to be objective, in the literal sense of that word: say things would be confirmed by anyone else observing what you observed. Don't say "my boss was a nutjob", but rather "the requirements were constantly changing, and my responsibilites were not clear". This might seem like understating the thing, but you can back it up, and that matters. If some says "what makes you think your boss was madder than an orangutan in an itching powder factory ?", chances are you'll get emotional, and possibly come off looking unstable yourself. If someone says "how were your responsibilities undermined ?", you can say "well, once I was asked to specify the fudgewengler, but I found out only when I was done, that Bill had been asked to change the plan three days before so we didn't need a fudgewengler any more".

I'm not, personally, convinced by the "never criticise your last employer" rule. There are basically two valid reasons to change jobs: you're frustrated, unhappy, being driven to a nervous breakdown, or whatever, or alternatively you want to change your responsibilities. If you clearly don't want to change your responsibilities, people know you're leaving because you're unhappy. Saying "I just thought it was time to move on" is saying that you were unhappy, but you're so wet you can't offer constructive criticism. Much better to be frank, but constructive. If you've read some literature on project management (there are only 2 books you need to read - Peopleware and The Mythical Man Month, and they're both fun and short), and know the lingo, so much the better.

If you can clearly describe what was wrong, and better still offer an opinion on how it could have been done better, if I were interviewing you, I would be impressed. If you don't feel you can do that, maybe it is better to say as little as possible. Its definitely not advisable to insulting or to make assertions you cannot support.


If you disagree, post, don't moderate
Mother knows best... (2.50 / 2) (#20)
by miah on Fri Feb 01, 2002 at 09:40:05 PM EST

I've found that what I would say to my mother would be almost appropriate for what I would say to an interviewer. My mother doesn't want to hear "I got canned because some power hungry lesbian hose bitch hated me for having a penis and did everything they could do to see my demise at said company". I'm sure she'd rather hear "I was asked to resign due to a conflict in my job duties". There that's better!

If you managers really are screw loose whack jobs then get some of you coworkers to be a reference for you. They will most likely have better things to say about you than you direct supervisors, and if they dealt with the same things you did they might have a litte empathy for your situation. Most of all, stay in contact with people who were in the same bad situation you were, they are always good job contacts.

Religion is not the opiate of the masses. It is the biker grade crystal meth of the masses.
Good, but... (none / 0) (#21)
by gmhowell on Fri Feb 01, 2002 at 10:01:15 PM EST

Good idea, but my mother would frequently agree with both the message and the phrasing. Especially if she knows how hot under the collar I would be. Must be her family. Her grandmother was a bit of a firebrand. How about: don't say what you wouldn't say to the Queen of England to her face (Hmm... Don't think that would work either, at least not for some people from .co.uk)
When I used a Mac, they laughed because I had no command prompt. When I used Linux, they laughed because I had no GUI.
[ Parent ]
Are you alowed to speak bad about the company? (5.00 / 1) (#22)
by squigly on Sat Feb 02, 2002 at 05:38:18 AM EST

If you bitch about the manager, it sounds like you might all have been terrible, and be blaming your failings on bad leadership... If you say "The company had no direction", "we found ourselves having to make changes all the time", and avoid speaking personally about anyone, then it sounds like you are a team player - "we" is a good word to use - and it shows that you accept you were not without fault. Only the most pathological employer would want someone who never made mistakes, so this shouldn't be a problem.

Just a thought. I may of course be making a stupid suggestion, so tell me if I am.

It's all in how you phrase the truth.... (5.00 / 1) (#26)
by Gravaton on Sat Feb 02, 2002 at 01:01:57 PM EST

I'd say the choice between telling the truth and inventing a socially acceptable fiction is one we face a lot more often then we realize. Knowing that, it might be better to try to face that split head on then to choose one path or the other. Your previous work environment certainly sounds terrible, and seems to have left you with very unpleasant feelings about it to say the least. So just be honest about it.

Saying "My boss was crazy and our company had no future" sounds like you're simply pushing blame, saying something like "My work environment made me feel futile, mismanaged and underutilized" is not only the truth as well, but implies that you want to be useful, a good team player and well-utilized. Don't complain about the specifics of your work environment, but DO complain about the negative effects that environment had on you. Speaking from this perspective is a subtle but powerful twist that turns your words from "Here's how other people made me miserable and it's all their fault" to "Here's why I was unhappy with the situation I was in" which is what your interviewer REALLY wants to know anyway.

So that's my 2c I suppose, good luck!

Depends on the Boss (none / 0) (#28)
by xrayspx on Sat Feb 02, 2002 at 10:08:16 PM EST

If your boss, as a hypothetical, did the following, then yes, I suppose it would be fair:

  • Spends nearly $1million to rebuild a condemned farmhouse as an office
  • In the time it takes to build that, goes from 6 employees, to 25, and back down to 11
  • Build his whole business on pirated software
  • Treats his BOFHs (and PFYs, and most other employees) as if they and their opinions are worthless
  • Pays his BOFHs as if they just got out of highschool
  • Sreams at and belittles BOFHs in front of other employees(*BAD PLAN*)
  • Plays fiddle as empire burns

I have had the fortune to work for a couple such bosses. Needless to say, I don't hold them in very high esteem. I have however, found it more worthwhile to continue to build the career, forgive and forget about the past, and generally go on with life. I've had very little interaction with said bosses, and wish them no particular ill-will, it is satisfying however when I hear new news from the frontline from fellow troopers.

Don't get hung up on ex-bosses, or ex-companies. I've worked for 2 failed dotcoms, one which has made some pretty big waves in the DRM circles with their demise, hint, they were the only company in Dmitry Sklyarov's PPT for which the "unlock" was to brute force the encryption, and that was version 1.0 of our code. We were significantly better when we went down.

That company had some bosses that weren't particularly realistic, but because of their attitudes, honesty with their people, and creative vision, I would hesitate to call them 'morons'.

Attitude is everything

"I see one maggot, it all gets thrown away" -- My Wife
Is it PC to call your ex-employer a moron? | 28 comments (26 topical, 2 editorial, 0 hidden)
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