Take the High Road When Discussing Previous Boss

By Kenneth Bredemeier
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, April 11, 2008 3:26 PM

Leaving an outrageously bad job situation would seem to be a no-brainer, yet the question soon enough comes up for job seekers: What do you tell the next would-be employer in an interview?

My employer was the owner of the company. It was a small demolition business, with only three women on the staff. My position was processing all the job-related invoices into job cost reports, as well as the payroll and other miscellaneous responsibilities.

My work was good! My problem was that my boss was constantly cursing┬┐ bad, bad words. Pretty much every other word out of his mouth while on the phone was the F-word. If I made a mistake or he was disgruntled, he would yell at me loud enough for the other employees to hear. He also treated the other two women this way.

As if this behavior was not bad enough, when the summer started getting hot, he would walk around the office with no shirt on. He drank a case of beer a week in the office, and would actually have the receptionist go out to buy his beer for him, two 12-packs a week.

Well, I finally had enough about one month ago and left -- giving a two-week notice that he refused. All of my work was caught up, so I left no work undone that day. He had his secretary call me and tell me to pack my belongings. I do not think I will get a good job reference from him even though my work was very good, and I left my office in meticulous condition.

Do I disclose the truth when I am in a job interview or do I just say that I left to search for a better job opportunity, which is true? There was absolutely no room for advancement in this company, and I was already feeling like I was in a dead-end job. Keep in mind, the lack of a good reference from him could come into play.

Beth Brascugli de Lina, a consultant with HRM Consulting Inc. in Murphys, Calif., says, "I never recommend bad-mouthing the previous boss or job or employer. It just does not get you anywhere."

Instead, she advises this worker and any others caught in an awful work situation to, as trite as the advice may seem, "take the high road: that you're leaving for a better opportunity, that it was time for a change."

In this case, she says the woman needs to emphasize "how effective she was [in handling her assigned tasks], how many invoices she processed each week, how good her skills are."

She says the worker should not volunteer the gory details of her boss's conduct, but that if asked specifically about the situation, she ought to say something like, "His standards for professional practices in the workplace were not acceptable. I was not comfortable working in that environment."

Moreover, de Lina says the worker ought to enlist one of the other two women in the office as a reference or perhaps a client that she dealt with regularly. And above all, she says, "Keep the focus on your skills" and not the negative environment you are trying to escape.

Kenneth Bredemeier has six years of experience writing about the workplace. On the Job, a column addressing real worker questions about office relationships, corporate policies and workplace law, is written exclusively for washingtonpost.com. To submit a question, e-mail onthejob@washingtonpost.com. We reserve the right to edit submitted questions for length and clarity and cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered.

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