How Honest Can I Be When Talking About My Ex-Employer?

Not very.


We sought the advice of Ronald Riggio, professor of leadership and organizational psychology at Claremont McKenna College, and Michael North, professor of management and organizations at New York University, on how to diplomatically address issues with your old employer.

During the Exit Interview
Ostensibly, the exit interview is the ideal time for the employer and ex-employee to drop their pretenses and speak candidly about the organization and why the worker felt compelled to leave it. But that almost never happens, because the employee is worried that honest feedback will make them unemployable in the future. “There can be fear of retaliation in the form of bad recommendations, or in small business communities, there’s a concern a former employee might develop a bad reputation for complaining,” Riggio says.

You can provide helpful feedback, Riggio says, but the key is in how you frame it. He recommends “suggestions” rather than outright complaints — which is to say, you should suggest a different course of action instead of just complaining about the current one.

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Anything not viewed as constructive can make you seem like a whiner, which obviously isn’t the lasting impression you want to leave.

At Your New Employer
A frequently asked interview question is, “Why are you looking to leave your former employer?” And just like an exit interview, it can be a trap.

“A new employee typically hasn’t had the opportunity to earn much status, and so it is a little risky to speak so openly about workplace concerns, even if they are about a past employer,” North says.

In that sense, refer to the above advice, and frame your response in terms of what could’ve been done better instead of everything that was done wrong. The former makes you sound like a positive change agent, while the latter makes you sound like a morale-killer.

“These might sound trite, but phrases such as, ‘It wasn’t a good match,’ ‘It wasn’t the right fit,’ or, ‘We faced some challenges’ can work,” North says.

Riggio suggests focusing on what your new employer does better. “Say, ‘This is a terrific program here. My previous employer didn’t have this, and they would’ve benefited from it.’”

Among Your Peers
Happy hour might seem like the one acceptable venue for absolutely thrashing your terrible old job and that jerk boss you used to work for.

Alas, you’d be wrong.

“Even when it’s a gathering outside the workplace, I believe that the same concerns apply,” North says.

Riggio says to balance the negative comments with praise for your former employer, lest you sound spiteful and give your new colleagues the impression you’ll do the same to them once you move on. “I know this all sounds a bit Pollyanna-ish, but being positive is the best strategy,” he says. “It’ll help you develop a reputation as someone who wants to build up his/her employer, rather than tear it down.”

Among Your Family and Friends
Only here are you free to gripe freely, and moan and whine to your frustrated heart’s content. “This is the place where it’s appropriate to release emotions,” Riggio says.