Andy Lester

Technology, careers, life and being happy

How to talk in an interview about problems at your past job without coming off as a complainer

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Someone on reddit asked “Why is talking bad about a previous job a taboo? What’s wrong with complaining? It’s showing dissatisfaction with the rules or environment. If I see a rule that’s unfair or inefficient, isn’t it in the company’s best interest to let them know in order to fix the issue?”

The problem with “showing dissatisfaction” is that it comes across as whining and complaining. You’re telling about how things stink, but not about what you’ve done to make things better. Managers hate complainers because when the complainer gets hired, the manager will have to spend time dealing with the complainer’s complaints. The complainer is likely to cause drama, and nobody has time for that.

However, it’s possible to take a negative at your past employer and turn it into a positive for you in the interview. If you can tell about how you have actually fixed an issue, that’s great. Tell that story.

For example, a common interview question is “Tell me about a project that didn’t go so well.” Here are two ways to answer that.

Bad: “Well, there was this one time that we had a big update to the app for a big trade show. Then, two weeks before the show, Director of Marketing comes and says ‘We have to change the color scheme’, and it was two solid weeks of redoing all the screens and re-testing and more than a few hours of overtime.”

This is complaining. Now, tell that story again in another way.

Good: “One time we had a big app update for a trade show, and two weeks before the show, Marketing decided to change the color scheme. It put is in a bit of a crunch, but we pulled it off and the show was a success. After the show, we looked at what happened and discovered that we weren’t communicating enough with the project stakeholders, and as a result we made sure that we had weekly updates to show project progress to the people that mattered.”

That is not complaining. That is describing a problem that came up and how you improved it as a result. That’s why you get hired: To do work and to solve problems.

A good interviewer will follow up with the “Tell me about a project that didn’t go well” question with “And what did you learn from the experience?” Don’t wait for that follow-up. Make your answer include what you learned. Then you’re not complaining.

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