Did Your Boss Drag You To The Dark Side?

bad boss

You’re in the middle of an interview. Everything is going great, and then comes the question you’ve been dreading:

“Could you describe your relationship with your boss?”

That’s easy enough to answer if you’re on good terms with your manager. But what if you work for someone widely known to be the Darth Vader of your industry? Or if the reason you’re on the interview in the first place is that your previous boss fired you.

Should you be candid? The short answer is yes. But situations like these require a delicate balance between telling the truth and presenting yourself in a positive light.

How to Handle Tough Interview Questions

Stay in control of your emotions. Even if you’re talking about a high-profile boss whose bad reputation has made headlines, don’t allude to it. “It shows a lack of emotional intelligence,” says Darlene Price, an Atlanta-based executive coach and author of Well Said!: Presentations and Conversations That Get Results. “It’s showing that you allow anger to control your words and actions, you’re holding a grudge and want to punish that person’s reputation.” If asked about an awful manager, come prepared with a positive, honest comment such as, “I really respect her work ethic and ability to drive results for the company.”

Speak the truth, respectfully. If you were fired, prepare a very brief, factual explanation. You might say, “We didn’t see eye to eye on the project, and wanted to go in two different directions.” Or try, “The reason HR gave me for being fired was X. Of, course, I saw things differently.” Then immediately steer the conversation to a positive contribution you made. For instance, you might say, “Despite that difference of opinion, I was able to save $2 million from the company’s bottom line that year as CFO.” Move the focus of the interview as quickly as possible from anything negative to how you can contribute to a prospective employer.

Rehearse what you’re going to say. With your adrenaline surging during a job interview, it’s easy to start rambling. “If you anticipate questions and have rehearsed responses, you won’t say things you don’t mean to say,” says Price. Job candidates often get thrown by indirect, leading questions.  For instance, an interviewer might ask if you keep in touch with your former boss as a veiled way to find out if things ended on the wrong note. It’s fine to simply say, “No, I don’t,” and then steer the conversation to something positive, like your gratitude about something you learned from that boss. Remember, you’re not on trial. You’re just have to persuade an interviewer to give you the job.

About the Author

Elaine Pofeldt is an independent journalist who specializes in writing about entrepreneurship and careers. She was a senior editor for Fortune Small Business magazine, and her work has appeared in Fortune, Money, Forbes.com, Inc. and Crain's New York Business, among others.