Left Your Last Job because of a Bully? What to Tell the Interviewer

by Jul 16, 2012

I received the following question from one of my readers. I thought it was a great question so I’m sharing it with you.

I quit my job because I was bullied. Before I did though, I wrote the owners a letter describing my experience with my supervisor and they put her on warning. There is some satisfaction there, but I still could no longer work for her. I need to know what to say in a interview about the experience. Can you help?


As a former HR professional I can tell you that interviewers are always looking for a few things, no matter what position and no matter what industry. Those things are:

* that you can demonstrate you have initiative and company loyalty
* you are solution-oriented and forward thinking (that means when you have a problem, you attempt to find a solution before bringing the problem to your manager)
* you have a long list of accomplishments, rather than job tasks, to share during the interview and on your resume
* you can work in a team

During the entire interview you should be focusing on these four things. Every answer you give should provide proof that you hold these credentials. This is important because if you can prove you have initiative, are solution-oriented, are goal oriented (can achieve things), and can work in a team, what happened at your last employer won’t really matter to the prospective employer because you’ll make a good looking candidate.

Now comes the part during the interview where they ask about why you left your previous employer. There are a few ways you can handle it.

The first is to simply say that you weren’t receiving growth opportunities and needed to move on. This is not a very informative answer and may lead to more probing from the interviewer. It could also communicate that you are hiding something or holding back. Not good.

The second option is to provide some other reason un-related to the bully. This is unethical however, and therefore not a desired response either.

The third choice is a bit more intricate, but it demonstrates you meet the four universal criteria for a potential employee, and above all shows that you are honest. You didn’t provide details of your own abuse at your previous employer, so I don’t know your particular situation, but here’s an example of how you might answer the question: Can you tell me why you left your previous organization?

I am a go-getter. I really like opportunities to do new projects and learn new things, and unfortunately my previous employer wasn’t offering those types of opportunities to me anymore (demonstrates initiative).

For example, during my first year at the organization I developed a new procedure for handling, documenting and tracking customer complaints; conceived and was responsible for the internal company newsletter; and created and managed a file clerk position (demonstrates accomplishments). After awhile, however, these opportunities to contribute positively to the organization seemed to get taken away by one manager in particular.

I really believe I put effort into resolving this manager’s and my differences directly. I enjoyed my job and working for the company, and of course I wanted to be sure I was getting along with my manager (demonstrates you are a team player). When talking with the manager about our relationship didn’t seem to work I spoke to the company owners about it (demonstrates initiative and that you are solution-oriented). I suggested to them that I move teams so our relationship didn’t get in the way of production and customer service (demonstrates company loyalty).

Unfortunately, the owners didn’t seem to think this person’s behavior was all that bad and only put her on warning for her behavior once I’d left the company. But, ultimately, while I got along with everyone else at the organization (demonstrates you are a team player) this particular individual really made working for that organization difficult and I decided leaving was my best option.

In my current job search I am really looking for an organization that appreciates and even praises initiative and hard work, because those are two of my best qualities (demonstrates initiative).

There are a few other things I’d like to add here.

It is ALWAYS a good idea to avoid bad mouthing your previous employer. Your response to the question about why you left must be polite, eloquent and honest. Talk around any negative feelings you have about the company and the bully, the new employer doesn’t need to hear it. And, they’ll wonder what will happen if they rub you the wrong way and you leave – are you going to bad mouth them too?

Second, always, always, always make a point of building rapport with the interviewer from the time you meet and shake hands. The interview should flow more like a conversation than an interview, and if it does, then you know you have built rapport. You can do this by being relaxed and conversational, and by asking the interviewer questions about themselves. If you spot a picture on his or her desk from Lake Tahoe, for example, mention that you’ve always wanted to go there and ask him or her how the trip was.

Also, mirror the interviewer’s body language slightly. This builds a subconscious liking for you because you seem similar to the interviewer – something we look for in everyone we meet. If he takes a sip of water, you take a sip of water. If she crosses her legs, you cross yours. Don’t be a copy cat, obviously, but follow along every once in a while.

If you build rapport with interviewers then they will find you to be a positive person that they like, and one that couldn’t possibly be responsible for what happened at the last company.

About Catherine Mattice

Catherine Mattice, MA, SPHR, SHRM-SCP is President of consulting and training firm, Civility Partners, and has been successfully providing programs in workplace bullying and building positive workplaces since 2007. Her clients include Fortune 500’s, the military, several universities and hospitals, government agencies, small businesses and nonprofits. She has published in a variety of trade magazines and has appeared several times on NPR, FOX, NBC, and ABC as an expert, as well as in USA Today, Inc Magazine, Huffington Post, Entrepreneur Magazine, and more. Catherine is Past-President of the Association for Talent Development (ATD), San Diego Chapter and teaches at National University. In his book foreword, Ken Blanchard called her book, BACK OFF! Your Kick-Ass Guide to Ending Bullying at Work, “the most comprehensive and valuable handbook on the topic.” She recently released a second book entitled, SEEKING CIVILITY: How Leaders, Managers and HR Can Create a Workplace Free of Bullying.

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