How to Explain a Toxic Work Environment During a Job Interview

Sometimes quitting your job is the best answer. It should be your last resort, but there are times when a workplace is so toxic or detrimental to your health you simply must get out. And, as long as you don't make it a habit, it's not a career-ender. You just have to be ready to control the narrative regarding the gap on your resume. Try these strategies for explaining a toxic work environment during a job interview.

Don't be embarrassed about your story

Before you go into an interview, give yourself a pep talk. Leaving a toxic work environment isn't a sign of weakness. Rather, it's a sign of strength. You're in charge of your career, you knew an environment was no longer right for you, and you took the best option available to you at the time. Remember: You own this story.

Be positive and professional

If you left a job without another one lined up, it's probably evident on your resume (unless you have enough of a side hustle going that you can spin the gap as time you spent exploring that work as a full-time option). A resume gap always has a backstory, and the hiring manager knows the backstory probably fits into one of three categories: the employee was fired or laid off, the employee quit to avoid being fired, or the employee quit because it seemed like the only option.

With the hiring manager's perspective in mind, you can practice telling your backstory (which, it should go without saying, will be verified during your background check). Start with the truth, and craft a version that is professional, future-focused, and not mired in negative details.

Be cautious about how much you say

Which details you choose to include depends on many factors: how long you worked in the position before you left, how much mobility is in your industry, etc. (For example, turnover is expected in many sales roles, so leaving a role without another lined up might not raise as many eyebrows.) The key is to stay positive and not trash-talk. It's a small world, and you don't know what kind of back-channel sleuthing the hiring manager might do. You also don't know whether your definition of "toxic" is the same as the hiring manager's.

It's best to keep your answer high-level and trust the interviewer to read between the lines. Phrases like "the environment was no longer the best place for me to grow" keep the focus on your needs, not the shortcomings of a previous employer, and they offer a neat segue to back to what you really want to discuss: your qualifications and excitement for this position.

Share lessons learned

It's tricky to toe the line and say enough without saying too much. Focus less on the circumstances leading up to your resignation and more on the lessons you learned from the experience. Perhaps your gap in employment gave you the opportunity to pursue consulting work or gain a new skill set. Maybe you took the time to travel. Turn the gap into a positive, letting the hiring manager know you didn't spend the time binge-watching TV shows.

You can also touch on lessons learned in the toxic environment. Perhaps your previous supervisor gossiped too much and played favorites. You can explain you "learned the importance of building trust in the workplace" and are looking for a "culture that matches your professional values."

Hiring managers are smart. They can read between the lines, so let them. Share your story, then turn the conversation back to why you're the best candidate for this new opportunity.

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