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How To Talk About A Dream Job That Has Turned Into A Nightmare

Learn to tackle reason-for-leaving interview questions when you want out of a toxic work environment.

You’re six months into a new job you've invested everything in. You expected growth and glory. Instead, you are getting little or no support from a boss who is increasingly disappointed in you. No matter how hard you try, you are failing, and instead of support and mentoring from your leadership, you’re getting caustic criticism.

Does this sound familiar?

Even the most competent professionals can inadvertently waltz into a job where nothing seems to please their boss. And, by their very nature of continuous improvement, they will try to chase down the reasons why they seem to be failing and amend them, only to find a new grievance from their boss has popped up out of nowhere, time and time again. The competent employee is now feeling their confidence ebb, and their performance falter. Their boss is increasingly irate. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Beware: this has all the makings of a toxic work relationship.

I’ve seen it happen to the very best of us. It is stealthy, but deadly. It feels like trying to swim through increasingly choppy waters, and there might be sharks lurking in the deep. You might become depressed or anxious, waking up at the most inhumane hours to worry about how to solve this conundrum.

If you suddenly realize you’re in this situation, congratulations: your awareness of it is the first step towards regaining your sanity.

Now what?

Broadly speaking, you can do one of two things:

  1. You can clench your chin and work on your output. This is good because you are more likely to improve your skillset by doing this. However, this path is only valid if your boss’ toxic reactions are never repeated, and if they make amends for their own past destructive behaviour. Otherwise, it is likely the behaviour will happen again, leading you further into a path of burnout. OR:
  2. You can giddyap and prepare to leave.

If you choose the latter, you will start to approach the market, activate your network, and start getting interviewed. At this point, you will inevitably get asked why you are leaving (or have left) your job at such an early stage. This question comes from curiosity, but also because headhunters want to gauge how likely their own clients (your potential hiring managers) are to be pleased with you as an addition to their company. Struggling with toxic work cultures can happen to anybody, and it is not your fault. At the end of the day, though, will you add value to your new employers, or add headaches?

My two cents: although it is critical to not turn the interview into a therapy session, some diplomatic clarity will be helpful to the interviewer, as long as you are brief about the problem and pair it with a good dose of positive framing of your talents.

Try this:

  1. Start by listing what you’re learned at your current company, and how this has helped the business.
  2. Allude to your reason for leaving by pointing to the kind of environment you perform best in.
  3. Acknowledge the odd timing of your departure.
  4. Now swing attention to the value you would add to a company like the one you’re interviewing for, pointing out how your experience would help the new company deal with a current or future situation.

For example:

“Since joining XYZ, I have learned to (A and B), which (brought the company C and D results). Most importantly, though, I have learned that I am better suited to work in an organisation that has a strong commitment to mentoring and developing executives, where there is a strong sense of loyalty on both sides and a culture that fosters career development and growth. I know that some companies have business pressures that can’t possibly foster this type of culture. While this is all well and good for some, the latter does not feel like a good fit for me. I acknowledge this an unusual time to be making a move, and not a decision I took lightly, but it would be more beneficial for all, in the long run, to bring my (E, F and G talents) to (a type of company or sector) where I can help the company meet challenges I’ve excelled at. For instance: (mention one or two things you’ve done that successfully addressed problems similar to the ones the company is having right now).”

Remember, the idea here is to be frank but brief about the problem (because problems do exist), and to redirect your interviewer’s attention from a potentially juicy gossip session to their realisation of what a hot candidate you are for this opportunity.

Breathe deep. You can do this.


PS: If you’re struggling with a toxic work environment, trust me, there is hope, and I can help you. Click here.

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