When applying for jobs, you already have your references—people who you know will sing your praises—lined up. But in an interview, sometimes you’ll be the one asked to give perspective on your current or most recent boss.
As it turns out, most job seekers don’t exactly have the best things to say about them—to us, at least. In a 2018 Monster poll, the majority (76%) of U.S. respondents said they currently have or recently had a toxic boss. That’s compared to the minority (5%) of respondents who are BFFs with their boss and 19% who described their boss as a mentor, or someone they can learn from and know has their back. The bad bosses, however, can best be described by our respondents as power-hungry (26%), micromanager (18%), incompetent (17%), or just never around (15%).
But regardless of whether your previous boss was your best friend or your worst enemy, talking about him or her to a prospective employer takes a little tact.
“How you describe past relationships speaks volumes about you, not the boss, which is why interviewers pose the question,” says Elaine Stirling, a Toronto-based communications consultant and author of The Corporate Storyteller: A Writing Manual & Style Guide for the Brave New Business Leader.
Interviewers are looking for a few different things when they ask this question: how well you handle being put on the spot, how well you play with others, and how you like to be managed. Come prepared to answer, so you don’t get caught off-guard and say something you’ll regret.
Be positive—even if it’s difficult
The experts agree that saying something positive about your former boss is the only way to answer this question—regardless of your true feelings.
“If a candidate rants negatively about a prior manager, the interviewer often considers the employee the problem and will be hesitant to make the hire,” says Lynne Sarikas, executive director of the MBA Career Center at Northeastern University in Boston.
Obviously if you had a great manager, acknowledge that and specify what made them so great, Sarikas says. “If, on the other hand, you had a more challenging relationship with you manager, proceed cautiously.”
You want to highlight positive aspects of your manager’s leadership style and what you learned from him or her, says Marti Benjamin, a Nevada-based certified career management coach and former health care executive. If the interviewer pushes for some sort of criticism, say something that ends on a positive note.
“You may want to acknowledge that while you had very different styles, you found a way to work together to deliver results or meet customer needs,” Sarikas suggests. “Be prepared to give a specific example that can be shared in a positive way.”
You say: “My boss was strong-willed, which sometimes made it difficult to communicate new ideas; however, we always managed to talk it out and find solutions that were best for the company.”
Bring it back to your strengths
Your answer to this question can indicate how you like—or don’t like—to be managed, says Cheri Farmer, a sales trainer for the Grace Bay Group in South Carolina, who has interviewed countless people over the course of her career. “How does that mesh with my own management style? Would this be a relationship that works?”
The interviewer may also be testing to see what you’ll be like to work with, Farmer adds. Will you make a positive contribution to the company’s culture, or will you need to be refereed?
Whatever the reason, remember they are interviewing you, not your former boss, Sarikas says. “Keep the focus on what skills and experience you bring to this position. Let your strengths show in your answer and move the interview onto more important questions.”
You say: “She was so effective at advocating for our department. I learned a lot from her about how to diplomatically manage people, keep communication lines open between departments and how to advocate for the team.”
Demonstrate discretion and loyalty
By asking this question, an interviewer might also be testing you to see how you would handle sensitive inquiries from customers, colleagues or others.
“I’m not necessarily looking for loyalty to the boss, but how loyal are they to the organization?” Farmer says. “When they leave our company will they talk smack about our organization?”
Many applicants fail to realize that their criticism of their boss is often perceived as their unwillingness to accept accountability for their own actions, Benjamin says. “I never asked candidates about their former bosses, but far too many felt it was reasonable to offer their assessment anyway. I always believed that if they’d criticize their former manager in an interview, they’d probably also criticize me or their co-workers were I to hire them.”
You say: “We had our differences, but I thought it was important to stay focused on our goals and to set up my manager—and my team—for success.”