It’s almost guaranteed that, in an interview, you’ll be asked the question, “Why do you want to leave your current job?” The interviewer might ask this in a more subtle way, but essentially they are trying to figure out your motivations for getting a new job. More specially, are you a problem for your company or is your company a problem for you.
This might sound negative but we all leave companies (even great ones) because we’re not satisfied with an aspect of the job. This could be career progression, salary or maybe you’ve just spent too long with a company and want to try something new. In these cases, there’s no bad blood between employer and employee, it’s simply time to take the next step in your career. But what if the reason you are leaving your current job is because of a toxic workplace?
If your motivations for getting a new job are to escape a negative work environment, then that’s going to be harder to explain. You might be worried that when the question arises, you’ll say the wrong thing and accidentally overshare or trash-talk your employer — which is not a good look. If you left your previous job because of a toxic work environment, you need to be prepared to explain it properly. In this article, we’ll break down what a negative workplace looks like, provide you with practical tips on how to explain why you left a toxic workplace in a professional setting, and give you some tips on what to say in your exit interview.
Signs of a negative workplace
It’s important that we aren’t confusing our own insecurities and shortcomings with signs of a toxic workplace. So let’s discuss what a negative workplace looks like.
Toxic work environments can manifest in different forms such as harassment, discrimination, or poor leadership. At times, a toxic workplace can be physically and emotionally draining. Being stressed and unhappy at work will also affect the people around you, whether that’s your colleagues or loved ones. If a toxic workplace is affecting your well-being it’s time to find a new job and leave a company review.
Signs of a toxic workplace:
- Lack of communication
- High voluntary turnover
- Lack of work/life balance - understaffed or overworked
- Lack of recognition
- Poor leadership
- Unfair compensation
Things like bullying and harassment are overt signs of negative work environments. Situations like this are clearly unhealthy. It might be that we put up with these toxic situations because the pay is great or the company is well known and we think that it’ll balance out in the future. Well, burnout is a real thing, and that can set you back months and even years in your career. It’s the same with lack of recognition or micromanagement — being stifled creatively and having a boss that doesn’t trust you will disadvantage your career advancement and learning.
A high turnover rate is also another common sign that the company you work for fosters a negative work environment. Employees are leaving because they don’t feel valued or don’t see a future with the company. Keep in mind that the standard turnover rate is about 18% per year, if your company has a higher voluntary turnover rate, then you should look into why your colleagues are leaving. People don’t tend to leave great companies.
There are also some less obvious signs of a toxic workplace that you should be aware of. This might not be outright bullying but it can be in the form of gossip or dishonesty. If behaviour like this is rampant in the workplace then there’s a serious issue with company culture.
Signs of toxic company culture:
- Going behind your back
- Low employee morale
- Lack of transparency
- Resistance to change
- Lack of accountability
- Poor communication
Explaining why you left a negative work environment in a job interview
Imagine you’re in an interview and the interviewer asks you why you want to leave your current position at X company. How do you respond? Here are a few ways you can address your current negative work environment without trash-talking or oversharing.
1. Be honest and brief
When explaining why you left your previous job, you can take the route of being honest and upfront with the interviewer. But be brief. A concise explanation that focuses on the facts and doesn’t come across as emotional or negative is what you should aim for. A good employer will value honesty — especially from a potential employee. If you put your emotions to the side, the employer will see that you are a straight shooter and don’t have time for gossip.
2. Use neutral language
To avoid speaking negatively about your former employer, stick to neutral language and don’t make accusations or blame others. There is nothing wrong with being honest (which you should) but remember you are speaking with a stranger who doesn’t know you and is still formulating an opinion of you and how you might work with others. Most HR and hiring managers will understand what you are trying to convey — they’ve sat in hundreds of interviews. If they are curious, they will press you for further details and that’s when you can elaborate (if you want!).
3. Avoid blaming others
It is essential to take responsibility for your actions and avoid blaming others when you explain why you left your previous job. Rather than pointing fingers or placing blame, focus on the actions you took to resolve the issue or cope with the situation. And when you do address those toxic situations try to speak in broad terms without singling out individuals like your manager or the CEO. You can say things like, “There was a lack of trust” or “I was creatively restricted” instead of saying that you were micromanaged. Or if the leadership of your company was incompetent, you can say the company was headed in a direction that didn’t align with your career goals. By describing your reasons in this way you go from “this person was wrong/ this decision was bad” to “I didn’t agree with X situation” and “I prefer X over Y.”
4. Emphasise positive learnings
While it is essential to be honest about the negative aspects of your previous job, it is equally important to emphasise the positive lessons learned. Share how the experience helped you grow as a professional, and the skills you developed in dealing with difficult situations. This approach will also feed into the question which almost every interviewer asks, “What’s a difficult situation and how did you overcome it?” You don’t want to give the impression that the reason you are interviewing is to escape your current job. The impression should be that you are on a growth trajectory and are moving towards what you want.
5. Provide examples
It can be helpful to provide specific examples of situations that led to your decision to leave. Sharing specific examples can help the interviewer understand the severity of the situation and show that you are not making excuses for your departure. It’s not always going to be necessary but if the interviewer does hit you with some follow-up questions about your workplace and what you value, you’ll be prepared. A good recruiter will be curious because that informs them of what you value and how you deal with conflict, and also if their company has that type of culture you’re looking for.
6. Avoid Speaking ill of previous employers
Regardless of how negative your experience was, it is vital to avoid speaking ill of previous employers. Criticising a previous employer or bad-mouthing them can be perceived as unprofessional and may reflect poorly on you. As I mentioned earlier, you can simply say, “The company is headed in a direction that doesn’t align with where I want to be in my career.” An answer like this help prompt the interviewer to ask follow-up questions like “Where would you like your career to go?” You can easily tie that into how their company has what you’re actually looking for whether that’s bigger projects, more responsibilities and so on.
7. Practice your response
Finally, practice what you are going to say when asked this question. You don’t have to write out a script of what you’re going to say word-for-word. But think about the approach you want to take (positive or direct or honest) and how much you think you need to share (less is more). And don’t stress about it — if you remain focused on the positives and keep in mind the tips above you’ll be fine!
Had a great interview experience? Leave a review at Joberty!
Examples of what you can say
Are you struggling with how to approach the negative work environment conversation? Here are some common short responses that are professional and to the point.
"Why do you want to leave your current position at X company?"
“At my previous job, I found that there were some issues with communication and collaboration, which made it difficult to work efficiently and effectively. I'm looking for a workplace that values teamwork, open communication, and positive work culture.”
“I'm looking for a new challenge and a chance to grow professionally. While I enjoyed my time at my previous job, I felt that I had reached a plateau in terms of my development and didn't see many opportunities for advancement. I'm eager to take on new responsibilities and continue learning in a dynamic, supportive work environment.
“I'm looking for a better work-life balance. At my previous job, I found that the long hours and high-stress levels took a toll on my health and personal life. I'm eager to find a workplace that values work-life balance and allows me to pursue my personal interests and hobbies outside of work.”
“I'm interested in transitioning to a different industry or field. While I appreciated the experience and skills I gained at my previous job, I'm ready for a new challenge and to apply my skills in a different context. I'm excited to explore new areas and bring a fresh perspective to a new organisation.”
How to explain why you’re leaving in an exit interview
Everyone is entitled to an exit interview with HR. A company that has a great work culture will be curious to know why you’re leaving and what your thoughts are on the company in terms of what’s good and what can be improved. So it’s most likely that a good company will set up an exit interview in your last week.
Companies that don’t value employees or are struggling with serious cultural issues might be too embarrassed to address these concerns and could conveniently “forget” exit interviews exist. If you are leaving a company because of a toxic culture, the chances of you sharing your feedback is quite low. But that doesn’t mean you can’t request an exit interview. If you decide to share your feedback, here are some important things to keep in mind:
- Stick to the facts: When explaining why you're leaving due to a toxic work environment, it's important to stick to the facts and avoid being overly emotional or negative. Focus on specific behaviours or situations that you experienced, and be prepared to provide examples if asked.
- Be constructive: While it's important to be honest about the issues you experienced, try to frame your feedback in a constructive way. Rather than simply complaining about the toxic work environment, offer suggestions for how the company could improve its culture or policies.
- Be respectful: Even if you had a negative experience at the company, it's important to be respectful in your feedback. Avoid blaming specific individuals or attacking the company's overall reputation. Instead, focus on offering constructive feedback that could help the company improve in the future.
Note: if you want to get a letter of recommendation from this employee be cautious about what and how you approach this interview. The best-case scenario would be that you get your letter of recommendation before your exit interview. That way you won’t feel pressured in your response.
Why it’s important to leave a company review
A negative work environment can be a symptom of a larger company problem. The real issue is generally a mix of bad leadership and hiring practices. Bad leaders tend to hire toxic workers who in turn hire more toxic workers. It’s a cycle that’s not easily broken.
Sharing your thoughts in an exit interview is probably not going to change anything — that’s why we’d encourage you to share your thoughts online. Leaving a company review can be a very powerful tool for change. The company will most certainly see this review and hopefully consider the points being raised. And you’ll also give other potential employees a heads-up so they can be better informed. If you’re in Germany, you should check out Joberty and leave a company review (positive or negative!) to help encourage healthier work practices.