If you’ve heard this piece of job seeking advice once, you’ve heard it a million times:

“Don’t bad-mouth a previous employer, it’s the quickest way to turn off an interviewer.”

I used to be a big fan of that advice but not anymore. I’ll just jump to my reasons why:

Odds are that the company really did suck… Let’s face it. With employee engagement rates hoovering around an abysmal 33% and this resulting in a whopping $350 Billion dollars lost in productivity, there’s a strong chance that the company that the applicant worked for sucked really bad. People don’t lose motivation to work at places they really love – nor do they seek employment elsewhere if they are happy, motivated and have needs being met. This isn’t a situation where you’re asking someone “why did you break up with your ex,” where feelings might be involved.  No, you’re asking “why did you make the legitimate personal/life/business decision to find gainful employment else where?” That question is teeming with too much potentially good information on how to motivate and inspire that employee…

…But we ask them to lie to cover up and protect their previous employer…  Imagine it’s October 2001 and you’re an HR Manager interviewing a former employee at Enron. Are you going to expect the candidate to say nice things like “looking for better opportunities” or “it just wasn’t a good fit” or my personal favorite “I hit a glass ceiling.” No, you’re going to expect them to say that the company had a tremendous meltdown, filed for bankruptcy and everyone had to scramble to find jobs because the company did not have it’s employee’s best interest at heart in it’s practices. Surely there could be more Enron’s out there. Why do we  pretend like every company is a great one to work for?

…Ultimately companies don’t get better – we don’t learn and grow.  The two most important opportunities for employee feeedback are when they join your organization and when they leave. But we don’t spend enough time asking the right questions or listening for the right answers in job interviews and exit interviews. Are we as employers so prideful that we believe that our company is doing everything right? If that were the case then why do we have low levels of engagement and top talent fleeing organizations left and right and 84% of employees planning to do so later this year? What could we learn from our employees to help stop this musical chair shuffle? A lot, if we only asked.


How can companies truly know if they are doing it right?:

  • Employers should really ask the tough questions in exit interviews to get a better feel for the pulse of their employees.
  • Ask jobs seekers to be totally honest in interviews when you ask why did you leave your last job. You may find that you have similar negative practices that should be changed and even if you don’t hire the person you can at least learn to assess your culture.
  • Hire a consultant who can teach you how to assess your company culture and make recommendations to boost morale and retention.


Leadership Takeaway: Pride is costing you productivity. If you have disgruntled workers, odds are they are not performing to their highest capacity. It’s possible for them to do so but it takes a commitment to understand them.

Human Resources Takeaway: The cost to replace a worker has been estimated to be as high as one and a half times his or her salary. It’s cheaper to keep a good employee and train low performing ones. Understand the importance of an exit interview and why it must be done so that you get great feedback from terminating employees on how to make your organization better. In the recruitment process, learn to ask candidates why they left their previous employer and compare those honest answers against your company culture.

Professional Development Takeaway: Learn to be truthful and insightful when dishing out criticism. No one wants to hear bad news about their organization but it is needed for growth. If you can master the art of effectively dishing out constructive criticism you become a trusted source of honest and fair feedback within you organization. Ask me how to learn that skill.


Here is a Jumpstart:HR presentation on Employee Engagement: