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How Honest Can I Be When Talking About My Ex-Employer?

Not very

This past week in NBA news has been a master class in how and how not talk about your former employer in public.

There was Kevin Durant, who, despite winning an NBA title earlier this year and being named the Finals MVP, can’t help himself from engaging the trolls online and trashing his former team, the Oklahoma City Thunder. Durant, in what appears to be a hilarious fuck-up, seemingly tried to defend his honor to a random Twitter user from a fake account, only to tweet that defense from his main Twitter account, thus giving away his attempted ruse. The since-deleted tweet bashed the Thunder for failing to put together a competitive roster and for employing Billy Donovan as coach.

On the opposite end of the spectrum was Kyrie Irving, who — after months of radio silence — finally addressed why he demanded a trade away from the Cleveland Cavaliers earlier this year. Except he didn’t, really. Rather than directly answer questions about why he wanted to leave the second-best team in the NBA, and the rumors that he had a falling out with LeBron James, Irving refused to badmouth both James and his former team, instead giving equivocal answers about “perfecting [his] craft.”

As unsatisfying (and smug) as Irving’s interview was, it provides a good template for how to respectfully discuss your former employer — especially in relation to Durant’s comments, which came across as petty and bizarre. Irving wasn’t dishonest, but he didn’t throw the Cavs and LeBron under the bus, either. (If anything, Irving turned the tables on Cleveland, saying the way he was treated during the entire ordeal was “hurtful.”)

You’ll probably never have to answer questions on ESPN about the dysfunction at your past job, but work long enough and you’ll inevitably face such questions among your peers, hiring managers and family and friends. And when you do, it’s imperative you go Kyrie, not KD, and avoid coming across as ungrateful and indignant.

To that end, MEL sought the advice of Ronald Riggio, professor of leadership and organizational psychology at Claremont McKenna College, and Michael North, professor of management and organizations at New York University, on how to diplomatically address issues with your old employer.

During the Exit Interview

Ostensibly, the exit interview is the ideal time for the employer and ex-employee to drop their pretenses and speak candidly about the organization and why the worker felt compelled to leave it. But that almost never happens, because the employee is worried that honest feedback will make them unemployable in the future. “There can be fear of retaliation in the form of bad recommendations, or in small business communities, there’s a concern a former employee might develop a bad reputation for complaining,” Riggio says.

You can provide helpful feedback, Riggio says, but the key is in how you frame it. He recommends “suggestions” rather than outright complaints — which is to say, you should suggest a different course of action instead of just complaining about the current one.

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Anything not viewed as constructive can make you seem like a whiner, which obviously isn’t the lasting impression you want to leave.

At Your New Employer

A frequently asked interview question is, “Why are you looking to leave your former employer?” And just like an exit interview, it can be a trap.

“A new employee typically hasn’t had the opportunity to earn much status, and so it is a little risky to speak so openly about workplace concerns, even if they are about a past employer,” North says.

In that sense, refer to the above advice, and frame your response in terms of what could’ve been done better instead of everything that was done wrong. The former makes you sound like a positive change agent, while the latter makes you sound like a morale-killer.

“These might sound trite, but phrases such as, ‘It wasn’t a good match,’ ‘It wasn’t the right fit,’ or, ‘We faced some challenges’ can work,” North says.

Riggio suggests focusing on what your new employer does better. “Say, ‘This is a terrific program here. My previous employer didn’t have this, and they would’ve benefited from it.’”

Among Your Peers

Happy hour might seem like the one acceptable venue for absolutely thrashing your terrible old job and that shithead boss you used to work for.

Alas, you’d be wrong.

“Even when it’s a gathering outside the workplace, I believe that the same concerns apply,” North says.

Riggio says to balance the negative comments with praise for your former employer, lest you sound spiteful and give your new colleagues the impression you’ll do the same to them once you move on. “I know this all sounds a bit Pollyanna-ish, but being positive is the best strategy,” he says. “It’ll help you develop a reputation as someone who wants to build up his/her employer, rather than tear it down.”

Among Your Family and Friends

Only here are you free to gripe freely, and moan and whine to your frustrated heart’s content. “This is the place where it’s appropriate to release emotions,” Riggio says.