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Ralph,

On a recent job interview I was asked a question I was unsure how to answer.  I didn't get the job so I wonder if my answers to questions might have been a factor.  The question I got (and I recall my answer was really confused) was about the supervisor on my previous job.  I didn't get along very well with him, which was one of the reasons for looking for another job, but I didn't think I should speak poorly of him.  On the other hand I didn't want to lie either.  What should I do in that situation?  Thank you.

Answer
Hi Bart,

This is a very common interview question and I'm sure you are not the first person to have difficulty with it.  Allow me to give you some background on this kind of question so you'll understand the reasoning behind it and then I'll discuss some options you have for your response.

This question comes from the "Character" category of questions (one of four categories).  It is designed to see what kind of person you are and, therefore, what kind of person the employer can expect you to be in the future if they decide to hire you.  The first rule here is "don't trash your boss."  Often, the interviewer(s) will ask the question just to see if that is what you will do.  So, don't do it.  If you do, the employer will (understandably) conclude that you will do the same thing to them if a disagreement arises.  And if you are brutally honest about the person you didn't get along with, you come off as a whiner and a potential problem, and no one wants to hire that kind of person.  So, what to do?

You are correct that you should not lie about the previous employment situation, but if you can't tell the "whole truth and nothing but the truth," how can you handle this?  The answer is: very carefully.  What I am going to suggest to you below allows you to tell the absolute truth (if not the whole truth) but do so in a way that does not vilify anyone.

Many employees have, at some point or another in their working lifetime, had a professional or personality conflict with a boss or supervisor.  The trick is to truthfully acknowledge the conflict but avoid the drama.  There are as many ways of wording a response to this question as there are situations to which the question applies.  Your response needs to, in brief terms, use one of the instances where conflict arose - so you can put the situation in concrete terms for the interviewer - and then describe how the conflict was resolved.  In this scenario, you want to choose an episode where it is clear that genuine misunderstanding existed, miscommunication was a factor, or a simple difference of opinion was involved.  In other words, choose an example where you can accurately describe a successful (or mostly successful) resolution.

If you had an ongoing feud or chronic animosity, this may be difficult to do, but it's the only practical way of responding to this kind of question without pointing the finger at your supervisor as the bad guy or outright lying to the interviewer.  Begin your answer with "Perhaps I can best describe our relationship if I give you a brief example of one thing that occurred between the two of us earlier this year ..." or something along those lines.  What you are then going to do is tell the interviewer what the supervisor said (or did) and what you said (or did) and then characterize the conflict as "miscommunication" or "misunderstanding" or something neutral that does not assign blame for the conflict but simply describes the event.  "I acknowledged that I would do what he asked though I believed my solution might have been more in the best interest of the company" (or whatever institution it was).  In other words, you acceded to his authority but agreed to disagree in an amicable way.

This is a very difficult line to walk and there is often a very small amount of room to "wiggle" here.  It's easy to let your emotions take over and tell somebody what a jerk he was (and maybe he was) but you will never win a job offer by trashing a former employer.  Never.  Even if your new employer knows the person you are talking about and agrees that he is a jerk, you still can't win.  Stay calm and present your response in an even and reasonable manner.  

Your best way of preparing for this question if it comes up in the future, is to do the same thing with this question that you should be doing with all potential interview questions: practice.  Write out a few talking points that you want to be sure to present and then rehearse a response to the question using those points.  You don't need to write out an entire response (it will come across as canned if you rehearse something word-for-word) but just be sure you can make your case in a calm and reasoned way so you won't be caught off-guard by this question again.

I hope this helps; best of luck in the future!

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Ralph D. Converse, Ph.D.

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I can answer questions about general job searches, resume construction, crafting an effective cover letter, and how to prepare for, and conduct, a winning interview. My speciality is the field of education, but I also have extensive background in business and administration. I know what works and what doesn't work and I can make your application package stand out from the rest ... because that is what you have to do.

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I have interviewed for, and held, dozens of jobs in a career going back more than 42 years. I have taught at all educational levels including middle school, high school, community college, and university. In more than 42 years of experience on both sides of the job-search process, I have interviewed hundreds of applicants and have reviewed literally tens of thousands of job application packages. I am the author of 12 Mistakes That Got Your Job Application Rejected ... And How To Fix Them! I conduct workshops for job seekers in a variety of locations every year.

Publications
Music Educator's Journal, Teaching Music, Music and American Culture (forthcoming, 2013), Last Teacher Standing: The Job is Yours Now! and 12 Mistakes That Got Your Job Application Rejected ... And How To Fix Them!

Education/Credentials
B.A. New Mexico State University; M.Mus. Southern Illinois University; Ph.D. University of California and University of North Texas

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Thousands of individuals

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