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Is it ever OK to bad-mouth your ex-boss?

Published:Wednesday | May 2, 2012 | 12:00 AM

Glenford Smith, career writer

This column has repeatedly advised job-interview candidates not to bad-mouth their ex-boss and organisation. Actually, this is old-age counsel, which has become a rule of thumb. It makes perfect sense, as many who have broken it can regretfully attest.

But is this rule always right? Is there ever a case for airing your former boss and company's dirty laundry in the public of a prospective employer's interview forum?

Apparently, former banking executive of global investment giant Goldman Sachs, Greg Smith, thought so.

On March 14, the day of his resignation, Smith wrote a scathing piece against the firm, in The New York Times, 'Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs'.

He accused Chief Executive Officer Lloyd Blankfein, and president Gary Cohn, of "losing hold of the firm's culture on their watch".

The culture, he wrote, had become "as toxic and destructive" as he had ever seen. His stated belief was that this resulted from a decline in the firm's moral fibre and was the single greatest threat to its long-term survival.

That's just the tip of the iceberg. Remember, he wasn't being interviewed or anything. He just came right out and excoriated his former company and bosses publicly. Shouldn't he have been more prudent?

What's going to prevent a prospective employer from thinking he will not do the same to them? Everyone knows 'same knife stick sheep, stick goat', after all.

So, generally, an interviewer will conclude, if you bad-mouthed an ex-boss, it will be a matter of time before you do him the same, if you get the job. That's the accepted thinking, anyway.

There's another angle to this issue if you're open to a contrarian perspective, however. It's the case for honesty. Shouldn't you be honest and tell the interviewer your ex-boss was a jerk? That the company was like a prison and that they worked employees like slaves and paid them accordingly?

Any rational employer should appreciate this level of honesty, surely? I'm afraid not.

Big mistakes

If you violate the time-tested rule of never bad-mouthing your ex-boss, on the basis of being honest, you might end up making two big mistakes.

One mistake is that your interviewer will judge you rationally. Your interviewer might agree with you about your former employer. He might still 'feel' you'll do the same to him later on, however. It's the same reason why you wouldn't trust a friend's earnest reassurances of confidentiality if he or she had revealed your secret once.

The other mistake would be to assume what you're being honest about is 'the truth'. Apart from verifiable facts, anything else will just be your subjective opinion. This will reveal a lot about your habitual focus and how you think about things.

By choosing to highlight the positive aspects of your past work experience, which is equally valid, you are not being dishonest. You'll reveal a positive mental attitude.

Greg Smith might not pay a price for bad-mouthing his ex-boss. Chances are, however, you and I might not have the same luck!

Glenford Smith is a motivational speaker and success strategist. He is the author of a new book, 'From Problems to Power: How to Win Over Worry and Turn Your Obstacles into Opportunities'.