How to share your current job frustrations in an interview without sounding too negative

Here’s one of my favorite phone screen questions: “What kinds of environments really allow you to excel and, on the flip side, what kinds of environments frustrate you?” It’s an intentionally open-ended question which, when answered well and specifically, demonstrates a candidate’s level of self-awareness and helps immensely in assessing fit.

Working in a startup is not for everyone. It’s filled with ambiguity, non-existent processes, and it often seems like everything is broken. You probably won’t get a lot of training or support on how to do your job but you’ll still have to hustle super hard and just make things up as you go along. Sounds super fun, right?


All of this means I filter heavily for people who won’t just survive but will actually thrive in chaos. I really do want to hear an authentic and honest answer to what frustrates you. It will lead to the best outcome for both of us, I promise.

But one day a few months ago I got an answer that was not what I wanted to hear:

The Distracted Goldfish: “What kinds of environments really allow you to excel and, on the flip side, what kinds of environments frustrate you?”

Kimberly: “Do you want specific names?”

TDG: (Slight look of confusion, nervous laughter) “Uhh…”

Kimberly: “Let me go grab my shit list for you!”

TDG: “Uhh, no, that’s ok…really!” (Confusion morphs into an expression of horror)

Yes, I realize this was Kimberly’s attempt at humor. And I took it to mean that she was frustrated with the people she was working with. But the joke fell flat. Instead of being impressed with Kimberly’s wit, especially given that we were only 4 minutes and 16 seconds into our conversation, my impression was one of negativity and poor judgement. The implication that you might have a shit list is a little terrifying. So if you have one maybe don’t mention it, ok? Also, I appreciate a well-placed F-bomb just as much as the next person, but swearing has no place in an interview. Call me old fashioned, but it’s unprofessional (“Get off my lawn!”).

stop complaining

I understand that you’re unhappy with your current job

Let’s start with the obvious: if you’re looking for a new job, there’s a reason why.

Duh, right? Very few of us willingly put ourselves through the time-consuming, emotional roller coaster that is the job search. It’s not really a “just for fun in my spare time” activity.

As a recruiter, I get it. Even if you aren’t actively looking, I understand that you wouldn’t be talking to me unless there was something lackluster about your current gig. It could be that your boss is a micro manager, that you aren’t being challenged, that you don’t think you’re being paid appropriately, or simply that you’re bored.

But, please! Be careful how you explain why you’re looking for something new. A candidate spewing negative comments about their current or former bosses, companies, or jobs isn’t flattering.

So how do you handle questions about why you left a past company or why you’re looking for something new?

Be honest but positive

It’s completely expected to talk about why you’ve left prior companies, why you’re looking for a new job, and what you’re looking for in your next role.

As you do, choose your words carefully. It’s all in the framing. Instead of talking about what’s wrong, talk about what you’re looking for.

good vibes

Instead of “It’s impossible to get anything done at my current company. The CEO has to approve everything,” try “I’m looking to have more autonomy in making decisions.”

Instead of: “I’m doing really boring, junior level work,” try “I’m looking for more opportunity for challenge and learning than I have right now, especially in the areas of <fill in the blank>.”

Instead of: “Everyone in this place is super siloed; there’s no teamwork,” try “I’m at my best when I can be really collaborative and bounce ideas off of my teammates, so that’s an important aspect of the next company culture I join.”

You get the idea.

If you’re having a bad day and feeling a bit like grumpy cat, go watch something on the internet that will make you laugh and put you in a good mood before your interview. Channel the “honest but positive” mantra. No hiring manager jumps with excitement to work with someone who answers “how are you today?” with a story about how they started their day by ripping a half-eaten chicken bone out of their dog’s mouth, and then stabbed themselves with a steak knife, and it’s only been downhill from there. I’m all for vulnerability but 4 minutes and 16 seconds into a first interview isn’t the time or place.

The Distracted Goldfish


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