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ASK A CAREER COACH

Left your job on bad terms? Here's how to deal with it in interviews Add to ...

The Question:

I have worked in procurement within the health care sector for about 25 years, 12 of those in management. I have had a steady employment record never having been unemployed until recently.

Over the last two years my provincial government has enacted more stringent guidelines regarding procurement practices for health care organizations including restrictions on using public funding to hire consultants. The new procurement directives did not have a significant impact on the way I practised my job, until a new chief executive officer was hired at my facility.

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This new CEO insisted on breaking these guidelines regularly and insisted on my finding ways to work around them. I spent many months politely outlining (and documenting) these violations to the CEO but the final straw came when a (very costly) consultant was hired for the organization without going through the legal tendering process.

Since I have no professional designation, I do not have a professional body I am bound to report such instances to, but I did report these violations to the CFO as well as the executive director of human resources. Both senior team members agreed with my perspective but refused to act on it, saying that the CEO would ultimately be held accountable if this became an issue in the future and that they would not support or address this issue on my behalf.

Feeling that I could be implicated in performing an illegal act within the responsibilities of my portfolio and was being asked to do additional inappropriate activities, I quit my position citing those very specific reasons in my resignation letter. I have been unemployed for about six months.

How do I answer the following in an interview:

1) Why did I leave my position?

2) Why do I not have a recommendation from my previous supervisors (CEO and CFO)?

3) If I disclose truthfully my reasons for leaving, why did I (or did not) report these activities to the authorities?

The Answer:

While your situation is a delicate one, it’s not unusual. Many people have left roles that force them to compromise their values, ethics and standards. And the matter gets especially tricky if you are being asked to perform your work under less than acceptable practices.

Putting all the detail aside, how do you account for leaving your last job? Use honest discretion. Prospective employers never want to hear a candidate talk badly about a previous employer, so you always start off with the positive experience you had, but leaving very little room for doubts or questions. Believe it or not, interviewers want to talk more about the job they are hiring for, rather than the job candidates have left – unless you give them a reason to probe.

Something along the lines of “I had a great 25 years with the department, where I was able to grow my skills into a management role and take a on a variety of significant projects. There did come a change in leadership which brought a change in my work duties and with that, I felt it was time for me to move on to a new role so I left to focus full time on finding a new opportunity that best suites my career goals.”

That being said, you don’t even need to mention the change in leadership if you don’t want to. Simply saying that after 25 years you wanted a change in role and decided to leave and consider other employment options would also suffice.

For recommendations (I assume you mean a letter), this is really not necessary as employers are going to want to talk directly with a reference rather than rely on a letter of recommendation. For references you don’t need to use your last supervisor, just a supervisor would be acceptable as well as perhaps a co-worker and direct report. I noted that you cited your reasons for leaving in your resignation letter. Although I appreciate your honesty, you need to be careful how these letters are worded so, in fact, you can obtain a reference from your previous employer. Sometimes we need to compromise what we really want to say in order to leave on a high note in the eyes of the employer. In other words, be very careful and strategic about “picking the hill you want to die on.”

In an interview, you need to focus on moving forward and the job you are being interviewed for – not the role you came from and reasons for leaving. I get you were put an a very uncomfortable position, but you left as a result to find employment that addresses your values and appreciates your integrity, so stay with that mindset. You had a long career with that employer and matters changed, as they often do in organizations.

Finally, fit is not about obedience. Fit is about who you are and if you will get along and work well within a team and with the style of your supervisor. As an outplacement consultant, I have met many excellent, talented people who have been let go because of fit. The employee usually knows the fit is not there as well, but later moves on to different company that they thrive in because the fit is better. Their personality and working style is simply a better match for both them and the employer.

Eileen Dooley is a certified coach and lead consultant for Cam McRae Consulting in Calgary. Have a question about careers, labour law or management? Send it to our panel of experts: careerquestion@globeandmail.com. Your name and address will be kept confidential.

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