Conflicts with Upper Management – How to Address in an Interview?

A reader writes…

I recently quit my job due to conflicts with my manager. It was not a pretty situation. How do I explain this in a job interview, without sounding like I can’t respect upper management?

Dear “Conflicted,”

I am so sorry you experienced this predicament.  Leaving a job on “bad terms” with your manager never feels good and can certainly make upcoming interviews a little awkward, to say the least.

The fact of the matter is some people just don’t mesh well.  People are different, personalities vary, and work styles don’t always jibe.  Heck… that’s what makes the world go ‘round, right?

Just because you conflicted with one person, does not necessarily mean you can’t, or won’t, work well with another – and it certainly is not a reflection of your skills, abilities, or accomplishments that are (hopefully) listed on your résumé.

Here are a few thoughts to consider when the inevitable question, “Why did you leave your last job?” comes up:

  1. Be open and honest (without sounding negative, resentful, or bitter). Explain that you were unable to progress in your current position due to differences of opinion with your direct supervisor.  You can elaborate on attempts you made to work together and be flexible… but that in the end, it just wasn’t a good fit.  From there, you can go on to say how much you think the company you are applying to is a perfect fit for you.  Do your research about the company and sprinkle in some details you learned…  ALWAYS impressive!
  2. Try to turn the negative situation into a positive one.  Okay, I know I may sound like a Pollyanna right now, but hear me out!  Conflicts with your manager taught you a lot about yourself.  What you can (or cannot) tolerate, things YOU should probably change or improve about yourself, what types of work environments suit you best, etc.  From this experience, you now know what you want (or need) in a manager.  It’s the perfect segue for YOU to be the one asking questions during an interview.  You know, tap into the management style of your next potential boss! You can simply address the question by stating that your working relationship with your previous manager was an “invaluable learning experience” but that you’re ready to make a change.
  3. You could refrain from explaining the specific situation about your manager and simply state that you were ready for a new challenge – that you had learned all that you could in your current position and felt ready to move on.

I hope you find these suggestions helpful and wish you the best of luck!

Hey readers!  Anyone else been in a similar predicament?  How did YOU handle explaining the situation in an interview?  Post your comments here!


8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. melee34
    Apr 29, 2012 @ 16:09:43

    What is the best approach to getting a new job in your field when there has been a fallout w/the boss you’ve had for 10 years? I don’t trust the recommendation he might give and I also think other hiring staff may contact him, because they know I have been there many years. What to do to insure a fair playing field for an interview?


    • anitaclew
      May 03, 2012 @ 12:03:36

      Hi there.

      This can be a difficult situation to maneuver when you are looking for a new position. I would suggest using co-workers from your previous position as references. If the hiring company inquires as to who they should contact, I would try my best to find other individuals that you are certain will offer up a stellar recommendation. To avoid the problem, you could also just mention that your relationship with your previous employer is a little sensitive at the moment but you would be more than happy to offer comparable professional references. I wish you the best of luck on your hunt for a new position.



  2. Nicole
    Apr 12, 2011 @ 16:10:35

    I had a similar issue. I was a CNA at a nursing home for over 9 months. I had a patient who was at risk if I did what the nuse said to do. This nurse was over me but it was her second night of work and I didn’t immediately do what she wanted so she wrote me up. Even though I knew the patient and knew that what she wanted wouldn’t work with this person. I was right and had to provide additional care due to this. I tried to tell the ADN and was told that I was in the right but still was wrong and “let go” for it. I don’t know how to answer the why did you leave this position question on an application.


  3. J. D.
    Apr 12, 2011 @ 05:45:37

    This topic is relevant to my situation TODAY. I have a 2nd interview today with two hiring officials (for 2 posted positions). One hiring official is upper management, familiar to me, likes me, and enticed me to come back to work with her shortly after I left 18 months ago. I told her at the time I was not interested in taking a Lateral move, had to be a promotion. I am told the other hiring official is hardened by the job and not trusting. I left this organization mainly because they put a new manager in place with no experience and bad work ethic. The “good ol boys” put him at the helm because of his technical knowledge, but his management and people skills were severely lacking. He was not considerate of others’ time and required constant hand holding (e.g., had to page him -15, -10, -5 min before each meeting to remind him to be there… then he would be 20 minutes late, for a meeting he was supposed to be running!). The organization became a “dumping ground” for all undesirables (employees they needed to get rid of, but knew where the bodies were buried). I knew the job was all I could handle before the change in managers, and “raising” a manager was not in the cards, not at executive levels anyway. In addition, I repeatedly warned management about brewing conflicts between this manager and one of his direct reports. Ultimately, the direct report filed a grievance against this new manager. The work environment was toxic and I hated going to work every day. {After I left I was officially questioned, by hiring official #1, about the “conflict” between the two employees and did not throw anyone under the bus}. Now 18 mos. later, the employee with the grievance has long since moved on to greener pastures and the new manager is still in the chair. The two jobs I am applying for will act as backup support for this office among others as part of the job duties. I know the questions will arise about my leaving 18 months ago. Not sure how to handle this, but am trying to rehearse ways of politely addressing it. They know they would be very lucky to have me back because I am a documented high performer, conscientious and am liked by everyone. I should note, my current employer asked me to bring the offer to him so he can bring it to his supervisor to see if they can better the offer to stay where I am.


  4. Sheila Cruse
    Feb 14, 2011 @ 11:44:54

    Dear Staff:

    I can certainly relate to this situation. I also know and have been in situations where employers have been untruthful or deceitful about me to make me look bad &/or hinder me from getting another position; simply
    because they have felt threatened by you because you have been very professional, very dedicated, very hands on, very honest, very flexible, very motivated, very dependable, have needed little or no supervision, and have consistently been complimented by several clients, customers, outsiders, upper mgmt., and even Board Members who have complimented me for my very handling of all incoming phone calls, work ethic, and always being so timely and efficient with any and all projects with little or NO Supervision, and always willing to go above and beyond and Never Doing Unrelated Work Stuff on the Internet! They just want to make you look bad & create a Bad Impression about you to possibly pass on to the next employer & others. Then you have explain yourself hoping that they believe you; especially if the Past Employer is Definitely in the Wrong.


  5. Chuck
    Feb 11, 2011 @ 06:41:51

    I have a close personal friend who works in a doctor’s office. The office manager is very haughty and abuses his authority quite often. He fires employees constantly, many times before he has a replacement. Whats really disturbing is the way in which he talks to all the female employees. I have met with many of these women and they all say the same things. “Border line Sexual Harassment”, “I could file a sexual harassment complaint against him”. They all fear for their jobs if they do, but I say if they get fired for that, they have a greater chance for compensation. One previous employee is fighting to receive unemployement because he fired her without a reasonable cause. Is there anything I can do to help these employees? Or should I just mind my own business and leave them to deal with it? I really care about my friend and hate to see her so frustrated and stressed all the time.


    • anitaclew
      Feb 11, 2011 @ 09:28:27

      Hi, Chuck,

      I admire your concern for your friend and her co-workers. The best thing you can do for her/them is to be a supportive friend and help encourage them (if they wanted to be encouraged) to report that they are feeling threatened or harassed. If there is an HR representive to the doctor’s office, that’s where they should go. If there’s not, they should seek outside legal advice.

      Regardless of whether they want to seek assistance now, I would strongly advise them to document all instances of perceived harassment in case they do want to make a case later. They should write down every thing the doctor says and keep all voice mails/emails that they feel are threatening. Their case will likely also be strengthened if they stand together in their claims.

      Please pass along my best wishes to your friend and her co-workers. It sounds like a stressful situation, and I hope they find a way out of it soon.



  6. Sister
    Feb 11, 2011 @ 05:22:25

    Just don’t mentioned this job @ your interview. Hey what can u say?


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Anita Clew's blog posts are intended for general guidance and should never be taken as legal advice. In all instances where harassment, inequity, or unfair treatment is believed to be present, please consult your HR Department or legal representation.
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