A reader writes:
A few months ago, I was asked to resign from a management position. I’ve begun consulting on my own, but still find it difficult to explain how and why I left that last job. I’m not without fault in being asked to resign, but I believe that my boss long hoped I would and was trying to push me in that direction. That may sound paranoid or delusional on my part, but there are some facts that support me.
For nearly two years, I was working sixty to eighty hours each week and sometimes seven days a week. Despite the hours I worked, I let some things slip and took too long to complete some other projects. The stress I felt also contributed to my making some bad decisions. I spoke many times to my boss about my schedule, time management, and the need for assistance. In response, he would tell me that I wasn’t managing my time well, and that the stress and problems were due to my own shortcomings. I believe now that I should have resigned earlier on my own terms, but there were many things about the company that I liked.
About a month before I was asked to resign, I was finally given an assistant, but only for five hours each week. In the two weeks before the resignation, I made two errors which my boss said caused him to lose all trust in me. I take responsibility for the mistakes I made, but what happened after I left most disturbs me. When my boss hired my replacement, he gave that person a new assistant for thirty hours each week. Recently, the assistant was made full time. In short, two people are now doing the job that I was told I should have been able to handle. I honestly believe that if I had been given that support, I would have accomplished more with fewer errors and much less stress.
I’m not trying to avoid admitting any errors that led to my termination, but I would like to be able to explain the situation without placing all the blame on myself. If I speak negatively about my former boss or the company however, I believe that also reflects badly on me. Given these circumstances, how might I best explain why I left the job?
Before I get to your question, let me say this: You're likely in no mood to look on the bright side, but it does sound like this job wasn't a good fit for you and it's good that you're out of it. Whether the problem was that the company had unrealistic expectations or that your work style simply didn't match their needs is sort of beside the point; what matters is that the fit was off. So in the long run, getting away from there (regardless of how that separation came about) is a good thing.
Now, on to your question. Your instincts about not speaking ill of your boss or the company are right on track; even if a candidate is 100% right in his or her criticism of a former boss, it never comes across well. I would start with something like, "The workload was very high and the company wasn't able to hire another person to help at that point. However, since I left, the position has been turned into two full-time positions in recognition of the workload." If they push and specifically ask if you were terminated, be honest -- but explain what you've learned from the situation. For instance, you might say, "The workload ended up getting the better of me. I generally worked 60-80 hours a week to try to stay on top of everything, but I did end up making some mistakes because of the sheer volume. What I've realized since then is that I need to communicate better with my boss when workload is a problem and figure out ways to we're on the same page about priorities if we're in a triage mode."