People who focus on the negative, or allow the focus of a conversation to shift to the negative, rarely get the job.

Hiring managers, and search professionals who assist them, expect candidates to have a positive attitude—about their experiences, their past positions and colleagues, their current search, and a potential hiring organization. They also want all aspects of their interaction with a candidate to be positive.

In your cover letter, in conversations with search professionals, and in interviews, keep the focus on the positive. Everyone has had negative experiences, but people who focus on the negative, or allow the focus of a conversation to shift to the negative, rarely get the job.

Here are some words of wisdom from hiring managers and from candidates who have learned the hard way:

  1. NEVER speak negatively about a former boss, colleague, staff member, or organization. NEVER means NEVER.
  2. If you left a position due to a boss or colleague you didn’t respect or like, talk about the things you DID respect and like about those individuals, then talk about the additional positive attributes you’re hoping to find in future bosses/colleagues.
  3. If you had problematic staff members, talk about what you did to help them improve their attitude or performance.
  4. If you had to fire someone, talk about how you helped them find a better situation. There are very few bad people or bad organizations; when people need to be counseled out of a position, it is usually due to a bad fit—the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time. Caring supervisors work hard at allowing someone to leave with their dignity intact, and they do what they can to help that person land in a much better place. Give examples, if you have them. But under no circumstances should you talk about a former staff member in a way that conveys potential lack of respect for those you supervise.
  5. If an organization was a bad fit for you, that doesn’t mean it’s a bad fit for everyone. Talk about what you learned from a bad experience, and about what you seek in future organizations as a result. But don’t ever bad mouth an organization, even when you think you have a sympathetic ear. It will only leave the hearer wondering whether you’ll talk in the same way, in the future, about their organization.
  6. Being unemployed for a while can become frustrating, but it is important not to let that frustration show. Similarly, achieving second or third place in a string of searches can be demoralizing. Find a search professional who will give you candid feedback, and be open to that feedback. Be self-critical as well—are you applying for the right positions? In a competitive marketplace, you may need to take a step back in order to take a step forward.
  7. Don’t let yourself get so deeply into a negative situation, or a negative attitude, that your frustration or anger begins to affect your language, including body language. It is easier to get a job when currently employed, but a negative attitude—including one you may project without being aware that you are doing so—can be just as detrimental or even more detrimental to the search process than being between jobs. A prolonged negative experience affects attitude, then outlook, then health. Those in such experiences fall into habits of speaking negatively, to their family members, to their friends, to their dogs and cats! It’s hard to pull out of such a downward spiral; do your best to avoid getting into a truly negative place.
  8. If you’ve made multiple missteps, resulting in short tenures and/or dismissals, talk about what you learned about yourself, not about what was wrong with other people or places. Focusing on the negative leaves the listener wondering whether you and they are about to add to your list of mistakes. One, or even two missteps can be overlooked as learning experiences, if you can articulate what you learned. Missteps beyond two call your judgment into question, and they raise the obvious question as to whether you are exercising good judgment in your current application. Focusing on the positive, with a critical analysis of what you learned and why the next job will NOT be a mistake, is your best hope for convincing a hiring manager that you have now figured out what makes for a truly good fit for you.
  9. Be sure, when transitions happened for positive reasons, that these are clear in your résumé and/or cover letter. For example, when you follow a boss from one institution to another, that can turn what appears to be a negative (short tenure) into a positive (a strong vote of confidence on the part of the person who hired you and then hired you again).
  10. When you have promotions within the same organization, present them in your résumé grouped under one heading. For example, if you were in three different positions in one institution, two years in each position, don’t show this on your résumé as three entirely different jobs, but rather as six years at one institution, with three sub-headings showing the specific titles, tenures, and responsibilities. The reader’s eye will more readily see a positive (upward movement within the same organization) rather than a negative (a list of short tenures).

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