“Because my boss was a short-sighted sociopath!” might need a little work.
“Why did you leave your last job?” Everyone knows to expect that question in an interview. However, getting to a good answer can be tricky, especially if the circumstances weren't rosy. Candidates tend to worry about saying the wrong thing. If you share that you left for a promotion elsewhere, will the prospective employer think you're a greedy person with a big ego? If you say that your style didn't mesh with your new boss, will the hiring manager judge you as being difficult to work with? And this doesn't even include getting fired!
So, let's dive into this important topic. The truth is that everyone needs to be prepared to answer an interview question about leaving their past jobs (unless you are looking for your first job).
The “why did you leave your last job?” question could come in several different formats. Here are three versions that are most common:
“Why are you looking for a new job now?” This question typically gets asked when you're employed while looking for a new opportunity.
“Why did you leave your last job?” It's logical for the hiring manager to focus on your most recent job experience.
“Why did you leave job X?” Sometimes, an earlier job departure might catch the hiring manager's attention. This is especially true if you had an unusually short stint there.
So, look at your resume carefully and prepare for all question variants that may apply.
Why are they asking these questions?
The best place to begin your prep is by understanding what makes “Why did you leave your last job?” an important question. Time in an interview is always too short, which means an experienced hiring manager or HR professional doesn't waste a single minute on things that don't matter.
There are three big reasons why hiring managers need to understand why you left your last job:
To evaluate your reason for leaving. Professionals change jobs; there's nothing inherently wrong in that. The secret sauce is in how and why they do it. Did you just wake up one morning and decide you were done? Was the reason “reasonable”? What does it say about your values? Sure, the hiring manager wants to know what happened, but the real opportunity here is in getting insight into who you are as a person and as a professional.
To establish whether you made the decision to leave — or were let go. If you were laid off, the hiring manager needs to understand whether the reason was related to performance or integrity. They are also trying to gauge your attitude. Can you take responsibility for your side of what happened, or will you put all the blame on the employer?
Did you leave on good terms? Your ability to build and keep relationships says a lot about your diplomatic intelligence. So, if your former boss is your champion and a prominent reference, your candidacy automatically gets a boost.
What does it look like in real life?
Not every job departure is created equal. Without a doubt, some situations are trickier than others. Here are a few scenarios, ranked from ideal and straightforward to very complicated.
Ideal scenario: Looking for a job while still employed
Ironically, being employed and not needing a job is the strongest position from which one could look for a job. The fact that your current employer values you enough to keep you on staff sends a strong signal to your prospective employer. Plus, you have more room for negotiating, thanks to the luxury of time and a stable paycheck to fall back on.
Still, it's possible to mess up your answer to “Why are you looking for a job now?” Framed incorrectly, your response could be judged unfavorably. Are you greedy and willing to jump ship for a pay raise? Is your ego so big that you can't bear to go two years without a promotion? Are you unwilling to put in the hours that your current job requires?
Here are some response options that put you in the best light:
“I've learned a lot in my current position, including valuable communication and conflict management skills. I'd like for my next opportunity to give me a chance to build on my leadership skills.”
“I know that I do my best work when I can balance my work and personal responsibilities. I take my workplace commitments very seriously and want to work for a company that allows me to plan my days for highest efficiency and effectiveness.”
“I love my current role and my boss, but the company structure just doesn't allow me to take on new responsibilities.”
What about looking for a higher paycheck? It's a valid reason but tread carefully. Here's a way to frame this reason if it must be addressed head-on:
“I am motivated by many factors. Client satisfaction and approval from my boss are two of them. Compensation is also important because it's a reflection of the value I deliver to the company and its clients. I appreciate the opportunity to do my best work and to celebrate the moments when I've surpassed my goals.”
Slightly more complicated: You left your last job
Sometimes, you leave a job without another place to land, putting you in an interesting position. On the one hand, you chose to leave a job that wasn't working for you, which positions you as an ambitious go-getter. On the other hand, you don't have a stable paycheck or implicit validation of a current employer.
If this is your situation, explain your reasons clearly. Here's what it might sound like:
“I loved my experience at Company X. I learned a lot about client service, technical aspects of accounting, and process improvement. I miss my co-workers and my bosses, especially Mike who was my mentor and senior manager on the last project. However, I knew that I wanted to step out of the consulting role and get a chance to improve processes from within a company. That opportunity just didn't exist within Company X. I also knew that the firm was heading into busy season. It wouldn't be fair for me to make myself available, then quit the moment I found my next job. So, I chose to leave before that happened.”
Focus on what you have accomplished while in your last position, as well as your goals for the next position. If you've been in-between jobs for a few months, be prepared to demonstrate how you've used that time productively by pursuing professional training, networking, volunteering, etc.
Tricky: You were laid off
People get laid off for a host of reasons. Here's a short list: an economic downturn, downsizing, the company losing a key client or contract, restructuring, a merger or acquisition, etc. None of those reasons have to do with your performance or value as a professional, and hiring managers understand that. In fact, they may even be sympathetic, especially if they've had to let go of valuable team players in the past.
Your strategy should be to make the reason for your layoff clear. Emphasize your accomplishments and contributions to the company. Be truthful but skip anything that makes your look vengeful, unprofessional, dishonest, or unmotivated. Here's an example to get you started:
“Unfortunately, I was affected by the corporate restructuring that happened after Company A was acquired by Company B. The new leadership decided to relocate all the technical support staff to the new corporate headquarters in Charlotte, NC. Those who didn't want to move were laid off. I considered my options and decided to look for a local opportunity that could take advantage of my 10 years of experience as a team lead and an expert in XYZ technology.”
It's complicated: You were fired
Take a deep breath — getting fired happens. It's not a death sentence. Sometimes there's been a miscommunication, like when your manager had a different understanding of your responsibilities. Sometimes, the job, the team, or the boss just wasn't the right fit for you. Mention any extenuating circumstances but own your part of what happened. Be sure to focus on the positives that came out of this tough situation. Did you discover a need to align with your core strengths, learn a valuable lesson, or uncover a skill gap that you've since fixed?
Here's what it might sound like:
“In retrospect, I understand that the head of my department had different expectations of me than what had been communicated in the job description. I thought my job was to provide exceptional service to the existing clients of the company. My manager expected me to go out and bring in new clients. As I reflect on the experience, I see that I was a strong service provider. Client retention during my time at Company ABC was excellent! The only clients we've lost were the ones who passed away. However, I am not a salesperson, and I want for my next position to capitalize on my strengths as a relationship builder and a problem solver.”
Your prep strategy: get clear, factual, and brief
What do those answers have in common? They all require you to prepare. Here are the three steps to craft the best possible response to “Why did you leave your last job?”
Step 1: Set clear on your version of the events
Process what happened and get honest with yourself. Why did you leave? Why did the layoffs affect you, not others on your team? Why were you fired? Your early answers will be raw and not ready for prime time. Still, take note of them because they carry the truth.
Next, think about what you've learned about yourself in the process. What's most important about a position to you? What do you need in your next job? What did you like the most about your last job, and what did you dread? How would you describe your relationship with your co-workers and boss, and how would you want it to be different next time?
Step 2: It's time to frame your answer
This next part is critical: Avoid bad-mouthing your former employer or boss. Even if you feel that you were underpaid, overworked, or not given fair opportunities, you must stick to the facts and do your best to make your explanations positive. Every coin has two sides, and every professional has a hand in what happens to them. Own your part, frame it in a positive light, and shift the conversation towards your value.
Step 3: Keep your answers short
Candidates can dig themselves into a hole by sharing too much. Sometimes, full disclosure with no filter isn't your best strategy. So, answer the question, pause, and wait for the follow-up. You can always go into more detail if needed, but you can't take back something you've already said. Frame your answers with gratitude for the opportunities you've had and with excitement for what's next, and your prospective employer will see your true value — not just a series of past positions.
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