There are three questions every interviewee dreads:
- Tell us about yourself.
- Where do you see yourself in five years?
- Why did you leave your last job?
They’re difficult questions because they form an impression. Also, they don’t have easy answers. They’re designed to show your thought process and inner character. Answering them correctly could land you the job. But they’ll also influence how your interviewer perceives you.
So even if you get the job, they’ll always have that tidbit filed away. Today, we’re going to explore one of those questions and train you on the best way to respond.
Why Did You Leave Your Last Job?
Tip 1: Answer the Question for Yourself
Before you share the sentiment with anyone, get a clear understanding. Are you bored at your current job? Is it too far from home? Is your boss /colleague difficult? Did your contract expire? Are you switching to a new sector or industry? Do you want more money or fewer hours?
Try this little exercise: put a five-minute timer on your phone. It should have an audible alarm. Start the timer and write down all the reasons you can think of. It can be as serious as needing more time to care for elderly relatives. Or as simple as wanting to sleep in longer every morning.
Don’t judge your answers or critique yourself too much. Just write down whatever comes to mind. You can type them on a computer, list them by hand on a piece of paper, or use the notes app of your phone. You can even record voice notes if you find that easier.
Tip 2: Dig into Damage Control
You may have been fired for misconduct. Maybe you breached your contract. Or lied about your skill-set. Or dated the boss and got dumped. These aren’t things you want your next employer to know. But you can’t hide them. They’ll eventually find out. And you’ll look worse for hiding it.
So what happens in such cases? Reframe the issue and mention the steps you’ve taken to correct it. You want to reassure them it won’t happen again. If you dated the wrong person, you could say, ‘I got too personally involved with a work-mate and it didn’t end well, but I’ve given myself a non-fraternization rule. I no longer mix my personal and professional life.’
If you were put on the spot over your doctored CV, you could say, ‘I overestimated my abilities, but I’ve taken a more realistic assessment and I’m clearer on my skill-set.’ If it was something more blatant – like stealing or corporate espionage – say your loyalties were misplaced, but you now have your priorities right. Curated honesty can buy goodwill, especially at interviews.
Tip 3: Cull Your List
Yes, your reasons are all true. But that doesn’t mean you have to say them out loud. In fact, given out culture of leaks and breaches, you should destroy the list as soon as you’re done with it. In the wrong hands, a list titled ‘Why I left My Job’ could get you in a lot of trouble. Damage control aside, look through the list again and cross out (or reword) the problematic ones.
For example, saying you hated your boss may be true, but it’s never smart. You want them to think you’re looking for something better, not running from something worse. If your boss often talked over you and put you down, or refused your promotion/raise request, say ‘I want to play a more direct role in decision-making.’ Or ‘I’d like more opportunities for growth’.
Pro Tip: The reason you give your interviewer should be the same one you give your former boss. As part of the interview process, many firms will do a background check, sneakily talking to your former boss and colleagues. So pick a neutral reason and keep your stories straight.
Tip 4: Express Your Character
You probably dread this question and the doors it will open. Even a reason as simple as ‘My contract ended’ could be followed up with, ‘Why wasn’t it renewed?’ That immediately puts you on the defensive. So your instinct is to give a terse, succinct response and swiftly move along.
But there are other reasons behind this question. Yes, they want to see if you left voluntarily or were forced out. But they also want to see the type of person you are. What are your values? Will you jump ship for a fatter paycheck? Can you diffuse office politics? Can you adapt to change?
Look at your list and expand each one. Write a few extra sentences you can use for further exposition. For example, if you left because you’d like a position with more travel, tell them why you like to travel. Maybe you want to get away from traumatizing family members, but instead, you could say ‘I know everyone in my home town. I wanted to widen my social circles and skill set.’
Tip 5: Make a Serious Shortlist
If you have more than one reason for quitting, you seem more career-minded. It gives the impression that you gave thought to this decision. It was just an impulse or a temper tantrum. So even if you did quit in a huff, take some time to posthumously doctor your reasons.
From your list, pick five reasons that sound professional. The reasons should be diverse, so if you don’t have anything solid, you can re-word them. For example, as a career progression reason, you could be specific. Maybe you’re currently a general accountant.
You can say you’d like to sharpen your skill set in tax accounting. But make sure you actually care about taxes. You don’t want them assigning you to the tariff department … then having to request a transfer within weeks. It will make you seem flaky, which is not a good look at work. Also, no matter what you do, never openly bad-mouth your boss or colleagues. Word it subtly.
Tip 6: Be Carefully Specific with the Negatives
If you were fired, there’s no getting around it. Don’t deflect responsibility or play the victim. Instead, identify one flaw and rephrase it. Maybe your boss fired you for always arriving late and consistently missing deadlines. You don’t want to tell your new boss you can’t keep time (even though that’s exactly what your former boss will say. So instead, spin it into neutral.
You could say something like, ‘I had my priorities wrong, so I didn’t meet my supervisor’s expectations. I’ve shifted my thinking and adjusted my professional approach.’ Or you could be more direct and say, ‘I had challenges with time management, but I’ve since taken a course and my ability to balance my schedule has improved.’ It’s not a lie … unless you didn’t take a course.
Also, keep in mind you may need multiple answers. They will start with your most recent job, but they might ask about prior positions as well. They want a more holistic picture. So repeat these for every position you’ve listed on your resume. (And for unlisted positions too. You may only have included positions relevant to this job, but they might actively uncover the rest.)
Tip 7: Recheck your Sentiments
You want to be sure everything on your list uses positive language. For example, instead of saying they offered you more money, say, ‘I was offered/was pursuing a higher position at another company.’ You could also say you had worked there for an extended period and you were ready for a change of scenery. Or ‘I was keen to work on this new product/service.’
Some interviewees prefer to be honest about money. But you don’t want to seem mercenary. So if you must mention the promised pay-rise, combine it with a more welcome reason, and make it specific to the person asking. ‘I was given a hefty pay rise and a chance to work on *name of product/ service.* It has personal significance.’ Customization counts – and it scores points.
Tip 8: Sell Yourself
Self-awareness is a valued professional trait. So instead of saying you were passed up for a promotion, mention the steps you took to improve your chances. ‘I upgraded my qualifications (went back to school, studied online, took a professional course) and wanted to test out my new skills. Or ‘The company couldn’t use my new skills so I thought I could be useful elsewhere.’
You could also go with something like, ‘When I started, I wanted to work on *mention the department or task e.g. face-to-face customer care* and I did. But the company’s policy shifted and they needed me to focus more on *insert new area e.g. digitizing customer databases, phone-based or online customer care.* I miss making personal connections with customers.’
You could also take the reverse approach. ‘I was in the call center, dealing with customers on the phone. I wanted a chance to practice my customer care/tech support skills on Social Media and to engage with clients online. The company didn’t have opportunities for me to do that.’ You could also admit you were poached. It might either make you look disloyal … or highly coveted.
Tip 9: Make a Checklist
Review your reasons to ensure they match the following criteria:
- They don’t make you look like you disliked the job/boss/colleagues.
- They don’t overly-focus on escape.
- They paint you as someone looking to better yourself.
- They express expansion, not diminution.
- They prove you have no hard feelings against anyone at your former job.
- They sound calm and sincere, not shifty and defensive.
If your list lacks any of these, add them in by reframing your words or replacing your reasons.
Tip 10: Narrow it Down to One
Of all the reasons you’ve listed, which one paints you in the best light? Acceptable options include career opportunities, travel (or unwillingness to travel), company shutdowns, educational advancement, restructuring, and changes in your family circumstances.
The answer you choose will depend on your specific situation. For example, if you’re in sales and you want to travel less, it may be hard getting a new sales position. But if you use this as a basis to apply for a more desk-based marketing position, then it’ll make sense to (both) bosses.
On the other hand, if you’re a young parent and you want to spend more time with your kids, you may be seen as unserious and lacking ambition. Tweak that response to say you need to look after your (grand)parents and suddenly you’re admirable, responsible, and worth hiring.
Tip 11: Practice Practice Practice!
You’ll have to explain this reason to your current/former boss as you give notice. And you’ll need to repeat it at every subsequent interview. It may even come up at office socials. So rehearse in front of the mirror. Do it with an audience too, someone you trust who can give a genuine critique. You want it to sound casual and unforced, but you want to seem sincere.
The other benefit of rehearsing is to get a second opinion. Your helper or mentor may find one of your other reasons more persuasive, so be open to shifting your shortlist. Remember, even if it was your boss or colleague’s fault that you quit, never denigrate them. It won’t end well. You never know if they (or their relatives) have contacts at this new firm. They could sabotage you!
So … Why Did You Leave Your Last Job?
There are no ‘right’ answers, but plenty of wrong ones. Here are suggestions on how to respond:
- Have more than one reason on hand.
- Find the positives and spin the negatives.
- Don’t bad-mouth anyone – it’ll bite you back.
- Say what you’re walking to, not what you’re running from.
- Identify specificities and recognize where you should be vague.
- Rehearse until you seem sincere.
- Give the same reason during your exit and entry interviews.
- Paint yourself in the best light, but don’t lie.
Diplomacy and professionalism aside, why DID you leave your last job? Tell us in the comments – we won’t judge!