How to answer the interview question: “Why did you leave your past job?”

 

“Why did you leave your past job?”

As a recruiter, I get asked this question about my candidate every time I submit a resume.  As an applicant, you can bet that 99% of the employers will ask you why you left your last position.  It’s is a difficult question; your integrity is on the line with this one.  Most candidates don’t answer the question directly, hoping an indirect answer will deflect the real reason why they left.  This is a fatal interview mistake that you don’t want to make!  You must be honest and forthright about why you left prior jobs!

Tips to Answer this Interview Question:

“It was mutual” or “I was laid off ” or “lack of work” doesn’t cut it, especially if the hiring manager knows someone else who is now doing your former job, knows your former boss, or has friends working at your former company. If you were laid off due to no fault of your own, whenever possible, obtain a letter from your prior company outlining the reasons for your layoff.

Here’s some examples of why people leave jobs or are out of work:

Personal reasons/medical/taking care of a family member: If you had to leave your past job due to personal reasons such as medical issues or caring for a family member, say so if you are comfortable with the details. If you are uncomfortable sharing the specifics, tell the interviewer you had to take care of some personal affairs and didn’t want your work to suffer, so you chose to resign until you could fully commit to a full-time role again. Explain that the situation has resolved itself and you are ready and excited to resume your career. Add that you kept your skills sharp by staying abreast of industry news and trends while you were not working.

Fired for cause/laid off without notice or reason: Most employers will only give dates of employment and maybe verify your title, but that’s just as bad as saying you were let go. In this case, no news is not good news! Be honest; again, it only takes a couple of phone calls in the industry to uncover the truth. Use the firing or termination experience to show how you learned from it and how your work is much better today as a result.

Short-term jobs/job hopper: Everyone is afraid to hire the job-hopper. You will always have an uphill battle with this one, but you can lessen the climb by talking about how and why you moved from job to job. If the company went out of business, relocated or closed your division, that’s legitimate and not your fault.  Remember, the employer is looking at how long between your jobs and is asking themselves why it took so long for you to be hired by the next employer?  You have to satisfy their curiosity fully, or you will not be hired.  If you were recruited away, say so, just make sure you reinforce that you left for more opportunity and career growth and not just for more money. Explain that you were “referred” into the next job. Employers think the best people are always referred to them so use this to your advantage.

Long gaps between jobs/part time work: Don’t gloss over or make up bogus answers for significant time gaps in your résumé. If you were temping, say so. There’s no harm in that, at least you were working. If you have been unemployed for more than six months, and have been diligently looking for work, say so — but add that you have been taking classes to keep your skills current.  If you took a sabbatical to go back to school, start a family, or change careers, or were just burned out and needed a break, be honest and explain that the time off allowed you to refocus your energy and that you are now ready to resume your career full time

Spouse relocation/military transfers: If you have moved a lot due to a spouse’s job or military transfers, say so, and tell the employer how moving around has enabled you to quickly learn new computer systems and procedures. Have solid examples of where you have come up to speed quickly and preferably letters of recommendation from past managers.  Stress that you are looking to stay in the area long-term.

We all leave jobs for various reasons. Remember that employers are simply “employed applicants” and they have also made good and bad choices with respect to the jobs they have held.  The key is to take responsibility for your job movements, good or bad, show how you career has progressed as a result, and move the conversation forward.  You can’t change the past, you can only shape the future and pick your next job wisely.

 

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