Are you looking for your first job? If so, this article is not for you though you may linger if the topic interests you. Now that the disclaimer is out of the way, please dive in.
“Why did you leave your last job?”
This is a sure-shot interview question and there is no skirting it. One of the toughest questions (a close second to “tell me something about yourself”), needs some introspection and deep prep.
“Because my manager made my life hell!” definitely won’t cut it.
There is no cookie-cutter approach and answering it is never going to be any less tricky, even if the situation was ideal. However, worrying about spouting the wrong thing or being judged as egoistic or greedy won’t help. So, let’s explore ways to craft the response that will suit your circumstances the best.
And if you are thinking about quitting your current job and want to do it the right way, check out our step-by-step guide here.
Why do employers ask you “Why did you leave your last job?”
Employers ask these probing uncomfortable questions for myriad reasons. Professional switch jobs all the time and it doesn’t make you seem flaky or disloyal. However, understanding their reasons can help you piece your answer together.
To understand your job performance
Your daily tasks and how you managed them will come up. The interviewer can capture your level of passion for the job at hand – whether you were a quick learner or found the work less challenging, which prompted you to look for something that aligns with your capabilities.
To gain insights into your work ethics
Quitting abruptly without serving an adequate notice can be a red flag to many interviewers, especially those leaning towards the traditional hiring approach. Remember, a long-term stint is not always a yardstick to loyalty. For instance, elucidating on how you took care to wrap up all the pending assignments before leaving never fails to impress.
To see how you handle uncomfortable questions
Dealing with difficult people and situations beyond your comfort zone is part and parcel of the game. The interviewer is watching whether you can present your views without breaking into a sweat.
To gauge your rapport with your ex-colleagues
This question is a test of your team spirit, especially if being a team player is crucial to the position you are applying for. Most candidates know better than to blatantly bitch about their old team members. However, the subtle undertones and bitterness are not as easy to hide from a shrewd panel member.
To know if left voluntarily or let go
Something made you leave, even if you had left on a good note. Sure, the recruiter will ask what led to that decision. This is your opportunity to present how accountable and resilient you are as a person and a professional.
Acceptance & Honesty – Why you left your last job
It is your choice what and how to answer this question — the degree of honesty, transparency, and which details to omit – though we strongly discourage outright lying. However, it is important to be honest with yourself first. At the risk of sounding woefully didactic, there is no moving forward or progress otherwise.
Scenarios & Responses – Why did you leave your previous job?
Let’s explore how honesty plays out in each of the potential scenarios below.
Employed but looking
The most ideal situation that can work in your favor. You might be ready for a career jump or feel you deserve a better salary and perks. The office environment may not be conducive to your growth. You might even be sick of the long commute. Whatever your reasons are, acceptance is the key.
Sample 1: I’ve worked at [ABC] organization for a long time (number of years) and felt this was the right time to move on to a different environment and bigger responsibilities. It is time to hand over the reins to somebody else, while I take this as an opportunity to advance my career.
Sample 2: I have spent the last five years heading and nurturing a formidable team of sales professionals. My team has systematically outperformed their previous annual record sales by a 20% hike in conversions and sales. That is when I saw your job posting and I had to apply. I want to work for a bigger firm with room for more diverse sales strategies and growth hacking projects. I’m well-equipped to make that jump in my career.
Sample 3: They hired me for a specific role. Over time that changed and I didn’t feel a gap would be a good idea as [insert field] demands constant practice. I was no longer being allowed to advance in [insert field/function] as I was also handling [other functions]. In your company, I see a scalable opportunity to learn and grow in [specify functions].
Left by choice
You might have left for personal reasons or are simply done. Not even the prospect of being unemployed for the foreseeable future is enough to hold you back. Or you chose to have a break from everything or a break to figure out your next phase. A few days into unemployment, you might even regret the decision. The more you understand your current predicament, the better you can sketch your answer.
Sample 1: I left to work on a project I was passionate about. It was a short-term assignment that can strengthen my portfolio and I also got opportunities to hobnob with industry experts from across Canada and North America.
Sample 2: Though the organization achieved significant growth in a short period, it was moving in a different direction. I believed it was a good time to par ways so I could look for something more aligned with my skills and values.
Sample 3: It was bittersweet to say goodbye to an organization that contributed so much to my career growth. Not to mention a bunch of positive relationships and networks I built there! This opportunity will not only present me with an opportunity to apply the skills and knowledge I have acquired over the years but also help me achieve a better work-life balance. Saving a couple of hours on the commute can go both ways
Well, it happens to the best of the best workers. Being laid-off can seem like a personal failure and a matter of shame. But it is important to move past it to bounce back stronger than ever.
As mentioned above, acceptance is the first step to it. You do not have to go into detail. However, be prepared with the numbers and references that can highlight your value as an employee. This is also a chance to discuss how you acquired a few professional skills during your time at the last organization and the brief period of employment. This shows your positivity and “never-say-die” attitude.
Sample 1: As part of an intense expense reduction plan, the company decided to close the entire division and outsource the same, which resulted in 25% lay-offs across Canada. Unfortunately, I was one of those. I have a good track record of achieving all my target figures throughout my stint [insert data]. Post that, I have attended a few online courses [insert course names] and workshops [insert topics and speakers] to fortify my skills and strengths in [job function].
Sample 2: If there is one thing I’ve learned from this experience, it is to build myself as an indispensable professional, complete with the required skills, and take on more responsibility. In the last [insert the gap time], I pursued a course in [insert subject] and also took time to volunteer at an NGO. It helped me hone my interpersonal communication skills and keep myself engaged most positively.
Sample 3: Much of the job functions were seasonal and I want to apply my skillset in a long-term role. I believe stability will enable me to build myself as a thorough professional in [insert field].
Of course, they want to know that you weren’t let go for some egregious misconduct like workplace harassment, thieving, or committing fraud. Even these might not be a reason to write you off, if you take accountability, express genuine regret and demonstrate personal growth.
Now that the worst is out of the way, let’s talk about reasons such as downsizing and underperformance. The goal is to navigate from these to how/why you could be the best candidate for this job in the smoothest possible way.
Sample 1: Being let go was a blessing in hindsight. It helped me introspect and be laser-focused on seeking jobs that suit my expertise and interests. My research about [insert company name] and the role here suggests that you have such an opportunity. I have experience in the field and have consistently updated my knowledge in the [insert field] by subscribing to [insert publication or channel or speaker].
Sample 2: The job didn’t feel right. I badly needed a job and grabbed the first one that came my way. I won’t repeat that mistake. My manager and I discussed this at length and agreed it was time for me to pursue a position that would show a better return for both the organization and myself. As per my research, your organizational vision and product intent align with my qualification and skillset. Would you like to hear more about them?
Sample 3: The company roped in a new CEO who had a different vision than the person who hired me. My previous role allowed me to learn [list skills learned], which I see listed in your job description. I’d prefer a workplace that is affable, structured, and collaborative, where my best output can contribute heavily to the team RoI.
If you’re a manager who is thinking about firing someone, check out our 7 signs that your employee needs to be fired.
General tips to follow when answering “Why did you leave your last job?”
Combine some smart practices while talking about unique specifics regarding your situation will sort you. You need both method and madness to stand out.
Strive for clarity
Start with a bullet sentence that says it all – like a no-suspense headline. Decide which information to share and then put it in a positive and engaging frame. Explain your transition as ambitious and futuristic, rather than a break.
Practice and practice some more
Speaking clearly and confidently comes from experience. People are not born confident. Confidence stems from familiarity. Prepare a script and practice in front of a mirror a few times and record them on your phone. It is also a chance to check if your diction, posture, and timing are up to mark.
No badmouthing, please
This pointer cannot be stressed enough. Avoid anything that can compromise your previous employer. You might be justified in doing so, but a potential employer will only find this distasteful.
You might have had a harrowing experience in your last organization. Nobody will blame you for leaving a conflict, especially at the risk of your mental health. However, your interviewers are not the people to share these with. They are not your friends or therapists.
Mind your body language
Granted, questions regarding your reasons for leaving the last job won’t be pleasant. A straight-backed and relaxed posture and a few smiles go a long way. For instance, a distinct droop, flushed face, and general restlessness are definite giveaways.
Things to avoid saying with examples
Sometimes knowing what not to say helps more than you imagine. What you do not say to reflect on your attributes and professional attitude.
“I want better pay!”
Everybody works for money and demanding better pay is not something to be guilty about. However, presenting it as a sole priority may not sit well with many recruiters. If you do speak of it, always club it with industry rate and as a mark of growth rather than an end goal.
Sample: “I re-evaluated my career graph and goals and decided my current role does not justify my skillset.”
“I do not get along with my team or office politics was too much for me.”
This is ambiguous at best and prone to harsh judgments from the panel at worst. Your interpersonal skills might appear questionable too. It is also important to demonstrate a level of solidarity and respect to your ex-organization.
Sample: “My company hired a new CMO, and I felt it was a good time to make a career jump and move to a managerial role.”
“The new system cost me my job in spite of doing so much for them. It is not fair…”
If you were laid off due to unfortunate reasons (like the Pandemic) or shutting down the company, it is okay to admit that. However, keep it brief and objective. If your underperformance was one of the reasons, talk more about the steps you took to improve your performance and knowledge rather than the reasons for underperforming.
Sample: “I took this opportunity to self-reflect and upgrade (by taking a relevant course or going back to school to pursue Masters in [Subject].)”
- Make a list of the specifics you want to share with your future employer
- Put it in a petite but positive frame
- Do not lie – a smarter interviewer can catch the lies and it is always safer to not underestimate your interviewer.