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HOW TO ANSWER: Why Did You Leave Your Last Job?

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I can guarantee you that this question will come up in your next job interview — and it is likely to come up more than once.

Unless you’ve never worked a day in your life (in which case, you should be focusing on other job interview challenges), you’ll need to be able to talk about why you left your last job and/or why you want to leave your current position.

Sometimes the answer is obvious and easy — you left your internship because it was a summer internship and summer ended. Other situations will require more explanation. For example, why did you leave that one position after only two months?

Variations on this question include:

  • Why are you looking for a new position now?  This is for employed candidates considering a job change.
  • Why did you leave your most recent position?  This is for candidates who are not currently employed but have past experience. Maybe you quit your last position or were laid off. Maybe you’re a new grad who is making the transition from internship or part-time work to a “real” career-track job.
  • Why did you leave Position X?  Interviewers will be most interested in your current or most recent position. However, you should also be prepared to discuss all of your previous job transitions, especially if you left after a short tenure or have a resume gap.

Why Do Interviewers Ask This Question?

Your reasons for leaving a job are always relevant for a potential employer. Here are some things your interviewer is likely looking for:

  • Did you leave for a good reason? — If you left on a whim or for an odd reason (perhaps you suspected your boss was a space alien plotting your death), the interviewer will wonder if they can trust you to be responsible, loyal, and reasonable.
  • Did you leave voluntarily? — If you were let go, your interviewer will want to try to determine if it was because of performance or integrity issues.
  • Did you leave on good terms? –If you can state that you are still in touch with your previous manager (even better, he is one of your references), that will go a long way in demonstrating that you were a good employee and have good relationship skills.
  • What are your work values? — Your reasons for leaving a position can say a lot about you. Did you leave for positive reasons or because you felt slighted or unappreciated? Sometimes it makes sense to leave a job if you’re not appreciated, but be aware that this reason should be expressed skillfully so you don’t appear to be a diva.

How to Answer: Why Did You Leave Your Last Job?

Let’s look at how to handle this question in its three most common forms:

1) Why are you looking for a new opportunity now?

This is for candidates who are currently employed. If you’ve got a job, why do you want to leave it?

Annoyingly enough, you’ll usually fare better in the job search if you already have a job. However, your potential employers will ALWAYS want to know why you’re thinking about bailing on your current gig.

There are many good reasons to leave a position — some that should be discussed in a job interview and some that absolutely should not.

The general rule here is that you should always be leaving to move toward a better opportunity. You should never position it as fleeing from a bad opportunity.

Your interviewer wants to feel like her company is wooing you away from your current employer. The ideal answer from their perspective: You are only thinking about leaving because this new opportunity (and the company offering it) is just SO awesome. Maybe you weren’t even looking. Maybe you’re content in your current role, but just could not resist this interview because the position is your dream job.

Obviously, you want to avoid laying this on too thick and seeming insincere. You should never lie in a job interview. However, you should highlight the positive reasons for considering a new position and avoid talking about any negative ones if you can.

In some situations, it will be necessary to talk about negative reasons. Perhaps your company is eliminating your department. Maybe the firm has been acquired by a competitor and massive layoffs are rumored.

Even in situations like these, it’s a good idea to emphasize the positive and what you like about the open position. You may want to address the negative situation briefly or you may want to avoid getting into the dirty details. It depends on the situation.

Sample Answer 1:

“I have been at my company for three years now and have learned a lot from working with some amazing salespeople.  I worked my way up to regional sales manager 18 months ago and my region has beat our sales projections by at least 25% each quarter since. However, I am starting to feel like I need some new challenges. This position really appeals to me because it would allow me to manage a bigger team and sell more innovative products.”

Why We Like It:

First, this candidate reminds the interviewer that he has had a respectable tenure at his firm and has been promoted. He talks about his success in the role (it’s always good to look for opportunities to discuss your accomplishments). Next, he shares a positive reason for wanting to leave — he wants to take on new challenges, he wants to stretch himself. He follows that up by talking about how the position at hand would be an exciting challenge for him.

Some candidates get this answer halfway right — they say that they are looking for new challenges and leave it at that. Without some detail around how you have conquered past challenges and why the new job would present exciting new ones, you can come across as too general and unconvincing.

Sample Answer 2:

I have loved my time at Acme Financial and am really proud of the successful marketing campaigns that I have conceived and managed. However, I think the time has come for a change. We are going through some management changes right now and a lot of projects are on hold.

I have been thinking for a while that I’d like to work for a bigger company with more opportunities for growth. This position seems like a great fit because of my successful background in online marketing and my experience running a team.

Why We Like It:

Again, the candidate starts by acknowledging positive aspects about her current position and organization. She briefly addresses her company’s internal turmoil in very diplomatic terms, but puts the emphasis on her interest in the open position and her qualifications.

Sample Answer 3: Video

2) Why did you leave your most recent position?

If you are not currently employed, your answer to this question is even more important. It’s unfair, but many employers make assumptions about unemployed candidates. If you’re so great, why hasn’t somebody else snapped you up yet?

Again, I believe this is unfair bias. In the current economic environment, fantastic employees lose their jobs and it can take time to line up a new one. There is more competition for every opportunity.

However, it’s good to be aware that this bias exists when addressing the question of why you are available.  And if you have been between jobs for a long period of time,you should be prepared to describe the proactive steps you have been taking to improve your skills — training, volunteer work or consulting projects.

The subject of why you’re leaving is a bit trickier in this case because you probably don’t have the luxury of keeping your answer 100% positive. If you left and didn’t leave for another opportunity, there was obviously an issue of some kind.

Maybe it was your issue or maybe it was the company’s issue. Either way, you have to be able to explain why it was a reasonable separation and why you are a fantastic and very attractive candidate.

Resist the temptation to trash talk your previous employer. Even if the company was totally dysfunctional, you should avoid sounding too negative.

What If You Were Laid Off?

If you were laid off for reasons unrelated to performance, just make that clear and be sure to emphasize your accomplishments on the job. Many amazing and brilliant people have survived a layoff (or even two or three).

Most interviewers won’t judge you negatively for being downsized — especially if you weren’t the only one affected. Just keep your explanation concise and skip any ugly details. Keep in mind that your interviewer will probably be on the lookout for red flags — that is, any information that makes you look unprofessional, unmotivated, or dishonest.

Sample Answer 4:

Unfortunately, the company’s biggest client went out of business at the beginning of the year and that had a major effect on revenues.

As a result, they had to eliminate some positions and I was among the five most recently hired in our department. I am proud of the work that I did there, I got stellar performance reviews, and my former manager is one of my strongest references.

Why We Like It: This answer makes it clear that the candidate lost his job for reasons beyond his control. He explains that it was a matter of seniority and not performance. He also makes it clear that he can provide a glowing reference from the job to back up his claim. Reasons are provided, but the answer is still concise. Too much detail will just start to sound defensive or confusing.

What If You Were Fired?

If you were fired for performance reasons, you should mention any extenuating circumstances, but avoid putting all of the blame on others. For example, if the job requirements or expectations changed after you were hired, make that clear. Sometimes, expectations change as a result of new management, budget cuts, or a shift in strategy.

If you were fired for any reason, you should make a point of  highlighting lessons learned from the experience. The goal here is to assure the interviewer that it was an isolated incident and that you would not be a risky hire. (For more read: How to Explain Being Fired)

Sample Answer 5:

After some management changes, it became clear that the new department director had new expectations for the role that didn’t really mesh with my strengths. Ultimately, she decided to bring in someone from her previous organization who had more sales experience.

The experience taught me that my real talent is in customer service  and I know I would be a major asset in a role like this one, which focuses on improving the customer experience. Would you like me to tell you more about my experience in that area?

Why We Like It: The answer is concise and the language is neutral. The situation is described without negativity or defensiveness. The candidate then cites a lesson learned and redirects attention to her strengths.

Preparation Is Key

If you were laid off or fired, it’s natural to feel awkward talking about these issues in a job interview. That’s why it’s critical to prepare and practice in advance. Otherwise, you can easily come across as defensive and shifty even if you have nothing to hide or be embarrassed about. Practice, practice, and practice some more (use Big Interview to practice and to record yourself and evaluate your style).

3) Why Did You Leave Position X?

Remember that your interviewer is going to be interested in ALL of the career transitions on your resume. Again, your reasons for leaving a job can say a lot about you and your fit for the new position.

As you walk your interviewer through your resume, be prepared to address your reason for leaving each position. Follow the advice above in terms of how to answer.

If you left a job voluntarily, follow the guidance provided in explaining why you want to leave a current position. You should emphasize the positive reasons that prompted you to leave — seeking new challenges, pursuing new experiences, pursuing a dream job, taking on new responsibilities.

If you were laid off or fired from a previous job, follow the advice in the section above. If you have performed well in positions since the layoff or termination, the details won’t be as  important to the interviewer. In fact, the more evidence of accomplishments and positive performance, the easier it is to counter any concerns about a termination.

For positions that you held in the distant past, you can provide fewer details. The interviewer will always be most interested in your most recent work history. However, you should always be prepared to talk about any position listed on your resume — especially those that were short tenures (less than a year), came before gaps in your resume (indicating that you left suddenly or were let go), or both.

For more advice on handling these scenarios:

Main Photo Credit: Stuck in Customs

Written by

Pamela Skillings

Pamela Skillings is co-founder of Big Interview. As an interview coach, she has helped her clients land dream jobs at companies including Google, Microsoft, Goldman Sachs, and JP Morgan Chase. She also has more than 15 years of experience training and advising managers at organizations from American Express to the City of New York. She is an adjunct professor at New York University and an instructor at the American Management Association.

39 Comment to HOW TO ANSWER: Why Did You Leave Your Last Job?

  • DRB

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. You just summed up my situation perfectly. I had been with my company for 18 years, happy as a clam, and fully expecting to retire from it. 2 years ago we got a new CEO, courtesy of a proxy fight spearheaded by a NYC hedge fund manager. They immediately started kicking people out the door to reduce headcount (I’m talking thousands). Their work was simply piled on those who were left. For those protected by any kind of union, they simply disguised harassment as “proficiency test” failures, and suspended them without pay for months, or just outright fired them. The infractions were so minor and inconsequential that the company lost every single arbitration case. After 20 years, just one week ago, I quit a very well-paying job that I loved and was very good at. Worth noting: the company managed to find the new CEO $50M to pay out his non-compete clause with his former company (who actually kicked him out), plus another $50M in his first year in salary and stock options.

  • Tiamaria

    Just say you moved to the USA. Simple.

  • Tiamaria

    Same here , after leaving my last job because of all sorts of misdeeds from new Mgr. Including tampering with the computer system, I decided to leave. Being honest has not landed me a job, so I am I the unfortunate position of having to ‘fudge it’ by saying I was laid off or downsized ( the only acceptable answer these days. ) God forbid we leave a bad job. God forbid we even imply there IS such a thing . A recruiter actually advised me to do this. Unfortunately its better than being homeless. Since when did we come into a world that does not recognize that MOST companies are not good? I left a HUGE tech company ( a prior job ) that was HORRIBLE to their employees. I’ve actually seen people being hauled out on stretchers. Young kids with strokes, heart attacks etc. They actually wanted to install an in-house 911 center. Really. I endured it for 12 years due to the excellent pay. So trust me when I say I have a high constitution, but outright illegal activity I will NOT tolerate because eventually it all falls back on YOU. I actually got a call from an investigation firm looking for information on them. They are even willing to pay me a large sum of money for the phone call. I declined. And IM the ‘Bad Guy’: It’s too bad we have to make these companies look good. We live in a very naïve world today.

  • Lillith

    In my case, my employer fired me because I asked her for a raise and then she found out that I was looking for another job. I had been there for a year without a raise or vacation. I had also taken on double the work load as when I was initially hired because another employee quit. She used an excuse that she wasn’t happy with the way I was inputting data into our system despite that I had been doing in the same way for a year. I have a job interview tomorrow. How do I handle this when asked why I left the job?

  • kratika kalra

    I am stuck in exactly the same situation. what did you say to convince future employer.

  • Janny

    Mr. El Ray, thank you so much for your comment in this topic. It seems to be harder and harder to get a good job now a days, specially if you try to be as honest as possible in your interview, like if the interviewers don’t want to hear it. I left my last job, because I relocated to a farther area from the office, asside of the fact, that we had a president from the board that use to bullie the employees to the point, that if he broke any Rules or Rgulations they had set up in the organization, nobody could’ve tell him anything. He had anger management problems, and was bipolar, do you think I could ever tell that to an interviewer?? Never! Even if I was a very dedicated employee, that worked for this organization for more than 9 years, and always contributed in the best way to the organization. I stayed 3-4 years after this guy came to the Board, because I was in the confort zone, but once I moved, there was not motivation for me to stay, specially, after knowing that my GM was also leaving for the same exact reason. I agree with you on the fact that when the interviewers don’t want to hear the valid reason for the transition, is because they represent the same kind of employer. It’s so unfortunate that you have to lie to get a decent job. I try to be as honest as possible on my interviews, if I don’t get the job that I’m well qualified, is because they didn’t like my honesty, and I keep going, but is really hard.

  • bob

    I have been on a job now 5 years in a law firm. The firm is basically a good firm to work for. My office has a few people that I just don’t like looking at. My work is the foreclosure banking. I’m burnt out. Not learning anything new or exciting. Not challenging. anyway I plan on January 2017 to take off and travel. When I return I will interview for new positions. My question when asked about “why I left my last job” can I just say “Because I wanted to?” So many employers think that you should work work until you drop and then kiss their “behind” for giving you a two week vacation. I’m not that person. I’m going to tell it like it is. Any suggestions?

  • eve carolyn ramos

    I am having a hard time how to answer in an interview..
    Like this question…why didnt you finish your contract?. Should i honestly tell the truth that i got pregnant while i was working there?
    Pls help.

  • Tina Perko

    SO TRUE! I am looking for a new job for more than a year now!! I had a few interviews and on every one we spoke only why i left my previous job and almost nothing about my skills and excellent work i have done in 10 years at my last employer. It is almost as they are trying to find something bad even if it doesn’t exist. I am always in the last circle with one or two other candidates and i never get a job. It seems like no one can except the fact that a person actually wants to grow and try something new in life. It is really pathetic and i am sick and tired of all narrow minded people judging others for their decisions and make them feel as irresponsible and dumb. That said i still strongly believe i will find an employer who will recognize my ability to act and not just feeling sorry for myself in a place i have outgrow, as most people do. Probably like most people which were interviewing me. Otherwise they would understand.

  • TinTin

    SO TRUE! I am looking for a new job for more than a year now!! I had a few interviews and on every one we spoke only why i left my previous job and almost nothing about my skills and excellent work i have done in 10 years at my last employer. It is almost as they are trying to find something bad even if it doesn’t exist. I am always in the last circle with one or two other candidates and i never get a job. It seems like no one can except the fact that a person actually wants to grow and try something new in life. It is really pathetic and i am sick and tired of all narrow minded people judging others for their decisions and make them feel irresponsible and dumb. That said i still strongly believe i will find an employer who will recognize my ability to act and not just feeling sorry for myself in a place i have outgrow, like most people do. Probably like most people which were interviewing me. Otherwise they would understand.

  • Alyssa Harolds

    Pamela, there are a few points that I do not agree. What if a former employee was taken advantages by a former boss? After a former boss took advantages of you and did many unethical things and used to get a good connection with your family members and let you go for no reason, what will you do? Then you figured out that your former boss told lies and damaged your reputation, what will you answer if the potential employers ask why you left the last job? OK, you will not bad mouth your former boss, what if your former boss bad mouths you everywhere? Today, 80% bosses took advantages of employees. Then bosses let employees go and hate former employees personally. I had a friend in this situation. My friend was a nun from 3 years old to 18 years old. After the bad issue, she is deciding to become a nun again even though she is very talented and perfect. Today I do not like potential employers because they only listen to the former bosses in the mean while they are third persons who are not in the story or do not know the true story behind. Therefore many doctors and scientists are becoming monks and nuns.

  • Labor and Delivery Nurse

    Dear Pamela,

    I attempted this post earlier this evening. Please forgive if duplicate. I need advice. I left a job of sixteen years after an unusual incident at my former hospital. I was rushing down a hallway to respond to an emergency, I tripped over someone’s “unusually high” foot and went flying. I sustained serious injury to my arm and a not so serious injury to my knee. I was followed by a Workmans Comp Doc Who basically sent me back to the trenches regardless of severe pain and an inability to move my arm. I was given physical therapy after work to help move. Now, I was working on a very heavy very intense and fast paced unit. If I moved my arm in a wrong way, I was in tears. I begged for a week off to rest the arm by doctor which he refused. I I was told that I was not allowed to seek advice from any other doctor. I went to manager and she stated there was nothing she could do. I became anxious and depressed and sought help. I was advised to leave job. I gave notice, but I verbalized my dissatisfaction at how my situation was hAndled and also added that I didn’t appreciate that no sort of questioning to the person whose foot was high ….. who by the way, worked me e trap hard knowing I was in crazy pain – was done. In a recent interview, I tried to be politically correct describing that I had a unique situation that I felt could have been handled differently. The person probed. I said that I didn’t appreciate that I was not given a much needed week off to alleviate intest pain. Well. My interview came to a dead halt. I was shown the door. Recommendations please. I have two interviews next week. Once in similiar field.

  • Labor and Delivery Nurse

    How long does it take to receive a response?

  • Loading.

    Janny did you ever land a job?