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.
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.
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.