HOW TO ANSWER – Why Did You Leave Your Last Job?
One of the most common interview questions is the “Why did you leave your last job?” Your interviewer wants to know about your work history, as it will help them understand what type of worker you are going to be.
By getting the answer right, you can put their mind at ease and help them see you as the perfect candidate for the job.
But how? This guide will help you answer this question. You will learn about:
- The reasons the question is asked
- How to make a distinction between leaving or having left, and talking about voluntary or involuntary reasons for leaving
- The three important elements to include to your answer
- The five things you have to avoid saying
- The good example answers for different situations
So, let’s get started!
WHY IS THIS QUESTION ASKED?
To understand the best approach for answering this question, you should first analyse why it’s asked in the first place. It’s helpful to understand just why interviewers ask questions because when you know their intentions, you can provide them with the most detailed and concise answer.
When you are asked about your last job, the interviewer is looking to understand two things:
- If you left voluntarily or not, and why this happened?
- How the reason for leaving reflects on your motivations and career path?
To put it in another way, your answer will be used in part as something to predict your future behaviour. If you left voluntarily, the interviewer wants to know why to ensure you wouldn’t do the same with them. They want someone loyal and hardworking, and so, your answer can show whether this is likely or not.
Of course, if you didn’t leave out of your own desire or decision, they want to know if you were fired and if so, why? Again, if you had to be fired for your conduct, for example, the interviewer might consider it as a red flag.
These two outlying points can also show the interviewer what your motivations and ambitions are in terms of your career. Do you just leave a job when you find a better one and therefore, show no loyalty? Are you just jumping from one opportunity to another without having a clear career path in mind? All of this is valuable information to the interviewer because it can highlight your future behaviour and decision-making.
In essence, this question about your reason for leaving your last job is essentially a question about your future actions. The interviewer wants to know the reason so the company can evaluate the risk of this happening again. They are looking for a long-term employer after all – hiring and training new employees is not cheap.
HAVE YOU ALREADY LEFT OR ARE YOU IN THE PROCESS OF LEAVING?
There are essentially two different branches to answering the question. When you are asked about the reason you left your last job, you might:
- Still be employed and in the process of leaving if you get this job.
- Be unemployed because you left your last job either voluntarily or not.
It’s important to use your answer as an opportunity to make this distinction. Now, let’s look at both options and the different ways of talking about them in more detail.
You are still employed but thinking about changing jobs
While the question is looking for the reason you left your last job and therefore, implying the interviewer wants you to talk about a job you’ve left, it’s not a bad option here to consider why you might be changing jobs.
If you are currently in a job, you are obviously looking to leave it for the role you’re interviewing.
It’s a good idea to talk why this might be. You will be, after all, leaving one job voluntarily to try obtain another one.
If you are in the process of considering this kind of transition from one job to another, it helps to start by thinking about the reasons you’re doing it. You want to consider this possible career change in terms of:
- What does it mean for your career? Are you moving upwards or downwards in the ladder or changing career paths altogether? Why?
- Why do you want the role you’re interviewing for? What is the motivation for getting the role?
These will help you in creating a good answer about why you are thinking about leaving your job voluntarily. It will help the interviewer understand your passion or rationale for applying.
Now, when it comes to giving an answer for looking to leave your job voluntarily, certain reasons stand out as the ‘good ones’. There are good explanations for looking to swap jobs just as there are ‘bad ones’.
|The GOOD reasons for leaving:
|The BAD reasons for leaving:
The good reasons all speak about either your ambition and drive to develop your career. They are professional reasons showcasing your desire for growth and personal development.
They might also be those personal reasons we all have to deal with. Your spouse might get a job and you want to relocate with them – all perfectly reasonable reasons to change jobs.
On the other hand, the bad reasons are just excuses and don’t present a very desirable image of you as an employee. You can read more about these sorts of avoidable issues later in the post.
You are currently unemployed
Of course, it can also be likely you have left your previous job and you are currently unemployed and looking for a new job. In this scenario, you can either have left the previous job voluntarily or against your wishes.
If you left voluntarily, it’s important to focus on the so-called good reasons mentioned above. You can use the same things – such as leaving to join a company with more growth opportunities – when talking about your voluntary leaving. Likewise, you want to avoid the bad reasons.
On the other hand, if you were fired, you should be open and honest about it. Now, if you were fired because the company had to lay off people due to financial difficulties, you can mention this.
This is not a bad reason and it’s not necessarily your fault at all. Your job might have even been a short-term contract and you weren’t necessarily fired or laid off, your project just got finished.
However, the tricky situation comes up when you’ve been fired for your conduct or performance related issues. How are you supposed to talk about this? Here’s a little chart on how to deal with the most common reasons you might be fired for: performance or personal conduct.
|Performance related firing
|Conduct related firing
|You should talk about the possible but neutral reasons for performance issues such as changes in what you were hired to do. For example, you had to start performing jobs that weren’t part of your job description.
|You should talk about neutral reasons for having problems in how well you and the team got along. For example, you can talk about not seeing eye-to-eye with the team because of different expectations and bad goal alignment.
|The key is to avoid negativity and bad-mouthing
|In either case, it’s important to talk about the new role. It’s easy to get desperate to get a job when you don’t have one. But you don’t want the interviewer to think that you’re just wanting a job, any job, because you are unemployed. You want to ensure you also mention why you applied for this role at this point in time and how you think it fits your skills and ambitions.
Furthermore, you want to address the length of your unemployment, especially if it’s long. It’s not a surprise to anyone to be without a job for a few weeks or months. But if you’ve been without a job for more than six months in a row, you do want to make a quick note about it here.
For example, the so-called good reasons to be without a job for a longer period are:
- Time spent studying or developing skills
- Taking time off to start a family
- Looking after a sick relative
- Taking time off to travel and figure your next career move
Of course, here it’s important to show that you’ve not just sat home but tried to improve your skill set. Things like travel, studies and volunteering are good to mention. You can read more about unemployment and job interviews here.
3 THINGS TO SHOW WITH YOUR ANSWER
It’s important to be direct with your answer and to keep it short. The answer to why you left your last job is not the most crucial so you don’t want to spend multiple minutes on it. You want to give your reason and move on.
Now, there are three important elements, around which, you should build your answer. The one to highlight can sometimes depend slightly on the reasons you left your previous job. The three elements are:
Ambition and drive
When you left voluntarily and, to some extent, even when you left the job involuntarily, you want to talk about your ambition and drive to succeed professionally.
Employers want workers who take their careers seriously and who are working toward professional fulfilment. The truth is that sometimes this means moving from one job to another.
Therefore, it’s fine to talk about how you’re leaving a role to fulfil your ambition and dreams. You can highlight with your answer that this is the right career move for you to make right now.
Appreciation for past job
Again, in both cases, you should always highlight your appreciation for the previous role. Even though you might be leaving it for a better role elsewhere, it doesn’t mean you should hate on the role. In fact, you should point out the value of the job and the lessons you learnt in that role.
No matter how difficult your reason for leaving might be, the job did teach you skills for the future – even if you find it hard to see that right now.
Appreciating the opportunities you’ve had show you care and you value your ability to work in the first place. It shows the interviewer you’re not just mindlessly hopping from one job to another or hating on employers you don’t like.
Furthermore, this allows you to highlight a skill and value you might need in the role you’re interviewing for. For example, you might say your previous job taught you a lot about customer service but you now want a role that puts those skills to use in a more challenging way.
Skills and work ethic
Indeed, as eluded above, you should include an element of skills and work ethic to your answer. This is especially important if you were fired or laid off.
You want to move your answer from stating the reason to the lessons learned. So, you’d say that you were let go but that the experience taught you many good, valuable skills you can use in the new role.
It’s also a good idea to highlight your understanding of the markets in situations like this. You can show your professionalism and work ethic by stating you understand the previous employer’s difficult task of finding people to let go in a turbulent financial atmosphere, for example.
You want to highlight your awareness and the fact that each job is a valuable learning experience and sometimes the good option is to part ways.
5 THINGS YOU DEFINITELY DON’T WANT TO SAY
The above has helped you prepare for this question by focusing on the things you should mention with your answer. You have the tools to frame your answer right.
But it’s also important not to mess this answer by saying the wrong things. There are a few things you do not want to say when replying to this question.
These would simply make your answer give the wrong impression and create more doubt about your employability.
When answering the question, you have to avoid:
Badmouthing your previous employer
Of course, work relationships don’t always go well and you might end up losing your job in a really bad way. Your boss might have been a monster – not everyone is nice in this world.
However, you do not want to talk ill of your previous employer even if you have the moral high ground to do so. Whatever the situation was, this job interview is not the time to start airing dirty laundry.
Making it about money
Job interviews are not the time and place to talk about money. Just as you want to avoid talking about your salary during the job interview (the time is only ripe for this when you have an offer!), you also shouldn’t say you left a job for money.
Everyone knows no one wants to work for free but your employer also doesn’t want to employ people who are only motivated by the paycheque.
Lying about the reason
Under no circumstance should you openly lie about the reason. The employer can find out.
In many instances, they will check your references and they might contact your previous employers. They will know whether you were fired or if you just left on your own.
This doesn’t mean you have, or should, say everything but omitting things isn’t really lying in this instance. The main thing is that you have to be honest about the big point: did you leave voluntarily or not.
Being vague about your career aspirations
You can’t interview for a job and make it sound like you’re just trying new things. This is a job interview and you have to be passionate about the job.
Sure, you might be soul searching but you shouldn’t say this. As mentioned just above, you don’t have to tell everything. You can simply say you left because the previous position didn’t allow you to let your creative side show, which is why you’re excited about this opportunity.
Always make each answer sound like you want this job and this job in particular because you are the right candidate.
Blaming the circumstances
Just as you shouldn’t be badmouthing the previous employer, you also don’t want to blame to circumstances. The economy might be bad and the regulations might have forced your previous employer to lay off people. But this isn’t about pity and you can’t make it just about your victimhood.
Don’t be negative but focus on the opportunity ahead of you and how you think – once again – that you are the right candidate for this exciting opportunity.
10 EXAMPLE ANSWERS & WHY THEY ARE GOOD
You know have the tools to start building a proper answer. You know how to best deal with your current situation and the reasons for leaving your last job that are good. You also know how to avoid saying the wrong things.
To bring it all together, here are 10 example answers to draw inspiration from. Remember these are to help you with your own answer and not to be copied word-for-word.
Each answer reflects a slightly different reason to ensure you can find something relatable to your current situation.
“I have/had been working with the organisation for a decade and felt that it’s time for a new challenge.”
This example is short and makes the good point of you looking forward to developing and advancing your career. It also shows your loyalty and work ethic, as it highlights how long you did say in the previous company – so you’re not just job-hopping.
“I have loved working in my current company but my passion has always been in fashion. I saw this opportunity to use my communication skills and in the field I’m passionate about and I want to take it – I feel it’s time for a change.”
This example is good when you are changing from one industry to another. It also highlights those transferable skills you can use and makes the point of you looking forward to developing your skills.
“My company made a lot of organisational changes in the last year, brought in new management and I felt this is a good time for me to look for something refreshing as well.”
Change is not bad and we all need it – this example doesn’t point the blame but still shows honestly that the previous organisation didn’t feel like the right fit any longer. You are honest but not going into too much detail about what might have happened.
“I was hired for a certain role but over the years I feel my responsibilities have changed. I feel my skills are not necessarily in best use and I feel it’s time to find a position that fits my skills better, like this one.”
Jobs do change and it’s no shame to mention it. This example answer is honest and shows your professional and personal understanding – you want a role that uses your skills for the best.
“I wanted to take in new responsibilities and advance in my career and my previous job didn’t offer enough opportunities for this.”
Again, you are highlighting your ambition and desire to grow your career. Just make sure you use an example like this when the position you’re interviewing for is a step-up. You can’t legitimately say you’re looking to advance your career if you go from a big managerial role to a junior role.
“My spouse is getting transferred in the city and while I’m sad to leave a job I love, I’m excited for the new opportunities and challenges a new role will bring.”
If you are moving due to family reasons, you should be open about it. Just make sure, like in the above example, to mention how much you like the new challenge and you’re excited about working for the new company – you don’t want to make it sound like this is just due to circumstances and any job would do.
“I had to quit my last job for family issues. Those have now been resolved and I’m looking forward to starting to work again.”
Again, if family or personal issues forced you out, just keep it short and simple. You don’t have to talk about the issue in detail. Remember to showcase your enthusiasm for the new life and career ahead!
“The economic downturn had a big impact in the shoe industry and the company had to lay off a lot of people. We agreed with management that I should look for other opportunities.”
Be open and honest without blaming anyone. You can also show the higher ground by saying how you all worked it out together and you, perhaps, left voluntarily.
“The management and I had problems communicating and they chose to let me go. I feel that was probably for the best, as my skills weren’t the perfect fit for the role.”
You were fired and you can be open about it. This happens and the example above shows how you can talk about it without sounding bitter or negative. You don’t go into too much detail but you also don’t make it sound like you’re hiding something.
“I was hired for a project and after we successfully completed it, the company didn’t have any more need of my skills at that time. This project taught me a lot of skills I want to now put to use in a more permanent position.”
If you had a part-time contract, then it’s a good idea to talk about it. You should, however, highlight your desire to get a permanent position – especially if the role you’re interviewing for is one.
Answering the question “Why did you leave your last job” can seem rather daunting. It’s also a question many get wrong because they don’t talk honestly and directly about the reason. But the answer should be about the real reason without the need to get into the detail.
As the above examples have shown, you can be open without giving a lecture or injecting negativity to your answer.
You have to understand interviewers will have the opportunity to find out what your work history has been. They also understand people want change and new opportunities.
In fact, your ability to show passion and ambition to your new role will be a good way to answer this question.
So, take the above tips on board and impress your interviewer by nailing this common job interview question in style!
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