You’ve been here before. You’ve successfully landed a role after nailing the job interview. You should be brimming with confidence, but instead you find yourself nervous, sweating, and worried that your potential new boss is going to ask you the dreaded question: “Why did you leave your last job?”
When you’re an unemployed job seeker, rejoining the workforce can feel like an impossible task, largely because answering the “why?” question can feel so impossible. You know you need to put a positive spin on your answer, but how do you turn a likely terrible situation with your previous employer or a gap on your resume into an account that reassures the hiring manager and keeps you in the running for the job?
Here’s how to spin the four most common reasons for leaving your previous job. If you tell your story right, the hiring manager won’t even flinch.
Situation 1: You were fired.
Obviously, this isn’t an ideal situation, but it happens for a number of reasons. The key is to be honest but brief with your answer. If you were fired because of a reduction in staff or due to restructuring in your department, don’t sweat! Anyone who has been working in the last 10 years fully understands this situation and likely will move on once you simply say, “Unfortunately my position was eliminated due to a change in our company’s strategy, which impacted my department.”
However, it gets a little hairy if you were let go because of poor performance. In this situation, remember that less is more. You should never play the blame game. Do not suggest that your previous employer didn’t train you properly or that your boss simply didn’t like you, even if it’s true. Instead, take ownership of the situation and show that you’ve grown from the experience. Try using this format for your answer: “I was let go from my previous position, and while it wasn’t ideal at the time, I’ve really learned from my mistakes. I've also taken the opportunity to evaluate my own strengths realize that I am better suited for [name of prospective position], because I’m talented at [name 1-2 key requirements of the position].”
Situation 2: You want more money.
Don’t we all! First, I should note, wanting more money is a valid reason to look for a new opportunity. Unfortunately, it’s often considered taboo to just come out and say that to a prospective employer.
If you aren’t ready to share that compensation is your primary motivation to explore new opportunities in a job interview, then you should be prepared to use some of the other reasons that are likely driving you to leave your current job: lack of opportunity or boredom in your current role, excessive hours that don’t seem to add up to your pay, not getting along with your boss, a desire for more growth opportunities and/or flexibility, and so on.
In any of these situations, it’s most important to focus on what you want out of your next position beyond a paycheck. Tailor an answer along the lines of, “I left my previous employer because my role didn't challenge me. Now I’m committed to finding a position where I can grow in my career. I’m particularly interested in working for [name of company] because of [something you appreciate about the company, e.g., their mission, new product, or competitive advantage].” Be specific and enthusiastic in your explanation to the interviewer of why you want to work for this company.
Situation 3: The company culture was toxic.
More than ever before, we’re aware of the prevalence and traumatic impact of workplace harassment. At the same time, not everyone is ready to share their full #MeToo story, especially while looking for a new job.
If you were in a situation where the company culture was toxic and/or you were being harassed, of course, your reasons for leaving make sense. But people are often afraid to mention this specific reason for leaving in interviews because they worry interviewers will see them as a potential HR headache (which, by the way, is ridiculous. We should feel supported in our workplace, and HR should be fighting workplace harassment, but that’s another article entirely!).
If you aren’t ready to share the details of your experience and why it led to you quitting your job, you are in no way obligated to do so. Instead keep your explanation short, positive, and forward-looking. Try this: “Over the last few months, I’ve realized that my values and career goals are no longer aligned with [previous employer]. I made the decision to leave because I wanted to make sure I was able to fully commit to the job hunt. Now I’m very excited to be talking to you about the opportunity at [name of company]. I know my expertise in [skill] would be a great asset for the [name of team].
Situation 4: Personal Reasons
Whether you left the workforce for a few years to raise your children, took time off to care for elderly parents, were sick yourself, or simply had to leave your job because your commute was ridiculous, the one thing you want to communicate to your prospective employer is that your situation has changed, and you are now in a position to commit. Most employers don’t want to hear about all the logistical challenges that ultimately led you to leave your previous job. If you do have a large gap on your resume, it’s smart to take some additional steps to prepare yourself to return to workforce. (Check out Five Steps You Should Take If You Are Trying To Return To The Workforce.)
Regardless of the length of time between your last job and the present, the main point is that you need to make is that you are ready and able to commit now. So when asked for your reason for leaving for your previous job, be prepared with an answer like: “I stepped away from the workforce for a couple of years while I cared for members of my family, but now that that help is no longer needed, I’m excited to renew my focus on my career. I’m particularly excited about this opportunity because [why you are qualified according to the job description].
Hopefully, by now you are starting to see a pattern. Remember that you don’t need to give any potential employer a list of reasons for quitting your job. When you do that, it ends up sounding like a bunch of excuses. Instead, focus what interests you about the prospective position.
The final step is to practice how you’ll actually give your answer. Your body language and ability to answer this question confidently will say more than your actual words. So, sit up straight, speak in a voice that’s steady and clear, and own it! When you are confident, the employer will see your value as a job seeker and potential employee. They won’t dwell on why you left your previous employer but instead will focus on what you will bring to their organization.
Mary Beth Ferrante is the owner and founder of Live.Work.Lead., an organization dedicated to supporting women in navigating their careers and personal lives. Prior to founding Live.Work.Lead. Mary Beth was an SVP of Business Strategy for a Fortune 100 company. Live.Work.Lead. offers Virtual "Mommy and Me" Classes designed for Working Professionals and Mary Beth hosts workshops and working moms groups in the L.A. area and is slated to speak next at General Assembly Los Angeles’ Women in Tech Breakfast on February 15, 2018.