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: You were fired.
1. “Unfortunately, my position was eliminated due to a change in our company’s strategy, which impacted my department.”
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.
2. “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].”
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.
3. "My position was eliminated due to redundancies."
Of course, if you were laid off, that's not the same thing as being fired — similar to #1. Your interviewer will likely understand if your getting let go was through no fault of your own. Still, it's best to avoid volunteering this information unless you're specifically asked because you don't want to seem desperate or get lowballed in the salary department should you get hired.
Situation: You want more money.
4. “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].”
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.
Situation: The company culture was toxic.
5. “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]."
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.
6. "Unfortunately, I faced a difficult situation at work. [Describe the situation.]"
Some job candidates may, of course, be willing to discuss the toxic culture in a previous job. If you're comfortable doing so, the hiring manager will likely understand and be sympathetic. And if they're not, you probably don't want to work there, anyway.
Situation: Personal reasons.
7. "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]."
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 the workforce. (Check out Five Steps You Should Take If You Are Trying To Return To The Workforce.)
8. "I was dealing with an illness that left me unable to work, but now I'm fully recovered and eager to take on new challenges. I've had time to reflect and know that this is the right course for me."
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.
Situation: You didn't like your last job.
9. "I'm searching for opportunities more closely aligned with my goals. Because of x, y and z, I think [employer] is the best place to achieve my objectives."
It's reasonable to simply have disliked your previous role. And while that's a perfectly valid reason for wanting to leave, you still need to focus on the positive, exploring why this role is likely to be different. After briefly noting — but not dwelling on — how the previous position wasn't quite the ideal situation for you, move on to how this one will be different.
10. "I'm ready to take on new challenges. I've been feeling too comfortable in my old role, and I think it's time to try something new that will allow me to exercise my creative muscles."
Similarly, this response implies that you weren't feeling challenged (and perhaps even found the work boring) without explicitly saying so. Focusing on how you want to be challenged is a more positive way of framing it, demonstrating that you're a hard worker who doesn't shy away from demanding work. This has the added bonus of showing the hiring manager what an invested employee you'll be.
Situation: You're changing industries.
11. "I've been in [industry #1] for several years now, and while I enjoy it, I think [industry #2] is more my speed because of x, y and z. I've done quite a bit of research and taken classes to bolster my skills and prepare for this pivot."
Lots of people change careers, so it's completely normal to offer this as a reason. This demonstrates that there's no ill will between you and your previous employer — you're simply looking for a change. Make sure to demonstrate that you're not a job hopper who's never satisfied by specifying the time frame, assuming it's one of a reasonable length, or explaining how this new career aligns with your previous one. Also, describe the effort you've put in to make the pivot, so the hiring manager knows you're not just doing it on a whim.
12. "I love being an x but have always dreamed of doing y. Given that people have come to see my in x role, I'm ready to make a fresh start and bring new ideas elsewhere."
In a similar scenario, you might be transitioning between two roles that exist with the same industry. This is harder to frame because you might be able to simply change departments. If the role isn't available at your current employer, be honest. Otherwise, try the above wording.
Situation: You were recruited.
13. "I truly enjoy my job and get along well with my team members. Over the past few years, I've had a lot of success building client relationships and doing [such-and-such]. But when I saw this opportunity, I just couldn't resist. I love your approach to x and y, and I would be so excited to be a part of the team."
You may actually enjoy your job and have only been passively looking elsewhere. This is a best-case scenario since you really don't dislike your former employer and might be happy to continue working there — you just saw a better opportunity that you couldn't pass up.
In this case, you should really emphasize what made the new job so appealing. The hiring manager won't want to think you can be easily swayed so you need to demonstrate that this job in particular was especially enticing, but you wouldn't give up your job for just anyone.
Situation: You don't like what your employer stands for.
14. "I'm very passionate about [the new employer's mission]. In fact, I participated in [related initiatives] in college and through volunteer work. That's why I'd really like to focus on it in my work."
Perhaps your current employer's values simply don't align with yours. If that's the case, focus on the values you do stand for: the ones your prospective employer shares.
15. "There have been some changes at my workplace lately, and they made me realize what's really important to me. X is a cause that's especially near and dear to me, and I'd rather focus on pursuing that."
You could be slightly more explicit than in #14, but don't completely trash your employer's values. Instead, briefly mention that you're not completely comfortable, but don't focus too much on it. Instead, discuss why you're looking for an alternative.
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.