“Why are you looking for a new position?” and its cousins, “Why are you leaving your current job” and “How did you come to find out about this opening?” are my most dreaded interview questions, even worse than, “Tell me about yourself.” Interviewers ask this question to better understand the nuances of your deal-breakers, to ensure this job will work for you and to fill in the gaps of your resume, but, even knowing this, it can still feel like a stressful and leading extended-family dinner question. So, to give FGB readers the best information possible so you’re ready to nail this stressful question, I’ve consulted a professional: an HR hiring manager.
If you're like me, it may feel like the question, “Why are you looking for a new position?” is implying leaving a job is a bad thing and you should reveal and defend your traitor behavior. But it’s not, and if you are prepared, you'll turn this question to your advantage. According to my kind and knowledgeable HR hiring manager informant, the easiest way to do this, while answering the question honestly and without giving too much personal information, is to follow the format:
“I left (am leaving, am considering leaving, etc) to pursue experience in/with ‘X’.”
That's it. Fill in “X” with something you care about but specifically something that the organization you are interviewing with prides itself in and the group you currently work for lacks. Show, more than tell, that while you're a valuable member of your current team and sad to leave, you would fit in even better at the organization you are interviewing with. I was given the beautiful example: “My passion is walking corgis, and while my current position does offer wonderful walks with a variety of pups, I rarely get the opportunity to develop my corgi-walking expertise,” when you know the group you are interviewing with has a lot of corgis that need walking.
Former = insert name of the former employer.
“The primary reason I am looking for a new position is that I relocated and Former doesn’t have an office here. It’s sad: I had wonderful relationships there and had helped scale-up several of our interventions 12-fold in the last three years. Ultimately though, my long-term goal is to gain experience in database management, which Former doesn’t deal with. I want to establish community-centric tools that cut out middle-men researchers, and I wasn’t going to gain the necessary experience for that at Former. So, sad as I am to leave, I am ultimately excited about the possibilities.”
This answer is honest about relocation, but the interviewee doesn’t stop there. Instead, they use the opportunity to explain how well they fit in at their former position, an accomplishment they had there, information on their goals (which should align with or expand on the interviewing company’s) and their excitement.
“When I joined Former Marketing, I was a copyediting intern, but I learned so much so quickly that I was moved to associate editor in six months. I really enjoy interacting with the clients there and working together to create the perfect finished product. I love the people and the editing part of my job, but, after a number of years in the industry, I now know that I would prefer to work on political content rather than marketing material, so sad as it is, I am moving on.”
Relocation is easy to see on your resume, and not mentioning it would probably lead to follow up questions. Conversely, not getting paid enough is not necessary to bring up. Focus on experience: impressing the interviewer with your skills is more likely to translate into a higher offer than complaining about your current pay.
“Former allowed me the freedom to implement different accounting systems, learn best practices, attend trainings and weigh the pros and cons of different software. In this process, however, I discovered that I solve problems best as part of a team, and since I was the only accountant at Former, I rarely had the opportunity to build and grow as part of a diverse and innovative accounting team.”
It is okay to admit if you work better in a team or individually. Employers mostly want people who can do both, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a preference, especially if the employer leans that way as well. Playing on this distinction is also an easy (and non-controversial) route to go if you are leaving due to a toxic work environment.
“Former was a great place to work right out of college because I got to code to my heart’s content. But Former is a commercial business and I have long known that I want to work in ethical hacking. I am so lucky to have worked at Former and plan to remain connected with that community, but I am excited about the possibility of gaining experience in my desired field.”
If you’re in the wrong field the how-to template above is easy. This interviewee uses it while being clear how appreciative they are for their former employer. You don’t want it to come across that it is your former job’s fault that you are interested in a different field or that you are abandoning them without a second glance.
You want to squeeze in your skills and achievements wherever you can; the goal is to impress the interviewer. But you don’t want to sound too good to be true or too egotistical — you want the interviewer to like you. “Why are you leaving?” is an easy place to be identifiable without overdoing it. If you give too much information you'll come across as too familiar with the interviewer, but if you personalize the how-to template above, you'll be identifiable while maintaining formality.
Choose one thing about the interviewing organization — their emphasis on teamwork, their abundance of corgis and son on — and focus on that. Be careful though not to use extreme words like “passion,” “dream” or “number one priority” unless it's true. Otherwise, you may use the same language later when talking about something completely different and come across as disingenuous.
The how-to template above is incredibly simple. But you should still practice. Stay positive. Be specific about why you want to work for that particular company or organization and always speak to the job at hand. Do your homework about the place. Getting nervous in an interview is a common recipe for oversharing, which is dangerous for this question since you are probably leaving for nuanced reasons that won't necessarily come across right in a nervous sputter to someone who doesn't know you.
They were, you’re probably right, but complaining about former employers is for your support system, those who care about you and can respond appropriately. It is not for an interview, a cover letter or for anyone who doesn’t know you. They won't give you proper validation, and you might come across as whiney. Interviewers want to be excited, not to be bummed out by your negativity right out of the gate.
This is a nothing-answer and should be avoided. You have a limited time to convince your interviewer you are the best fit, so letting them guess the worst for why you’re leaving your current position is not only dangerous, but it also completely misses a wonderful opportunity to show your interviewer that you think about life choices deeply, you valued your past experience and, most of all, you are excited to move forward.
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