Why you left your last job: what to say in an interview

We recently posted a blog looking at the most appropriate course of action when you start a new job but decide, almost immediately, that the role isn’t for you.

Now’s a good opportunity to tackle that inevitable but sometimes tricky point at the interview where you’re asked ‘Why did you leave your job?’ or “Why are you thinking of leaving?” Like all interview questions, it’s essential to prepare in advance and consider how you might answer. Prism’s website has some great information and suggests how you can answer some classic interview questions.

Why might you be asked this question?

As with all interview queries, the trick is to identify the purpose of the question being asked. Then you are better placed to give a considered, relevant response. By asking this particular question the interviewer is trying to establish whether you have (in their opinion!) good reasons for leaving your jobs because that will shed light on how long you might stay with your new role. If there is a hint you are bored easily, lack resilience or have expectations the company can’t meet or manage then you might not hang around. They are also seeking clues as to your motivations and what you are seeking in a new post.

This question, in particular, can be tricky to answer. The ‘why are you leaving’ question is best answered directly and honestly with a positive slant so that they can move on to the next one. Often the interviewer wants a brief answer by way of reassurance rather than detail. Only if they are not happy with your answer, or you have many recent job moves, will they dig deeper?

Whatever your reason for leaving, make sure you frame your reply with a positive perspective of how those reasons shape your drive and ambition to succeed in the role you are being interviewed for.

If you are NOT actively seeking a move, or perhaps have been headhunted for the role, the question presents a great opportunity to gently flatter with reference to the attractions of the role and employer….which after all is why you are at the interview!

Before addressing positive ways to respond, let’s identify ones to steer clear of:

  • Never bad-mouth or openly criticise your previous employer in an interview situation. However accurate or fair it is likely to be considered unprofessional. If you respond in this way to the “leaving” question, there is a risk the interviewer will question your integrity and it is unlikely you will be seen in a favourable light.
  • Avoid discussions about personality clashes with co-workers or your boss.
  • “I was fired”. If that is the simple truth try and consider ways of framing it better. However, don’t lie and you need to keep in mind background and reference checks.

Be careful with framing these reasons:

  • The role wasn’t as described at interview. This can be a good answer but there is a delicate balance to be struck between implying they were lying and suggesting you failed to do your due diligence.
  • The project came to an end. If you were recruited and accepted a job for one project that’s fine but it is essentially a contract on less money so you need to consider how to make it part of your career plan. There’s also a risk that it looks like they decided against offering you new projects or another job when that one finished.
  • I was made redundant/offered a package. Absolutely not the stigma it may have once been. However, ideally should be framed in positive terms as part of a natural career choice (see below) and/or you were offered other roles but they weren’t quite right. Also, it’s of course much better to be honest than be evasive. Vague answers like “I felt I needed a break” or “I wanted to concentrate on my job search” (and lose the security of a monthly salary cheque..!) when you were in fact simply made redundant, can raise concerns unnecessarily.
  • Too much travel or poor work-life balance. There is a risk you might appear work-shy or raise the query of whether you should have known what was required when you accepted the role. Clearly, if your circumstances or requirements of a role had changed that’s fine. If the demands of the job were indeed extreme, quantify these at interview. This might help persuade a potential employer that you are not afraid of hard work when needed.
  • A former boss contacted me: a great reference and endorsement providing it was a logical, good career move. If not, it can make you appear impulsive.
  • I felt underpaid. It might seem unfair that the advice is to tread carefully but the risk is it may appear your employers didn’t consider you were worth more, or that you’re motivated mainly by money. The interviewer will prefer that your main drivers are career orientated considerations.
  • For personal or health reasons. To add a note of caution here might seem unreasonable. However if one considers again the reason why the question is being asked such matters can raise the possibility that they might happen again. Or that you bring your personal life to work.
  • Not promoted raises the question as to how your employer rated you. It is best framed if possible in a context that doesn’t cast doubt on your performance. For example, poor company results meaning promotions are on hold. Or a very clear bottleneck above you. If there’s only one slot and a large number jostling for it that’s not so bad. Another acceptable reason is if one or more of your sponsors/backers/mentors leaves so you end up without anyone fighting your corner.

Entirely acceptable responses to the question might be along the lines of:

  • You had been at the company for a while and sought a new opportunity to advance your career and/or a new challenge.
  • Although you weren’t actively looking you were offered a bigger or more senior role with another company. You took the opportunity to take the next step up.
  • You were in a great role and employer but the next career steps were unclear or you’d reached a ceiling (why?).
  • You were hired for a particular role. Unfortunately over time priorities had changed and the role ended up being different or less challenging.
  • Following a takeover/merger/new CEO things had changed (fewer opportunities, the threat of redundancy, different culture or values, restructuring, you joined a small firm and found yourself in a large one etc).
  • I’m seeking an opportunity to do x. “x” of course should ideally be aligned with the role and the employer you are being interviewed for. For example “I’m looking for an opportunity to join a smaller and more entrepreneurial employer in a broader role”. Assuming, of course, that is how they would see themselves!

Essentially be mindful of how any interviewer may interpret your answers.

Prism has a number of articles on interviews and interview questions here which may help you in your preparation.

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