How do I answer the question: “why did you leave your last job?”

How do I answer the question: “why did you leave your last job?”

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by Ed Weirauch, Career Transition Coach

Job interviews can be one of life’s most stressful situations. And fearing the question, “why did you leave your last job?” can be a top source of stress for you.

But today, the answer to this question carries less weight than it did prior to the 2008 economic recession when lay-offs became especially common. And compared to the weight this issue carried ten or 15 years ago, it’s almost a non-issue. In the “old days,” people stayed at jobs for years, so why would you leave?

Our first message then is to breathe a sigh of relief. Yes, you may be asked this question but your answer, especially a prepared, brief response will likely fall pretty far down on the interviewer’s list of important points.

Honesty & Brevity
When your job change was due to a workplace development such as a merger, downsizing, restructuring, realignment or closing, your answer should be easy and to the point.

  • My company merged with another. 
  • Profits were below expectations so there was a downsizing. 
  • Leadership took a new approach so there was a restructuring. 
  • The company closed.

In general, this is all you’ll need to say, brief, to the point, no hard feelings or indication of guilt, just very objective. Don’t be tempted to fill any silent gap. If the interviewer is looking for more, make him/her ask for it rather than volunteering information. And if you are asked for more, continue to be very brief and general.

Less is More

Those are easy situations to explain. Increasingly common today are job changes based on more subtle circumstances that can often lead to a feeling of “you had to be there” to understand. Our first advice piece of advice is a don’t: Don’t even try to explain or tell your story. You may end up digging a hole or going in a direction that reflects poorly on you and/or raises more questions than answers.

Instead, invest time to think about the bottom line of your situation and develop a one sentence answer that best summarizes your move. Here are some examples:

  • I saw the direction the company was going and didn’t see myself as fitting. 
  • My job description changed drastically which would move me away from what I do best. 
  • I want to move in a different direction in my career. 
  • I wasn’t being challenged which is something I miss. 
  • I feel that I accomplished/contributed everything I could and its time for something new. 
  • I want to feel excited about going into work again. 
  • Advancement opportunities are limited, I want to see what else is out there.

Advancing the Conversation
Of course answers like this are far better than lying, pointing the finger at somebody else, revealing a weakness or expressing sour grapes. And, they help move the conversation in a more positive direction, potentially opening the door for you to answer a follow-up question:

  • What do you do best? 
  • In what direction are you going? 
  • When do you feel challenged? 
  • What can you contribute?

Be ready to answer these questions even if you aren’t asked them. So think of this as a two-part question. IF you’re asked, why did you leave your last job, be ready with an objective answer and then be prepared to elaborate:

  • “I didn’t feel challenged after exceeding my sales goals so I’m looking for something new…” 
  • “My work had become routine and I’m looking to be challenged…” 
  • “My job description moved away from what makes me tick so I’m looking to get back to that…”

And Here’s One More “Don’t”  

Never answer the question by talking money. So these are not options: 
  • “The pay just wasn’t there.”
  • “Nobody got a bonus this year.”
  • “My kids are headed for college, I need to make more money.”  

These may be true for you, but the potential employer is most concerned with what you can do for him/her and the new company. So that’s where your focus must be.

So Here’s Your Strategy
If I’m asked ‘why did you leave your last job…’ answer a little about me and a lot about what I can do for them.”

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