Today’s career paths are much more nonlinear than they were years ago. There’s a high chance you won’t stay with the same organization throughout your entire career. Even if you like your job, outside circumstances may change things, including layoffs, the need to relocate, or something unexpected like the pandemic.
Hopefully, you can leave the organization on good terms and have a valuable reference down the road. Whether on good terms or bad, you’ll need to be prepared for interviewers to ask, “Why did you leave your last job?”
Why do employers ask this? According to Job Search Strategist Hannah Morgan, it’s because future employers genuinely want to know, and they learn a lot about you based on your response.
Make sure not to alienate yourself with your new employer with a bad answer on why you left your previous one. Take time to prepare, and embrace these philosophies before you answer why you left your last job.
“Asking you why you left your last job helps the employer understand you – your motivation, how you handle challenging situations, and your goals. They are looking for any red flags that may eliminate you such as reoccurring issues with bosses.” -Hannah Morgan
The first unmistakable tip is to be as honest as you can with the interviewer. You might not have left your last organization on the best terms, and it happens. But it’s easy for employers to find out the truth. The new organization may contact your old one, and you don’t want to put your references in an awkward position by lying to them and forcing them to perpetuate your lie. If you lie, it will come back to bite, and you’ll look even worse.
“If you have to spill the beans, be sure to stay unemotional, calm, and even-toned in your responses. Try to take the spotlight off the negative and focus on what you’re hoping to be involved with in your potential new role.” -Jennifer Parris
If you were fired or laid off, you need to be honest about it, but these aren’t necessarily deal-breakers for a new company. Natalia Autenrieth says to own your part in whatever may have happened and find a positive that came from the experience. Be truthful, but focus only on the facts and what you bring to the organization.
Indeed reminds us that that doesn’t mean you have to reveal every detail though. Stick to the relevant facts and move on quickly. You can answer the question honestly without making negative remarks about your previous employer.
Your previous job might actually deserve potential negative remarks. There are many organizations with outdated practices that contribute to a toxic environment. No need to sugarcoat it—many jobs suck!
But this isn’t what your potential employer wants to hear. Just as you wouldn’t want to talk about your ex on a date, badmouthing your “ex” in an interview makes you look petty and as though you focus on the negative. There are two sides to every story, and your side may not appear as clear-cut to an outsider. And the new employer might wonder how you’ll speak about them in the future.
Instead, learn how to spin things in a positive direction. Lily Zhang suggests always including a positive about the last organization while still being honest. If you want to advance your career, you can talk about the need to find growth and a challenge. If the leadership is bad, you can talk about how you love the mission of your last company but think you need a different sort of environment to succeed.
Focus on the future
Your potential employer has a genuine interest in why you left your last job because it provides them clues on what type of person you are. You aren’t in taking a meeting to go over old news—you’re there to provide value to a new organization. So while answering this question in as honest and as positive a manner as you possibly can, make sure to tie things into what you offer the new company.
If you weren’t happy with the work you were doing or the growth opportunities your old job provided, you can turn this into a positive for your new employer, Hannah Morgan writes. It shows that you’re taking charge and looking for a change, and it paints you as someone who is proactive in dealing with an issue.
FlexJobs’ Jennifer Parris says to be confident when answering this question. Almost everyone leaves a job at some point in their lives. Answering with confidence while being truthful and positive shows that you’ve left that position behind you and that you’re looking forward and ready for new challenges in a new role.
Don’t bring the baggage of a discarded job with you to a new one. Employers want to know why you left your last job so that they can get a sense of what type of employee you’ll be for them. Be honest and positive, even if you didn’t love your last job. Keep things focused on the future and what you bring to the table. Practice your responses, and you’ll position yourself as the ideal candidate!