And how to answer it.
This is an interview question that can be a cinch or difficult for job candidates to answer, depending on the reason for leaving their position. Always expect this question in an interview. It only makes sense that the interviewer would like to know why you left your previous job.
How you answer this question—most likely the first one asked—will set the tone for the rest of the interview. Many people interviewing for the first time are surprised when they get this question. It’s as though they don’t expect it.
Not only should you expect this question; you should have the answer to it already formulated. It should not take you by surprise. Expect it. Be prepared. If you get it wrong, shame on you.
Also, be aware of a zinger like, “Steve, tell us why you want to leave (company X) and come to work with us?” To answer this two-part question successfully requires an in depth knowledge of the company and position. Both of which are topics for another article.
What are employers looking for?
Is there a wrong answer? Not really. It’s how you answer it, for the most part. There’s no way to change the past, so your calm response is the best policy. They want transparency, not lies. They also don’t want a drawn-out story; your answer should be brief.
If you become emotional, it will send a negative message to interviewers. If you hesitate, they may distrust you or question your resolve.
Three possible scenarios
Let’s look at the reasons why people lose their job and how to address them.
1. You were laid off
This is easiest way to answer the question, “Why did you leave your last position?” As mentioned above, your answer should be short and sweet. You may say, “The company had to cut cost and restructure after a poor second quarter.“
To beat them to the punch, you might add, “I was among 15 people in my group who were laid off. I was told by my manager that she was sad to see me go.” The reason for doing this is because you might get a follow-up question about how many people were laid off.
Caveat: some people think being laid off is the same as being let go or fired. It is not. Being laid off is do to company failure.
2. You were let go
This is harder to explain, but not impossible to come up with a viable resonse. This especially needs a short answer. It’s important that you are transparent and self-aware with your answer. In other words, if you were at fault, be honest about it.
You must also explain what you learned from the experience and state that it will not be repeated. Perhaps it was a conflict of personality between you and your manager, poor performance, or a “mutual departure.”
Conflict of personality. “A new manager took over our department. I was used to the way the previous person managed us. The new manager had a different style, which I didn’t adapt to quick enough. I now understand I need to be more adaptable to other types of management.“
Poor or inadequate performance. “As the project manager of my department, I was responsible for delivering a release of a new data storage software. We failed to meet the deadline by a week. My VP saw this as unforgivable. I see where I could have done a better job of managing the team.“
You were not a fit for the role. Yes, this is a not a cliche in this case. “When I was hired for the role, complete knowledge of Excel wasn’t a requirement, but as the job evolved it became apparent that my Excel skills were not strong. As this position doesn’t require expert knowledge, I am confident I’ll do a stellar job.”
Caveat: the interviewer might want to dig deeper into the situation. Be prepared to answer the questions directly with little emotion. Always keep a cool head. Resist the temptation to speak negatively about your previous boss.
3. You quit or resigned
To quit a position—especially without a job in hand—means there was an existing problem. One common reason I hear for quitting is a conflict of personality with the employee’s supervisor. Another one is a toxic work environment. And a lame reason I hear is because advancement was not possible.
Regardless, a red flag will go up with interviewers if you quit your position. What some people don’t realize is that you give up your right to collect unemployment, if you quit; another reason why this is not a great scenario.
Conflict of personality. “While my previous boss and I got along well, we didn’t see things eye-to-eye on certain decisions he made, and tension was high, so I decided the best move for me was to resign.” To show you have nothing to hide, you can add: “I would be happy to discuss further if you’d like.”
Unsafe environment. “I felt the work environment was not as safe as I was comfortable with. For example, there were many fire hazards in the warehouse. Additionally, the air quality was tested, and it failed. I feel fortunate that my wife brings in a substantial income; otherwise I might have stuck it out longer. My only regret is that I miss the people with whom I worked.”
Work-life balance was in jeopardy. “My job required me to drive into and out of (city), which was at times an hour and a half each way. I was missing a great deal of my son’s activities, and my health was suffering. Although commute isn’t a reason for taking this job, it will be a relief.”
Caveat: again, it is important to be transparent and honest when answering this question. To simply say you quit or resigned is not good enough. Do not be bitter when you answer this question; just state facts.
Always expect the question, “Why did you leave your last job.” Any interviewer who doesn’t ask this question isn’t doing his job. The reason for departure is essential information. I find this traditional question to be one of the most important ones for job candidates to able to answer.