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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Changing Jobs

The Best-Ever Response to "Why Did You Leave Your Last Job?"


Dear Pat,

I took my current job right out of college and have moved laterally and been promoted a number of times. A while back, a new director was brought in to finally give my department the stability it's been lacking for many years. 

Since then, I've seen this company make some very suspect business decisions, including laying off good workers, hiring lazy workers, and targeting to eventually fire people who have been the backbone of this company. People who have given this company their all are either no longer working here or fear for their jobs daily, which makes the work environment almost unbearable. To top it all off, the new director has replaced everyone who is now gone with someone from her team at her previous employer. It's like they're staging a coup!

I decided months ago that it was time to start looking for a new job, but never got serious until my mentor was fired. Since then, I've been sending resumes left and right but a nagging question keeps coming back to me. If and when I finally get that interview and they ask me why I'm looking, what can I say? I know better than to trash my current employer, and my old standby has been, "I really can't see myself growing professionally there," but will that get me by? Do employers see right through that canned response?

Please help,

Tough questions

Hello Tough,

Your question is a good one, and how you answer it is very important in the process of your job search. New employers are quite attentive on all of your responses, but this one is “interview critical.” Often, executives come to me at a time when they are considering making a move, and their rationale needs to be sound when explaining a career transition.

First, you should never, ever be negative about your current or past employers. You have nothing to gain by being negative, and it only detracts from your presentation. Just as they say, “beauty is in the eyes of the beholder,” this too exists between companies and employees. Your cultural needs and expectations can be quite different from others within any given organization. In this case, I recommend you focus your response on seeking a company with cultural dynamics that better suit you, versus blaming the company for the lack of fit.

For example, instead of saying a company “laid off good people” and “hires lazy workers,” you might say, “I believe I am better suited to work in an organization that has a strong commitment to mentoring and developing executives, where there is a strong sense of loyalty on both sides and a culture that fosters career development and growth.” You could further say, “I realize that there are some companies that are in highly intense growth mode, or have over-arching financial or business pressures and problems that can’t possibly foster this type of culture. While this is all well and good for some, I don’t want to work for the latter. It just does not feel like a good fit for me.”

This approach allows you to be honest without being negative, trashing the current company or any one person in particular. The unbiased approach on your situation is that your company has gone through a lot of organizational changes, has hired new management, and has an evolving corporate culture and strategy, and the company is no longer a good fit for you. The more you can adopt this unbiased view, the better for you.

And yes, try and really believe it. If you don’t make a meaningful attitude shift, your approach and presentation will lack sincerity, and you’re right: Most perceptive hiring companies will see right through it.

Hope this helps!