“Why did you leave your last job?” The question can strike fear in even the most confident candidate. Whether your answer is simple or complex, being asked to talk about it puts you on the spot, and it can be tricky to balance the truth while still painting yourself in the best possible light to your hopefully-soon-to-be employer.
But, it doesn’t have to be as painful as you might think.
Aside from wanting to know that you’re not a flake, your interviewer is asking this question to find out why you’re interested in the opening. So, there’s an art to formulating your response that’ll enable you sail through smoothly and come out ahead (even if the circumstances were a bit dicey!). Here’s how to craft an expert answer.
This should go without saying, but you absolutely have to be up front about your reason for leaving, particularly if you were terminated—a prospective employer can (and in many cases, will) call your references or your last supervisor. And if you’ve been let go, don’t panic: It doesn’t mean you’re out of the running. Your best bet is to chalk it up to a learning experience and showcase what you’ve gained from it. People are often able to overlook mistakes if you admit to them and prove that you’ve grown in the process.
Even if you suffered under the wrath of a Devil Wears Prada-type of supervisor, do not rant about a previous boss or company during an interview. And if you think were laid off unfairly, you still don’t want to paint yourself as a victim. According to corporate recruiter Deborah Osbourn, it’s fine to say the job wasn’t a good fit, but be prepared to give some concrete reasons to back up that statement—for example, you want to work in a more team-oriented environment, or the position didn’t make the best use of your skill set.
Keep it Short
Once you’ve answered the question, there’s no need to keep elaborating. The longer you continue talking, the more likely you are to start opening up about things that aren’t necessary. Yes, your back-stabbing co-workers, the CEO’s anger management problem, and the company’s “creative” reporting practices are all good reasons to leave, but they’re not appropriate to share during an interview.
And if you’re leaving on good terms and are simply looking for a new challenge, that’s all you need to say on the matter. If the interviewer wants more information, she’ll ask you to expand.
Focus on the New Job
The best way to conclude your response is to spin it back to what’s most important—why you are interested in the job you’re interviewing for. “The person interviewing you wants to know that you want that job and will be interested in it for a while,” says Osbourn. “You would be surprised how many people are unable to clearly express their interest in the job.”
Highlight job duties for the new position that spark your interest (“in my last role, I didn’t have much opportunity to collaborate with other departments, so I’m excited about working on cross-functional teams here”). And definitely beware of citing any dislikes from previous jobs that are clearly defined in the job description for this role. Hated cold calling prospects? Be sure that’s not listed as a requirement before spouting off!
Remember, every question you’re asked is a chance to showcase your qualities, personality, and interest in the position. You’ve already passed the initial screen, and the interview is your time to shine. So when asked about your previous job, just keep your answer short, honest, and positive, and you’ll be on to the next question in no time (and hopefully, the job!).