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Why did you leave that job? The Most Common Interview Questions, #3

by THEA kelley | November 10, 2021

How do you answer the interview question, “Why did you leave that job?”

This post is the third in a series of excerpts from my book, Get That Job! The Quick and Complete Guide to a Winning Interview

Does your departure indicate a problem that could derail your interview?

If you left and immediately started a new job, it’s no problem: you left for a better opportunity (or what you thought was a better opportunity, even if it didn’t work out).

On the other hand, leaving without a new job lined up is generally a red flag, so this question is tricky.

The key is this: although one reason may dominate in your mind – probably the most emotional one, such as a personality conflict or issue with the boss – usually there are more reasons. Make a list. Then see which of these reasons makes the best impression.

Here’s an example.

Joe quit his job for the following reasons: (1) his boss was a micromanager, (2) the company, a hospital, had toxic office politics, (3) the circumstances made it difficult or impossible to move up into a better department, (4) he couldn’t stay until he found a new job because the job left him no time or energy for job search, and (5) he also had an itch to move into the pharmaceutical industry.

Reasons 1 and 2 are a minefield that would be hard to discuss without presenting himself as a complainer who badmouths his former employer. But he doesn’t need to go there; he can build a truthful answer out of reasons 3-5:

“While Bayworth Hospital is a great institution in terms of patient care, and I had three excellent years there, with strong accomplishments like the ones we’ve discussed, there really wasn’t a path upward for me there any more (reason #3). It was time to leave and pursue my longtime interest in pharmaceutical companies (#5) like this one. The job was intensely demanding and it didn’t leave me the energy to conduct a search. (#4) So I gave notice, helped the department make a smooth transition, and then left to devote myself to a full-time process of transitioning into doing what I’m most passionate about.”

Why does this answer work? Because it’s true, tactful, brief (about 30 seconds) and focused on the positive. It’s also a great example of the “sandwich technique”: surrounding a negative (the fact that he left) with positives (his respect for the hospital in certain ways, his accomplishments and his passion for the current opportunity).

Another answer that’s often both truthful and effective is “Soon after starting the job, it became clear it was very different than I had expected. In the interview it seemed that the job involved X and Y, but once I had been there a while it became clear it really was much more about Z.”

What if Joe had been fired? Remember this interviewing motto: “Never volunteer a negative.” Joe doesn’t need to say he was fired, unless specifically asked. His answer could be the same as above, with a slightly different ending:

“…It was time to leave and pursue my longtime interest in pharmaceutical companies like this one. Since then I’ve devoted myself to a full-time process of transitioning into doing what I’m most passionate about.”

Because this subject is emotionally charged for Joe, he would be wise to rehearse this answer with great care.

He also needs to be prepared for the likelihood the interviewer will ask additional questions that will reveal that he was fired. If you’re in this position, read my post on how to answer questions about being fired.

Now that you know how to answer “Why did you leave your job?,” you may want to start looking at some of my other “most common interview questions” posts.

This post was originally published in 2016 and has been updated.

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