There are many reasons you might have left your last job, and not all of them are rosy. Perhaps you worked for a toxic boss or you met obstacles on your way up the ladder. Or maybe you were just plain bored with your work.
Interviewers generally ask why you left your former company so they can “understand your motives and gain insight as to how [you] handle work relationships,” says Duncan Mathison, author of Unlock the Hidden Job Market: 6 Steps to a Successful Search When Times are Tough. “In particular they are asking themselves, ‘Will they leave us in the lurch if they become dissatisfied?’ or ‘Is there some dirt here?’” In short, asking “Why did you leave your last job?” is one way for the interviewer to ensure you’re a person of integrity.
How to Answer Interview Questions Like This
The best strategy for effectively answering this tough interview question is to prepare for it. Here’s how to be ready and how to recover when you’re not.
Do: Focus on results: Make a list of things you accomplished in your last position and focus on those, ending with something like, "‘Having successfully done that, I'm ready for another challenge,’" suggests Stephen Balzac, president of 7 Steps Ahead, a business consulting firm in Stow, Massachusetts. “Now what you're saying to the interviewer is: ‘You can count on me to get results and stay here until I do.’"
Don’t: Answer in a way that doesn't reassure the interviewer. “Answers such as, ‘I wasn't being challenged’, ‘The work was no longer interesting’ or ‘The pay was too low’ all say the same thing to the interviewer: that you might leave at any time if things aren't to your liking,” says Balzac.
Recover: If you give a bland answer, circle back to it quickly. And if you can’t, revisit why you left your last job just before you end the interview. This allows you to leave the interviewer with your previous accomplishments top of mind.
Do: Remember that employers run the show and can act as they see fit, according to Mathison. “Yet at the same time, make it clear that the organization you seek has the qualities to perform at a higher level,” he says. An example: “We all know that sometimes promises exceed reality. Our CEO was comfortable, as many are, with pushing the limits. But I feel that lasting business partnerships and profitability are built on my ability to deliver on my promises, so I’m looking for that type of company.”
Don’t: Badmouth the boss or the company. “That implies you may be difficult to manage,” Mathison says.
Recover: Acknowledge you were hard on your previous employer and restate your answer like this: “That might be a little harsh. I know that my former company is trying to do its best under the circumstances. I’m looking for a company that’s a better fit for me.” This also shows that you’re self-aware and have decent manners.
One Final Tip for the Interview
Don’t dwell too long on your previous employer -- the interview is about you, after all. “Always bring the conversation back to your results and reliability,” Balzac notes.