Job interview question and answer: Why did you leave your last job?

Posted October 13, 2011, by Helen Isbister

The key to answering this question with your employability intact is simple – maintain a positive attitude. A sure-fire way to teleport your application to the bottom of the pile is to badmouth your ex-boss and grumble about your old job.

Be clear, confident and calm about why you left, or are leaving, the other gig, before redirecting your response to exactly why you are so keen to work in the position on offer.

Reason for leaving: You got sacked

This is the Mount Everest of tricky interview questions if you’ve just been sacked, but it’s not impossible to conquer as long as you figure out your tactics and don’t panic. It’s a risky business to leave an ill-fated stint off your resume (especially if it was your most recent), because if you are caught in the lie your chances will go up in smoke. The safest way to navigate this interview danger zone is to be honest, take responsibility for the situation, explain what you have learned from the experience and how the problem won’t apply to the new position.

Possible response:
It was decided that my skills and qualifications weren’t suited to the position. I am excited by this role because it matches my experience and I know I will be able to thrive and make a valuable contribution to the company.

Reason for leaving: You were made redundant

Being made redundant is a world away from getting sacked. Make sure you explain the circumstances behind the redundancy – the company was downsizing, moving in a different direction or relocating to another state – so it is clear that the decision was in no way based on your ability or attitude. However, don’t dwell on it – nothing screams ’don’t hire me’ like a bitter or insecure mindset. Show you are enthusiastic about the career opportunities you are now presented with and are ready for new challenges.

Possible response:
The company was relocating to Brisbane and closing my office. I was with the company for 15 years and I see this as a fantastic opportunity to use my skills gained in that time in a new role.

Reason for leaving: You hated your boss/colleagues/job/all of the above

Despising the ground your boss walks on, wanting to strangle your colleagues or an inexplicably tedious job are very valid reasons for showing yourself the door. But offload your career angst on your partner, mother or dog and make sure the angry vibes get nowhere near the interview hot seat. Focus on other reasons, any other reasons, about why you are considering a change of job and psych yourself into a positive frame of mind.

Possible response:
After graduating, I spent seven years with the one company gaining exceptional knowledge of the industry. I am now enthusiastic to apply my skills in a different organisation with new opportunities and challenges.

Reason for leaving: You weren’t getting paid enough

The bottom line is often, well, the bottom line when it comes to leaving a job. However, a potential employer isn’t going to be impressed that a big pay packet is your primary motivator. It also won’t go down very well if it becomes evident you have an over-inflated sense of your own monetary value – and that they will be funding your next round-the-world trip! You can mention that your previous employer wasn’t doing well enough to pay competitive rates, but make sure you balance up your answer with a more optimistic reason for pursuing a new path.

Possible response:
The company was going through a difficult financial patch and were unable to pay competitive rates and keep up with evolving technology. With 15 years of accounting experience, an MBA and a young family, I would like to work for a dynamic organisation that has a solid future.

Reason for leaving: The job wasn’t stimulating enough

If you feel trapped in a job that doesn’t provide enough stimulation or advancement opportunities, it is a smart career move to see what else is out there. However, you must be careful about how you phrase the lack of passion you had for your previous job or the interviewer might be left with the impression that you are easily bored and unmotivated. Instead, focus on your excitement and enthusiasm for the job they are offering, referring to specifics, and illustrating your qualifications.

Possible response:
I had a rewarding seven years at my former company and was involved with projects I am immensely proud of, but when I saw the advertisement for this position I knew it was a perfect match for my skills and couldn’t resist applying.

Reason for leaving: Change of life circumstances

Personal reasons often play a part in why people decide to leave their jobs – moving house, having children, failed marriage. Be careful here. You don’t want the interviewer thinking you only want the job because it’s in the same street as your new house, or that you will be leaving every day at 3 pm to pick your children up from school.

Possible response:
I took five years off from my last position because I had two daughters. They are now in primary school and I am excited to move back into full-time work, especially into a position like this where I will be able to make a valuable contribution to a company whose activities I have always admired.

Next answer: What’s your biggest weakness?

Back to: How to answer interview questions

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