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How to respond to “Why did you leave your last job?”

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Do you dread the interview question, “Why did you leave your last job?”  You may particularly hate the question if your last job ended badly.  

The key to answering this or other difficult interview questions is to be brief, honest and positive and then to move the conversation on to another topic so that the interviewer can't dwell on the dirt or get you to go into details better left unsaid.

So how do you go about doing that?

  1. First, write down or type up the circumstances of your separation from the company so that you are as clear about the facts as possible. Use this opportunity to get any hurt, bitterness or confusion about the job loss out of your body and onto the paper.
  2. Next, edit the facts to the essential points. If done well, this could take your 3-page diatribe about what went wrong down to something as short as “My new supervisor elected to choose his own person.”
  3. Review your answer to make sure that it’s said as positively as possible.
  4. Read through your separation paperwork from the company to learn what the organization plans to say about your departure to make sure that what you say jibes with what the company says.
  5. If you don’t know what the company will say, contact the Human Resources department and ask. If that’s not possible or you don’t trust what they will say if a hiring company calls them, consider having someone contact the company as if they were conducting a pre-hire reference check. Allison & Taylor will conduct such a check for a fee. If your former company is badmouthing you to those who call, contact your former company and ask them to stop or to revise their statement to be more neutral. If they resist, threaten legal action (that’s usually all it takes to get them to cut it out).
  6. Practice saying your reason for leaving until you can say it briefly and professionally, with no trace of bitterness.

Other tips:

  • Play up what you learned/enjoyed about your past company.
  • NEVER bad mouth your former company or boss.
  • Don’t go into needless (or damning) details! If you start to digress, STOP TALKING!

Strong response examples:

“Reorganization required the elimination of my position. It was a business decision, not a personal one and I did not take it personally. I continue to have positive relationships with people at the organization.”

“I was part of a 25 percent staff reduction (or a multi- employee layoff) due to a downturn in business.”

“The department was eliminated when our company was acquired by another firm.”

“The company outsourced my position as a cost saving measure.”
“I was hired to be a salesperson, but the company and I both came to realize that was not my strength. Where my strength really lies is …”

“I survived three layoffs; however the fourth one included my position.”
“I was new to food preparation and wasn’t able to get my speed up to the required level. I have since taken courses to up my speed beyond the required level.”

“My supervisor wanted to select her own person for the position.”

“The position didn’t work out, but I learned so much and really enjoyed my time at XYZ Corp.”

"I was let go for missing a deadline while juggling three major projects. I have since undergone time management training and have never missed a deadline since."

“I so enjoyed working with ABC’s senior clients. I was sad that the funding for our services ended, but I relish the opportunity to serve clients through your organization.”

“I was the sales leader in June and July. However, when the recession hit, I missed the August goal by 5%. I was on target to reach 125% of goal in September but the company released me before month's end. I have since completed a Selling in a Recession course so I am now even better prepared to achieve high sales goals for your company.”   

“The position was temporary.”

“The position was contract.”

“The company closed.”

“The position was temp-to-hire and they elected to not fill the position.”

“The work was project based.”

“It was a stop gap position while I was seeking employment.”

"The company moved to Houston, but I elected to stay in Atlanta."

“The company offered a voluntary separation package to all employees. It was an excellent offer and I accepted it.”

“I was offered a better opportunity.”

Answering the difficult question of why you were let go or left an organization can help convince a hiring company that you can succeed in their position ... so respond well! -- Kathy

How do YOU respond to the question “Why did you leave your last job?” Share your thoughts or questions.


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