Interviewing Job Searching

14 Potential Answers to ‘Why Did You Leave Your Last Job?’

Craig Stevens

Digital Asset Manager and Business Analyst


There are two questions that interviewees hate: why did you leave your last job and what are your salary expectations?

These feel like impossible questions because they create a lot of uncertainty and anxiety. The reason for that is that they cause us to second guess ourselves. How do you present why you left in a positive light?

Perhaps it raises self-doubt about why you left your last job. Perhaps that self-doubt makes you wonder if you left for the best of reasons. After all, it wasn’t that bad… right?

Well here’s some straightforward suggestions on how to approach or handle the intimidating question: why did you leave your last job?

Why are they asking that question?

The first thing to realize is that while this question is intimidating, the hiring manager is not asking it just to torture you! They’re trying to dig into something important. Let’s turn this around for a minute. Let’s imagine that you’re the interviewer and you’re hiring for a role in your company. It’d be important for you to know:

  1. Whether the applicant resigned or was fired
  2. Whether the applicant is still on good terms with the company
  3. Whether the applicant’s reasons for leaving seem reasonable

As an interviewer, what you’d be trying to establish with these points is:

  • Was the applicant fired? If so, why? – This is important because the last thing you’d want to do is hire someone who has a reputation for being toxic.
  • Is the applicant still in contact with people from the company? – That sends great signals about the applicant’s character. Maybe the company didn’t want to see the applicant go, and they were a great member of the team.
  • Is the applicant realistic about working with others? – No-one wants to work with a prima donna who is ready to place blame on others instead of owning reality

Hopefully, you can now appreciate why you are asked: Why did you leave your last job? Put simply, there’s a real reason why interviewers keep asking this question and why you’re trying to analyze how to answer it.

Why Did You Leave Your Last Job?

Answers to Why Did You Leave Your Last Job
14 Answers to ‘Why Did you Leave Your Last Job’

Now let’s go into answering ‘Why did you leave your last job’ in more detail. Just bear in mind as we go that any answer you give could become a talking point for further conversation. An interview that consists solely of ‘set piece’ questions and robotically delivered ‘set piece’ answers is an interview that’s gone poorly. Instead, you want to achieve a level of conversation. That indicates that you can establish rapport with others.

With some of these potential answers are caveats to help you understand details or nuances that you might need to provide.

I Needed a New Environment

Long Answer: “I have been with the organization for some years now. I was ready for a new environment to continue my development.”

This is a perfectly respectable answer (caveat incoming). No interviewer should be faulting you for wanting to develop new skills or experience throughout your career because most roles can only offer you so much.

Caveat

This is a credible answer if you were at the company for a few years or more. If you were only been there for a few months, then this isn’t a serious answer.

I Can’t Reach My Potential There

Long answer: “I didn’t feel that my abilities were being used to their fullest potential where I was working.”

This is also respectable reason to give when asked why did you leave your last job. Out of date processes can constrain us. Also, if we’ve developed new skills, then it’s only natural to want a role that uses them.

Caveat 1

If you’re giving this as a reason, then be sure not to slam your previous company. That isn’t a good look because it suggests that you’re potentially difficult. Instead, keep things neutral while connecting what it is you want to be able to do in the next job that you weren’t able to do in the previous one. Which skills are you hoping to use?

Being able to connect the dots for interviewers is important because it shows that you thought things through and reached a good outcome. It also means they won’t have to fill in the blanks which could lead to misinterpretations.

Caveat 2

Be careful not to send signals that you quickly become unmotivated. While this is an acceptable answer, you don’t want to signal to the recruiter that you’ll resign the first time you find some part of your job boring. All of our jobs have boring components.

I Was Offered a Significant Pay Raise

Everyone has bills. Whether it’s rent, mortgage, university fees… the interviewer will get this because they’re likely in the same position or have been at some point.

Caveat

Offer something else up with this answer so that you don’t look like a mercenary. Try to make this a secondary reason with something else as the primary reason, such as… 

  • Work-life balance
  • Career changes or advancements
  • Professional development
  • More responsibility

A Former Manager Recruited me to Join Them

Maybe you’re a great developer who shipped 20% more debugged code than any of your colleagues. Maybe you achieved 20% more sales than every other salesperson. If some version of this is true, then this is credible. This also has the added benefit of indicating you have references and that you’re good to work with. If you weren’t, then your old manager wouldn’t have looked you up.

Caveat

This is most effective when you can back it up with hard numbers like the percentages above. Also, make sure that these align with typical KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) for roles like this. If your company had some atypical KPIs, then mention that so that the recruiter has context.

My Department Brought in a New Manager

Leadership changes over time. It’s perfectly routine. It’s also reasonable to assume that this will create a certain level of disruption as leadership styles and goals change. Sometimes this can create mismatches that aren’t going to work well.

Caveat

This answer is going to be more credible if you’d been at the company for a while. If you’ve been there a few months, then you’re probably still in the relatively early stages of your job and therefore not in such a groove that a change of leadership could throw you off.

Caveat 2

DO NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES SLAM THE NEW MANAGEMENT. This is seriously a bad look. Just state that things had changed and try to make it a secondary reason.

I Left to Work on an Exciting Product or Project

If you heard of a product or project that got you motivated, then this is a great answer. It’s good to have passion for something and have that drive your decision-making.

Caveat

Think this through first so that you’re prepared to explain why you were passionate about it. This isn’t a get out of jail free card that you can just play, you need to offer this up with some meat. Was it a revolutionary product? Was it a service that was going to make people’s lives better? Again, connect the dots for the recruiter.

I Was Offered a Promotion at Another Company

This is also a dependable answer that recruiters will have heard before. We all know that opportunities in companies for promotion can be constrained for all kinds of reasons. Perhaps the person above you had only just joined or was happy to stay in their role. Perhaps there were budget constraints. This means that no recruiter should fault you for giving this answer.

Caveat

But again, connect the dots. Tell them what the reason was.

Career Change

Long Answer: “I re-evaluated my goals and decided to make a change.”

Again, this is a good answer. Your interviewer will understand that. As you move through life, priorities will change.

Caveat

But make sure that you can back this up by communicating what’s got you passionate about your new career and that you have a practical understanding of it. Again, connect the dots.

Pursuing Education

Long Answer: “I went back to college/university to do a Master’s degree/PhD.”

This happens all the time, so this is a great answer. It demonstrates commitment to learning and commitment in general because education at this kind of level is way more demanding than a Bachelor’s. If you did this to retrain, that’s great especially if you can connect what you learned to practical work in the field. If you had a work placement or connected with professionals to understand the field better, say so. It looks like you’ve got a plan and aren’t just chasing fads.

My Role Changed

Long Answer: “I was hired for a role. However over time the role changed, so that I could no longer do what I was most passionate about.”

This happens in modern corporations, especially when there’s a re-organization. Roles could get changed, reframed, or combined so that it no longer looks like the role that you applied for and were passionate about. Worse, you may even have been misled about the role and expected to take on lots of responsibilities that wasn’t in the job description. So this is one answer that you could credibly give shortly after joining a company.

Caveat

Be prepared to create a brief ‘before and after’ for the recruiter so that they can see clearly where you’re coming from (eg:‘Original job title: Programmer, New job title: support’) Or, if you were ambushed by the job description being inaccurate, but tried to resolve it, say so. Say that you didn’t want to resign and tried to work it out with your manager before resigning.

I Left to Start a Family

Again, a perfectly respectable answer that almost any interviewer will understand. It’s probably best to keep this answer simple rather than digging into the details, though.

Family Health

Long Answer: “I left to take care of health issues in the family.”

Again, this is an answer that many recruiters will have heard before, so you don’t need to worry about this one too much.

Caveat

That said, if you can confirm that the health issue has been resolved, then great. The recruiter’s first responsibility is to their employer, no matter how sympathetic they are to you as a human being. This means that they’ll want to be sure for their employer that they aren’t hiring someone who’s going to need to resign again.

Laid Off

Long Answer: “My position was eliminated and I was laid off.”

Life happens to all of us, the recruiter will understand that, but… caveats!

Caveat

Be specific here. Connect the dots. If your role got offshored, then don’t be afraid to say. Was the entire department let go or most of it? Were there job cuts across the whole of the company due to financial or economic changes? Did the company go under? If you survived two rounds of cuts before this, then say so because it shows they didn’t want to let you go. COVID lends a lot of credibility to this answer.

I Was Fired

This is the hard one. Ideally, you don’t want to ever be in the position of having to say this. However, if it’s true, it’s best not to lie about it because if they hire you and find out later that you lied about this, it’ll be grounds for dismissal. Getting fired from two jobs in a row is going to be really difficult to explain.

So if you are asked why did you leave your last job, the best approach is to take responsibility like an adult. Be prepared to honestly admit that you got something wrong and show how you’d try to approach the situation differently next time. That shows that you’ve taken responsibility and have reflected on how you can do better in the future. Above all: Don’t slam your employer… ever. Just don’t!

Recap: Answers that are a Hard No

You’ve probably seen in the caveats some common themes of things to avoid. Let’s quickly summarize those here so that you’ve got an easy reference point.

  • Don’t slam your previous employer especially if you were fired – Doing this isn’t a classy look, and it looks even worse if you were fired because it shows that you may be irresponsible.
  • Don’t say you had a fight with a co-worker and don’t blame them – Again, this violates the ‘Don’t slam other people’ guidance’. It also suggests that you’re trouble. Think like a recruiter again: If someone gave this answer to you, wouldn’t you rule them out?
  • Don’t make it sound like you’re purely mercenary – Recruiters understand that money is a factor, but it’s best presented as secondary to another point like a promotion or opportunity to work on a hot new project or product.
Things to not do when asked Why Did You Leave Your Last Job
  • Don’t scatter information everywhere – You’ve got to connect the dots for the recruiter so that they can understand the logic that got you from where you were to where you are. If you can’t do that, then it’ll make you look disorganized or like someone who chases every fad or bandwagon. Also, provide context. If you’re describing how successful you were in a previous job and you had unusual KPIs, explain why those KPIs were significant. If you’re autistic or you have trouble organizing your thoughts, then consider planning this first. We can have custom ways of thinking that other people don’t have, so be ready to flesh out your logic. As with mathematics, be prepared to show how you worked the problem out.
  • Don’t avoid responsibility – If you got fired, then there’s a solid chance that it was on you. Be prepared to take responsibility and illustrate how you behave differently now. That will show that you want to prevent such problems even arising in the future. So saying, ‘It wasn’t my fault’ will be a hard no, but you don’t need to say ‘Everything was my fault’. This takes us to…

Strategic honesty

So here we are still thinking how to answer: Why did you leave your last job?

If you’re unfailingly honest, then the term ‘strategic honesty’ may make you feel ill. You can talk yourself into becoming a top of the pile candidate in an interview. However, you can also talk yourself into becoming a ‘Whoops, I lost their file in the shredder’ candidate. One of the ways of achieving the latter is by being unceasingly honest about everything. If something is important to a recruiter, they’ll ask.

One of the reasons people are overly honest is anxiety. Interviews are pressured and can create anxiety. That anxiety can cause us to keep talking when the best thing to do is provide a measured answer with an example and then stop. So before the interview, work on any anxiety to help keep yourself calm. Make sure you allow plenty of time to get to the interview so you aren’t running to get there on time. One good way of tackling anxiety is to control your breathing in slow, even breaths because this is associated with calm situations, so it sends the ‘All clear’ signal to your brain.

Interview Training

Are there any opportunities to practice your answers? Are there local employment centers that offer interview training? If nothing else, record yourself answering this question using an app on your phone. Then, you can listen back and try to understand where your answer was weakest. Did you blame? Did you just scatter your information? If so, try it again. Also look to follow job or recruitment coaches on social media.

Conclusion

Yes, ‘why did you leave your last job’ is a hated question. However, hopefully you appreciate that there are real reasons for asking it and effective responses to it.

Write A Comment