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How to Answer The Awkward “Why Did You Leave Your Last Job” Question

It will come up in every interview regardless of what kind of job you are searching for. “So, tell me why you left your last job.” There may be multiple reasons why you left your last job, but some of them may be unacceptable to admit to an interviewer. You may have left your last job because your boss was unbearable, you weren’t getting paid enough money, your work was stagnant or maybe you just downright hated every part of your job. That may be true, but in an interview you have to be savvy and polite about why you left your last position because what you say may make or break your interview.

I had a job once that I, to put it bluntly, absolutely hated. I knew that I had to find a new job and was feverishly hitting the job boards every day. I had snagged an interview with a company I was interested in and that is where my issue started. The interview was going alright and sure enough the staple question popped up. “Why are you looking to leave your current position?” For some reason, I’ll attribute it to being inexperienced and a bit ignorant, I was completely honest. “Well, I’m not very happy with the unorganized management of my current company and feel as though the work I’m doing is unethical and not very stimulating.” Shall I shove my foot in my mouth now or later? Though this answer was true, it wasn’t very elegant and reflected poorly on me as an employee. Woops! We all make mistakes, but hopefully you can learn from mine here.

The fact of the matter is, though you have been told to always tell the truth, we all know that there are certain instances where you don’t have to shed light on the entire truth. This is one of them. In hopes of helping you avoid the above situation that I, in fact, I failed in, I have provided a series of possible reasons you may be leaving your job and the best way to articulate these reasons in an interview. The biggest tip I can provide is to never speak negatively of your current or past employers. It not only reflects poorly on you as an employee but also makes the employer think, “hey, if they’re going to speak ill of this employer, why wouldn’t they speak ill of me?” No employer wants that, so stay far, far away from this. Keep it classy, keep it polite.

Your Previous Boss Was Horrible
Unless you live in some awesome, fairy tale life where all of your bosses treated you like gold, it’s likely that you have had a boss that you disliked. If not, please tell me where you have worked so I can share the same fairy tale employment. However, even if your boss was rude, unorganized or completely unqualified, this information should stay with you. If this is why you are leaving your current position, instead of telling the interviewer you are leaving because your boss was incompetent and rude instead say something like, “I am looking for a position with a company that has a stable environment where I can grow and there is room for advancement.” Saying you are looking for a “stable environment” is a safe way to say that you currently don’t have that.

Your Job is Boring
If you are bored at your current position, it’s probably because you aren’t being challenged or you have stopped learning. In other words, you have moved beyond your current position and it doesn’t seem like there is anywhere for you to go. You may want more responsibilities, but your current company may not have that for you. Instead of saying, “my job is just so boring” instead say something like, “Currently, there isn’t room for growth in my company and I like to constantly learn and be challenged. I always want to be a great employee and I didn’t want my unhappiness to start affecting my work. While my current position was great, I am ready to move on.”

Your Company Is Becoming Unethical and You Don’t Agree With It
Your position may have been great when you started, but maybe the company took a turn in a direction you don’t agree with. Perhaps the work you are doing makes you feel bad or makes you question your ethics. This may be true, but it’s best to keep that to yourself. Like I said, you don’t want to speak negatively of your past employers. If this is the reason you left, try saying something like, “the company decided to go in a new direction and I realized that I didn’t have the opportunity to put my career in the direction I wanted with them.”

You Were Laid-Off
It happens to the best of us. Companies downsize and sometimes you lose your job because of it. This is nothing to be ashamed of, but simply saying “I was laid-off” doesn’t sound quite as nice as “unfortunately, the company had to downsize and my department was the first one hit.” You’ll notice that wordplay is a big part of being a savvy and polite in an interview. Euphemisms will get you far in an interview when dealing with a touchy subject.

You Were Fired
This is probably the most uncomfortable answer. Being fired may make you feel like you have failed and no one wants to admit they are a failure. However, the first step to dealing with this is admitting that you are, in fact, not a failure. I recently wrote an article on what to do if you are fired and the advice can help you answer this question in an interview as well. First and foremost, be honest. If you were fired and you lie about it, it will come back to bite you in the behind. Employers check up on your past employers and lying is a terrible way to start out a potential business relationship. Instead, be honest and tell the employer how you learned from your mistakes and what attempts you have made to better yourself.

Knowing what to say, when to say it and how to say it is a skill that takes some time to master. Some people are born with the gift of wordplay while others must practice at it for years. Either way, it is my hope that these small tips can help you politely answer the awkward question that employers so love to ask.

Have you even answered this question and completely goofed it up? Tell me about it.

IMAGE: Courtesy of Interview Questions

Nicole Nicholson

Nicole is the Content Editor for Spark Hire and mainly writes for and edits the work for the Spark News blog. She graduated in 2010 with a BA in Journalism from DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois. She has a passion for writing, editing, and pretty much anything to do with content. In her free time she frequents the Chicago music scene and writes reviews on shows for her own personal blog. Connect with Nicole and Spark Hire on Facebook and Twitter

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