One of the most common questions asked during an interview is “Why did you leave your last job?”. Today’s reader wants to know the best way to answer that question.
Hi, just found your blog. I wanted to get your advice on how to respond to prospective employers regarding the reason why I left my senior position. The real truth of the matter is that we got a new boss with whom I had some integrity issues – we did not seem to see things in the same light.
After 10 years on the job, I felt it was better for me to accept the package and move on. I also signed a separation agreement. How can I explain this without trashing my former employer?
I wish I could say that there’s always one absolutely right answer in this situation. Since there are different considerations, I reached out to two respected colleagues to get their thoughts. Hannah Morgan (aka Career Sherpa) is a well-known job search, career and social media strategist. She’s the author of “The Infographic Resume” and a regular contributor at U.S. News & World Report. Recruiting Animal (and yes, that might be his real name) is the host of the wildly popular Recruiting Animal show (broadcast live every Wednesday at 12n Eastern). He’s also a professional recruiter.
When asked about the reason you’ve left a job, is it okay to mention unflattering things about a former employer? Why or why not?
[Morgan] Let’s first address the reason employers ask candidates why they left their previous jobs. Employers want to know if the candidate was forced to leave due to performance issues or was downsized due to no fault of their own. Asking this question helps employers weed out ‘potentially problem’ employees.
Since candidates are usually on their best behavior during an interview, it can be difficult to see problematic behaviors first-hand. During the interview, the employer listens for any signs that the candidate is unhireable. Employers are listening for a pattern of leaving jobs and blaming it on bad bosses or companies. If a candidate has had several jobs in a short period of time and blames bad managers, it’s likely that the problem isn’t the managers. The common denominator is the candidate and a sign of a problem employee or an employee who hasn’t learned how to evaluate future bosses.
That being said, it is never advisable to bad-mouth or mention unflattering things about a former boss, employee or company. In fact, it is unprofessional. Some might call it character assassination or slander to say negative things about other people. No matter how awful or unfairly you were treated, never divulge that information. It only makes you, the candidate, look bad.[Animal] Recruiters hate it when a candidate bad-mouths an old boss. They say that it’s not professional. They want you to lie or obfuscate. I agree in part. You shouldn’t go into an interview and say ‘I wish that a**hole would die a painful death. He has it coming’ or ‘I wish I could be the one to pull the switch.’
While that might be how you feel, you can’t admit that you have a hate-on for anybody because you’re supposed to have control of your emotions. But you should be straightforward about policy differences if they were the reason for leaving.
People usually say they left for ‘philosophical differences’ but that could mean anything and it’s clearly just a dodge. If the differences you had with your old boss involve sensitive issues for your old company, you could say that you had policy differences and would prefer to discuss how you fit with the new job in the early stages of the hiring process. Leave a discussion about the details of your differences with your old employer until the new employer is serious about you as a candidate.
I remember the case of an accountant who was pressured to sign off on some creative bookkeeping by his famous, aggressive CEO and CFO. They all ended up going to jail. He should have left the company and had no fear of explaining exactly why he did so. There is no shame in it and you don’t want to work for a company that cannot appreciate that.
In this scenario, the employee talks about integrity issues with their boss. For a moment, let’s just say the boss is a jerk. It’s not really about something ethical. Is it okay to say during an interview that “the boss and I just don’t get along”? Why or why not?[Morgan] If your boss was a jerk, that’s your opinion. And just because you didn’t get along with him or her doesn’t mean others can’t. If your boss was unethical, sexually harassed you, or did something else illegal, that’s up to HR and law enforcement to resolve. It doesn’t belong in the job interview. As unfair as it sounds, employers are more likely to side with the past employer/boss than the candidate who sounds disgruntled or unable to cope.
Rather than try and explain the ins and outs of your relationship with your jerky boss or complicated ethics violations, it’s better to gloss over that detail and stay focused on the bigger reason of why you left – more rewarding work, more relaxed work environment, better pay, more challenging career or whatever you were looking for when you decided to leave. Taking ownership of your career shows an optimistic, can-do attitude and that’s what employers want.
[Animal] Presumably, you left just because you didn’t like her personality? I don’t think that’s likely if she did everything else well. If someone has an unpleasant personality, it’s bound to be reflected in her management style and you could focus on that rather than her personality. This means that you could describe your differences as management issues rather than simply personality. If the old boss shouted at people or made inappropriate comments, you should say so. But you have to ask that the recruiter promises to keep your remarks very confidential.
You could also say that you were looking for a change of culture. When they ask what you mean, you could describe the personality, so to speak, of the kind of place you are looking for. Maybe you want to work with people who talk about the non-fiction books they are reading instead of sitcoms. Or maybe you want to work with people who are more upbeat in the mornings. You might not have to say that your boss is a low-brow drinker, who has endless family problems, and drags herself into the office looking like death warmed over every morning.
The reader didn’t ask, but let’s say the reason they left was because they were terminated. Should the candidate be 100 percent truthful about the matter (even if they don’t agree with the reason they were fired)?[Morgan] There’s a big difference between being fired and laid off in the eyes of employers. It’s probably best not to use either term because of the negative connotation each has.
If you were laid off, use downsized, position eliminated or impacted by a reduction in force. In the reader’s question above, if there was a reduction in force and an opportunity to leave with a severance package, then the candidate can take the answer one step further and spin the situation into a positive to help ease the future employer’s mind. For example:
“After 10 years with the same company, I decided it was time for a change and took the separation package. This gave me time to reassess what I want to do next and look for my next great assignment.”
On the other hand, if an employee is fired because of something they did wrong, it’s referred to as being terminated for cause. It’s possible, during a background check, that this information can be verified. The prospective employer may ask if the ex-employee is eligible for rehire or the reason for termination. When an employee is laid off it usually means they are eligible for rehire. However, someone who was fired, would not be eligible for rehire. Since this information could be discovered, it is best to be truthful about being fired.
If a candidate was fired, they should simply state that he/she was let go or dismissed. Then the candidate can explain what they learned from being fired. This brief explanation helps the employer understand the situation and hopefully believes that it won’t happen again. For example, the response might sound like this:
“I was let go from my last job. I didn’t do my best work or make the best decisions then. But I now realize how important it is to my team and supervisor to be accountable and on time. This has taught me a valuable lesson and in my next job, I look forward to being an employee that others can rely on.”[Animal] If you think that there are some things that reflect poorly on you that would not come out unless you, personally, reveal them then leave those things out because they would probably be insignificant details.
But if that’s not the case, then the candidate would have to acknowledge her errors and show quite clearly that she has learned her lesson. The candidate might need to be prepared to take a lesser job at a lower salary. Organizations might be willing to help individuals rebuild their reputations if they get a good deal. Example: I know a guy who was fired because he was too slow on the job. It was easy to believe because he spoke as slow as molasses in everyday conversation. He would have to admit that he realized he needed a job that did not require a lot of quick action.
One more thing…If you don’t agree with the reason you were fired, then you have to prepare a strong case and present it in a calm, reasonable manner. And it has to be a solid case. If you present a biased and distorted view of things by brushing aside your obvious errors, no one will consider you.
I want to extend a huge thanks to Recruiting Animal and Hannah Morgan for sharing their thoughts on this topic. These two professionals sit at different places in the hiring process and have different relationships with candidates. While their styles might be very different, their advice wasn’t.
Today’s post is one of those that I would bookmark for future reference. You know at some point, a friend, family member, or colleague is going to ask you this question.
Images captured by Sharlyn Lauby while exploring the world.
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