Interview panic question #1: “Why did you leave your last job?”

Besides, possibly, “Tell me more about yourself”, the other most dreaded interview question candidates ask me about is: “Why did you leave your last job?”

This one’s always tricky because you want to present yourself in the best light and yet also be honest about why you’re moving on from a former employer.

Usually, this is no problem. But what about those times when you left on less-than-glowing terms from the boss from hell, and that’s why you’re moving on? What if you were fired (it happens to good workers, too)? How do you balance this contradiction and show that you’re still the perfect person for the job you’re applying for?

Well. You’re going to have to be honest with yourself about the facts and develop a strategy to make a successful response. Let’s break it down.

First, what is the interviewer looking for by asking this question?

  1. Is this person honest, forthright and takes responsibility – or do they blame things on others?
  2. Was this candidate fired from their last job? If so, why? Ie, what is their version of events?
  3. Is this candidate someone who bad-mouths others who are not present?
  4. Will this person admit when they’re wrong, and do they know how to learn and grow from the experience?
  5. How well do they hold up to stressful questions?

And, of course, the ultimate basis for all the interview questions: will this person work out for me and my work goals?

Scenario A: You left because you had a boss from hell

Let’s take a scenario where you left by your own choice because you had the supervisor from hell. Ask yourself:

  1. What bothered you about them enough to want to leave your job?
    You’re an adult. You didn’t want to leave a good position because of a nasty person. You wanted to leave because – let’s put this in the positive – you want to grow, a better fit, a more team-oriented workplace, more opportunity in a certain area, etc, etc. Something this company explicitly offers. Turn the question around and make it an argument for a good fit and for what you have to offer the new company. I’ve seen many people turn this awkward question into a win-win.
  2. Do you reveal the horrors you’ve faced with your unreasonable former boss?
    You know he answer to this one, although I am constantly astounded by how many candidates build up a rapport with the interviewer and then let it all spill out, as some sort of bonding exercise? Don’t do it. Your mother told you not to bad-mouth people or you will get a bad reputation. It still applies to adults in the workplace. Any competent interviewer knows there are two sides to every story, and even if you are 100% right, it will still cast doubt on you. It’s as basic as that.

Use this question to explain your situation in a well-thought-out, articulate and honest manner. You can take the opportunity to show where you think you made some mistakes, and what you’ve learned from the experience to change your behaviour in the future.

This is honest, forthright, insightful – and a proven success strategy.

Everyone makes mistakes, but those of us who can see them and act on them to grow are far better candidates. And nicer people.

Scenario B: You were fired from your last position

This one is a bit trickier because any respectable HR professional who does his or her due diligence is going to know this before you even talk about it. So, above all, remain open and honest. People are fired for all kinds of reasons. And in this lucky case, the interviewing company did decide to go ahead to the next step and interview – there is still interest.

Tell the interviewer upfront that it was a difficult situation that you don’t want to repeat.

Explain that although you’ve had to chalk it up to experience, you’ve learned a lot. And then tell them what you’ve learned.

Be honest and concentrate on what you would do the next time, focusing on the skills, character traits, training, etc, you now have that match the employer’s wish list.

And keep it short, or you risk running on and saying too much, either about your feelings or the shortcomings of the previous work crowd. Just the facts, ma’am!

If you can admit you made a mistake, people are often able to let it go. If you show them how you’ve grown in the process, even better.

Scenario C: You left on good terms

That’s all you need to say. If the interviewer wants more information, they will ask for further details connected to this job. But that’s another question!

Do you have other questions that cause you to panic in an interview? How have you dealt with these? As ever, we’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences in the comments.

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