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Saturday, April 19, 2008

how to answer "why did you leave your last job?"

A reader writes:

I've given my notice to the company I've worked for for four years, without another job lined up. I know that this is against general recommendations, but it was just getting to be too much for me to handle; I don't want to get into details too much, but my micromanaging boss just got to be too much for me to handle, coupled with the fact that my work schedule is so crazy I couldn't go interview at places.

I don't want to walk into an interview and be negative about my boss and the situation I was in, because I can definitely handle a LOT. But what are your suggestions for explaining why I left a job without another one lined up?

I'd go with something like, "After four years, I feel like I want to take on new challenges and I wanted to take some time to really focus on finding something I'd love." It's vague, but it's reasonable (because you'd been there four years; it wouldn't be reasonable if you'd been there a year). Employers are going to be satisfied with this answer, because it's one they'll understand themselves.

Here is the secret about the "why are you leaving your current job" question that every interviewer asks: It is totally fine if the real reason you are leaving is because of a crazy micromanaging boss, unpleasant coworkers, a toxic culture (we've all had those experiences ourselves and know in the back of our minds that it might be why you are leaving). You just can't tell us that. Instead, you have to pick a cover story, like "leaving for new challenges," because if you tell the truth, we start to worry about things like: Is your boss really a micromanager or is it that you require a lot of oversight? Are you just hard to get along with? Are you a troublemaker? A primadonna? Are you going to be impossible to please here too?

Now, this may seem unfair. Given how many crazy bosses and toxic workplaces are out there, why shouldn't you be able to tell the truth and have the interviewer give you the benefit of the doubt? Two reasons: First, while we absolutely will allow for the possibility that your account is completely correct and objective, it raises enough of a question mark that we have to wonder and worry, and it doesn't help any candidate to have those sorts of questions hanging over her. And once those questions are raised, it is very difficult to definitively put them to rest during the hiring process (unless we happen to know someone who worked at your old company, in which case they can often confirm that indeed your boss was a nightmare -- but that's the exception to the rule). Second, rightly or wrongly, the interviewing convention is that you don't badmouth a previous employer -- and we're looking for evidence that you know what is and isn't appropriate to say in business situations.

All of which leads to: Use an appropriate cover story -- leaving for new challenges, excited about this particular opportunity, taking the time to find something right, and so forth. We may realize there could be more behind it, but we'll be pleased that you're handling it appropriately, not boiling over with rage, etc. (You have to deliver the line naturally though; I've had candidates say it in a way that sounded overly formal and rehearsed, which immediately made me think they were hiding something and that's when I probe for more details. So watch your delivery; sound sincere.)

By the way, although you can't tell us the truth about your crazy boss in the interview, you can definitely tell us after we've hired you and you've been working with us for a while. We love to hear such stories after we've learned that we don't need to worry about you, especially if you then contrast the old boss to us and tell us how much happier you are now.

P.S. This is the one and only area of job-searching in which I'd ever recommend being anything less than forthright, and I don't feel good about it. I'm a big proponent of being honest about your weaknesses and other things job-seekers are routinely advised to lie about. But in this area, the potential for giving an employer an incorrect impression is just too great to do it safely.

8 comments:

Rachel - Employment File said...

Also, if you say you want new challenges make sure you have specific examples. Many of my managers follow up that excuse with the question: What do think is going to be different with this job?

HR Newbie said...

Love your answer and suggestions.

I LOVE to hear about the other crazy offices out there... make sure to share. :)


- HR Newbie

Anonymous said...

Another way to convey that you were in a difficult situation without telling a fib is to say "I was expected to do some things that I considered unethical and I just was not comfortable with that" This comment puts you on the high ground. It also leads to more questions because the interviewer will always want to hear more lurid details. At this point you can go a little more "negative" on your former boss without the usual stigma because now you are simply answering his/her questions. Just don't get carried away!!

Special Projector said...

Gotta disagree with anonymous...

When interviewing or reviewing resumes, I've come across candidates who take that 'high moral ground' with statements like,

"...(previous employer) seemingly had no concern for customers...",

"...(multiple managers) would not communicate with each other, leaving me to fend for myself..."

To me, it always comes across as disingenuous, at best.

SP

Anonymous said...

The lesson I am getting from this discussion is that it is only OK to tell the truth if it gives a positive impression of you. If the truth has a smidgen of a possibility of you coming across negatively to the interviewer, then the truth is better left unsaid. Better yet, have a "positive spin" ready. I don't want this to come across as terribly naive but if you are someone who has trouble lying or fudging with the truth -- or worse yet, you are still emotionally affected by the negative situation in the job you just left, you have a chance of ending up on the rejection pile moreso than someone who can put a good poker face and a positive spin on things. I guess this is just how the Real World works. I don't like it but I have to accept it.

Ask a Manager said...

Anonymous: Really? I tried to make the point that I advocate being open and honest in all areas of interviewing except that in this one particular aspect, it can raise too many questions to be completely candid, and I tried to explain why that is, from the perspective of the person doing the interviewing. I'm not sure it calls for such a morose assessment.

class factotum said...

Yep. I learned the hard way not to say anything negative about my old boss. I'm not sure it's why I didn't get an offer, but when asked about my previous project (the interviewing company was doing the same sort of project), I mentioned we had missed some deadlines. When pressed, I made a vague reference to my old boss. They kept asking questions and I kept trying to be diplomatic, but the reality was that he had screwed things up and he was the main reason people had quit and that the project wasn't going well. After that, I claimed ignorance of current status of the project and professed that my former job was a place of bliss. (OK, I limited my comments about my boss to the true statements that I really liked him. I didn't mention he was in way over his head.)

Anonymous said...

Hi Manager,
I had to leave my job in one month,how can I answer why did I leave my job?How can I Convince people that it was not upto the mark? . Please guide me. Thanks