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The dreaded interview question: Why did you leave your last job?

It’s the question that’s rattled even the most confident of interviewees, whether they left their last job on good terms, or not. If you were made redundant or even fired, how do you put a positive spin on your situation to a potential employer? If you made the decision to leave, how do you convince them that you’re not just out to ruthlessly climb the career ladder?

Fear not, we’ve got some tips to help you navigate this minefield of a question.


Why do employers ask this question?

Employers want an insight into what you may be like to manage, and this question tests any number of the following qualities:

  • Professionalism – whatever the circumstances were, the interviewer needs to know that you carried yourself in a manner suitable for the workplace.
  • Loyalty – how quick are you to complain about your previous company/boss/colleagues?
  • Attitude – were you able to learn from any negative experiences, draw a line under them and move forwards?
  • Honesty – this is important to employers, who need to be able to trust you, even if it does mean admitting your mistakes.
  • Articulation – as with any interview question, your ability to think under pressure is being tested.


If you made the decision to leave

There are lots of good reasons to leave a job that won’t put your interviewer off. After all, moving jobs is a common occurrence that everybody will go through at some point.

  • You want an increase in pay or a promotion; if the company you are interviewing with is giving you a better deal, tell them! They’re probably going to ask you why you want to work for them anyway, and ambition is certainly a good reason.
  • You want to work for a better/different kind of company; as above, your new employer will love to hear why they’re the ideal company to work for – just be careful not to criticise your old employer too much, as this can make you look disloyal.
  • You are re-evaluating your career goals / looking for new opportunities / want to work for a company in which you can grow; simply put, you’re aspirational and want to advance your career, just like any other desirable employee.
  • You want a more challenging role where you’ll be given more responsibility; it’s rare for anyone to start out in the perfect job. Many of us begin in junior roles, with the aim of climbing to the top, or may have been forced to take a job simply because they need the money. Phrasing it as a ‘desire for a challenge’ suggests you want job satisfaction as well as just a pay rise.
  • Personal reasons – again, everybody has them, and no one’s going to think badly of you for taking time off to deal with family issues, illness, having children or deciding you want to move to another area. If they do, they may not be the best people to work for.


If you were made redundant

Remember that it’s not you as an individual that has been made redundant, it’s your position. If you don’t see it that way, then neither will your potential employer.

While it may have affected your confidence, this is a great chance to prove you can turn an unfortunate situation into an opportunity. Think about the positive things that have come out of your redundancy, such as:

  • Time to think about what you really want to do and who you really want to work for
  • The opportunity to undertake some valuable training
  • A chance to spend more time with your family or make beneficial lifestyle changes

It’s important not to appear bitter or resentful about your previous company or your situation. You need to show a resourceful, ‘can-do’ attitude. Highlight the positives you got from your last company, such as new skills or great friendships and move on quickly to talking about the future.


If you were dismissed

This is slightly trickier, but you need to be honest, as your employer will always be able to find out from other sources. Here are a few strategies to dealing with this most-dreaded of interview situations:

  • Check with your references, as they need to match-up with what you’re saying. You may be able to put a positive spin on your reference, so it’s better to be forewarned.
  • Don’t blame incompatibility with employers or colleagues, and don’t be derogatory or critical. This could suggest you have a negative attitude, or you’re unable to get along with others.
  • Admit if the job wasn’t the best fit for you, and turn it in an opportunity to say why you’d be a perfect fit for the new role you’re applying for.
  • Prove that you can learn from experience. If you admit you could have handled the situation differently, and demonstrate how you will improve in the future, it shows a degree of maturity which your new employer will respect.
  • Answer as directly and briefly as possible, then move on. Even better, bring it up before you’re even asked about it and take control of the situation.

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