Updated 9 October 2020
One of the common questions asked by recruiters at a job interview is “What can you tell me about your previous employment?”.
Although seemingly innocuous, this is a question where many candidates struggle.
It should be easy to answer; after all, you’re being asked to explain your career history, your experience and to let them know of any major accomplishments.
It’s an unstructured question which means that you have the freedom to answer it in a way that suits you. You may wish to take a chronological approach to your answer, explaining your most recent role first. Or you may wish to pick out key achievements – especially if you can relate them to the prospective job.
But it is this freedom that can cause issues for candidates. How can you answer the question if you’re not 100% sure on what the hiring manager wants to know?
To help you prepare for your next job interview, we’re sharing our insights into how you can successfully answer this question.
We’ll take a look at what recruiters are trying to find out and provide you with some easy tips to help you prepare your answer for the future.
There are many reasons why an employer may ask you about previous work experience.
First, they want to make sure that you have the experience and knowledge required for the job role.
They may have read about your experience on your CV or resume but they want to hear about it directly from you.
They want the opportunity to find out more about your particular skills and capabilities.
Second, they’ll be assessing your answer to find out about your passion for your job.
They’ll be listening to how you describe your previous employment. They’ll be trying to find out whether you’ve enjoyed your work, or whether there’s a hint of any acrimony between yourself and a former employer.
It’s almost a certainty that you will be asked “Tell me about your work experience” within your job interview. Therefore, it’s wise to spend time thinking about how you would answer this during your preparation.
We mentioned earlier that the flexibility of this question means that you can choose to answer it in almost any way. And this is true – there’s no fixed format for explaining your previous work experience. However, it’s worth structuring your answer around the following questions:
What did you like about your previous job? (What are the things that helped you to work effectively and what were the positives of the role?)
Why did you want to work for that specific employer? (Perhaps they are a market leader, or you had an opportunity to gain experience or work with someone you admired)
Why did you choose to work in that specific industry? (Perhaps you’ve worked across many different sectors. What did you learn from each area?)
What did you learn from the role? (For example, experience, skills, qualifications, personal development)
Why do you think your experience is relevant to the new job? (What can you bring to the table? Do you have any transferrable skills or knowledge to share?)
Why did you leave your previous employer/why are you looking to leave? (It’s important to remain positive. Hiring managers will be looking to spot the signs of any tension here)
As you can see, there are lots of different facets to the question 'Tell me about your previous employment'.
You should remind yourself of the positives of each job; focusing on what you learned and how that knowledge/skill can set you apart as the candidate of choice for the new position.
Talking about your previous employment is a broad subject. It’s a topic that can open up a conversation and spark many further questions about your work experience.
To help you in your interview preparation, we’ve collated a list of 'Tell me about your work experience' questions as well as preparing some sample answers.
We hope that you can use these to aid you in your interview preparation.
This is where the prospective employer is looking to find out more about your most recent experience.
They’ll be seeking to find out what your responsibilities were, how you worked closely with other colleagues, and what experience you can bring with you to the new role.
I previously worked as a marketing manager within an agency. In my role, I was responsible for directing a team of six and pulling together strategies and plans to maximize the marketing efforts of the company.
I was in charge of project management, ensuring that each team member knew what their role was and that everyone was able to work to the same strategy effectively, on time and under budget.
As well as working closely with my team, I also had to work with a group of contractors and provide regular reports and updates to the senior management team.
From this experience, I’ve learned a lot about how to make the most of a project and how to work closely with different team members. I’ve been proud of how each member was able to feel confident enough to make suggestions on ways to ensure the success of the project and it’s been great to see the campaign outcomes achieve their key deliverables.
As you can see from this sample answer, the respondent has been able to clearly explain what their role was, how they worked as part of a team and what they learned from the experience.
The recruiter will be able to deduce that this is a capable candidate who can showcase managerial expertise as well as strategy.
You immediately know that they’ve worked with senior management as well as younger, more inexperienced team members and that they have empowered inexperienced colleagues to upskill and feel confident about making suggestions.
I have worked in a marketing team as a manager. I learned that I’m good at writing strategies and coming up with new ideas.
This isn’t a great response because it opens up more questions for the hiring managers.
What is this team like and what was the specific project? How have they been able to develop their skills and what capabilities can they bring to the new position?
Although the response tries to be positive, it doesn’t provide much detail or showcase any information about who they are as a candidate.
It is very likely you will be asked why you left your last job or why you want to leave your current job.
This is because the hiring manager is looking to find out whether you left on good terms and whether you decided to leave.
We’ve previously covered the topic of “Why did you leave your last job?” in more depth, but to recap, it’s a chance to showcase what you are looking for in your future career and why you are excited by this new position.
I’m ready to move on because I’ve spent many years working here honing my skills and I feel that I’ve gone as far as I can.
I’ve had the opportunity to learn from some fantastic colleagues and work on some incredible projects but I’m very conscious that to excel in marketing, you should be able to work on a variety of brands across different sectors.
I want to be able to test my skills in new areas – I’m really happy working where I am, but I feel that if I don’t leave now, I run the risk of complacency and I want to be able to try new things and learn new techniques.
In this answer, we can see that the candidate thinks very highly of their current job role and that it’s very much a positive relationship.
Their passion for the role is clear and it’s obvious to the hiring panel that this is someone ambitious and always willing to learn.
I’m ready to leave because the team has been reduced and I don’t like the people that I work with. There is a lack of understanding of what marketing can do within the company and they don’t want to invest in other projects. Because the team numbers have reduced, the workload has increased and there’s no recognition of our efforts.
This is an extremely negative response. It shows that the person isn’t interested in their company and, by complaining about workloads, they could give the impression that they are not prepared to work hard.
There may be valid reasons for their response but because it’s not been framed positively, it’s difficult for the hiring manager to look past the negative attitude.
This could be construed as a trick question, but the prospective employer is trying to establish your reasons for leaving and whether you make a good fit for their company.
It’s vital that in this answer you stay positive.
The recruiter will look negatively on you if you take the opportunity to explain everything you dislike about your current employer.
It’s important to remain constructive and factual and try to keep your response to matters relating to work tasks rather than anything more personal.
Remember not to choose something that is vital to the role you are interviewing for; if this is your least favorite part of your old job, your interviewer will suspect that you are not well suited to the role.
I enjoy most parts of my marketing manager job, but the aspects that I don’t enjoy are elements relating to project management.
This is because our internal project management tool is often tricky to use and we find that often team members bypass it which makes the cohesion far more difficult than it needs to be.
I’ve undertaken training in this particular system and we’re looking to see if there are any other options available, but at the moment it’s difficult to justify any investment in a new tool.
From this answer, you can see that the candidate has focused on a specific part of the role that can be easily rectified.
They’ve taken the time to explain how they’ve tried to overcome the situation which shows a level of forward-thinking to the hiring panel.
I don’t like the management style of the company. There’s too much micromanagement and staff members are expected to work in silos with little support and encouragement. There’s been a lack of investment in training and further skills and its difficult to feel motivated when it a toxic environment.
The poor answer above has gone into too much detail – it immediately becomes clear that they have an issue with their current employer, and it can provide a bad impression to the hiring team.
The answer is too negative; there’s nothing to show the hiring panel that they’ve taken their initiative to overcome the negative aspects of their job.
With this question, the hiring panel is trying to establish exactly what the candidate is looking for from the job role.
They need to decide if the candidate could be a good cultural fit for the team, so it’s an opportunity to figure out if there are any common elements of the job.
I’m interested in this position because it reminds me of when I worked in a small team several years ago.
The scope of the work is similar, but I can see that there is plenty of potential to grow and develop new skills.
I’ve worked in large companies before, but I prefer working in small teams because it’s easier to learn from others and share knowledge and expertise.
I’ve found that career progression is often better in smaller companies because there’s not the same hierarchy and employers are more willing to test on capability rather than other criteria. It’s something that I believe heavily in – that people should have an opportunity to progress at all stages of their career.
In this answer, the candidate has shown the positives of why they wanted to work for this company.
They’ve explained that they feel it’s an option for better career progression (hinting clearly that it’s important to them) whilst also reiterating that they enjoy working as part of a team dynamic.
There are many common aspects; the job role is the same, and I can also see that the employee benefits are similar. I appreciate the healthcare and the gym membership and the opportunities to earn through a commission structure.
From this answer, you can deduce that the candidate is not fussed by the job role; instead, the candidate is more focused on the employee benefits package.
This could indicate to the employer that they may not be passionate about what they do. It feels that the candidate is more concerned with what salary package they may receive rather than job satisfaction and career development.
This could potentially be another tricky question.
Interviewers may ask you this because they want to find out what leadership style you respond to. Some people like to be left to cope on their own, whilst others prefer a gentler hand-holding approach.
If you can share details of what makes your boss a good person to work for, the recruiter will understand whether you would fit into their specific team.
My boss has been great. He’s helped me to learn much more than I ever thought possible and has given me the independence to create new ideas and new strategies whilst trusting my judgment. He’s invested heavily in my learning and development and encouraged me to learn new skills and take on new roles and responsibilities.
The only reason I am considering leaving is that it’s time to work more independently and prove to myself what I am capable of.
This is a great response; it shows the clear respect that the candidate has for their boss. It shows that they’ve been able to learn new skills and develop their career and reiterates to the hiring panel that this is a person who is eager to continually push themselves to learn new things.
The candidate gives the impression that they are capable of much more, and they are willing to start a new challenge.
My old boss was difficult to work for. He didn’t like the way that the team worked and would change the scope of projects at the last minute. He wanted to micromanage the whole team and be in charge of ideas even though he wasn’t qualified in marketing. He had some success at what he was doing but that was many years ago and his experience isn’t relevant to today’s marketing campaigns.
As a response, this would be hugely negative. The candidate has used the opportunity to launch into criticisms of their boss without wondering whether the hiring panel knows that person. They’ve also shown that there were issues with team management and that they were reluctant to be flexible in their working methods.
The answer has also concluded with personal criticism of their boss which doesn’t inspire confidence. The lasting impression is that this candidate could be difficult to work with.
Here are our top tips for giving the best possible answer if you are asked to talk about your previous work experience.
Remain positive. Take a glass-half-full approach to your answer. The prospective employer is looking to hear your passion and excitement for your job. They want to know that you’re hardworking and keen to continue learning new skills. Therefore, try to frame your answers in an upbeat way. If you’ve had challenges, explain what you’ve learned from that challenge and what steps you took to overcome it.
Make a positive sandwich. This sounds like a simple technique, but if you do have anything negative (or constructive criticism) to say about your experience/past employers try to frame it within a ‘positive sandwich’. This is where you say something positive > something negative > something positive. By wrapping the criticism with positive comments, it’s easier to remember the good aspects rather than the bad.
Try not to be personal. You may be leaving because you’ve had a falling out with a co-worker, or you don’t like your boss. When answering questions, try to focus as much of it as possible on the specific job tasks rather than personal comments about co-workers. You need to position yourself as someone that the hiring panel wants to hire. Therefore, they want to have a positive first impression of you.
Focus on areas of expertise that meet the job description. Although the hiring manager wants to know what you’ve achieved, they also want to know how it relates to their specific job role. Make sure you take the time to look at the job description and figure out what they are looking for. Then once you are clear on that, you can tailor your answer around this criterion. It’s a subtle way of re-establishing how you are qualified for that specific job role.
This article will have helped you understand how to answer any questions about your work experience.
As you can see from our sample answers, it’s important to be as positive and constructive as possible when preparing your answers.
During an interview, the hiring manager is looking to find out what experience you have and why it’s relevant to them.
They want to have a positive list of reasons why they should employ you, so you must showcase your excitement and passion.
They want to know about how you can take your previous experience and bring it to the new role, so you must be clear on what they are looking for.
The good thing about the question 'Tell me about your work experience' is that it is so common that you can prepare your answers in advance. It is almost guaranteed that it will come up in conversation during the interview, so you can use this to your advantage.
Take the time to think about what questions you may be asked and how you plan to answer them using a positive and insightful tone of voice.
Once you know what you are likely to say, you can practice answering these questions with a friend until you’re confident that you are giving the right impression.
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