Updated 25 May 2020
“Why did you leave your last job?” is one of the most frequently asked questions at interviews and you’re almost certain to encounter it during the interview process across a wide range of industries and roles.
Similar in meaning to “Why are you looking for a new position?”, interviewers ask this question to find out whether the reason you’re looking to leave is a good one and if you’re departing voluntarily and on good terms. The way you reply to the question also reveals a lot about your work ethic and what’s important to you in a role.
This is perhaps the only interview question when having no prior work experience might seem like a good thing. Avoid the temptation to lie, however; instead, hide any unflattering details of why you stopped working for your last employer. You never want to brag about how you took a band of musicians to your boss’ office to announce you were quitting the job.
Sometimes your reason for quitting your last job will be perfectly valid. For example, if you left to begin training for a new career path, say as much.
Your former colleagues drove you nuts? Best to find a way to spin that positively.
An interviewer can ask this question in many different ways, but your answer should still be roughly the same. Here are some variations you may come across:
Your interviewer can infer much about you based on your answer to this question. Ultimately, it's not so much about your profession as your character. Some of the things your interviewer may be trying to glean include:
Avoid filling your mind with thoughts of what your interviewer might be thinking from your answer during the interview.
As with all interview questions, answering honestly is really important – not only to ensure you are a good fit for the company and they for you, but to avoid sounding fake. For example, many interviewees will happily reply that they are looking for a new challenge. This may be true, but you’ll need to back your answer up with examples of what these challenges are – and how you feel the role in question satisfies that desire - if you want your answer to be effective and convincing.
To prepare, the best thing you can do is spend some time thinking about the real reasons you’re looking to leave or have already left. In many cases, the reasons may not all be positive. For example, you might be looking to step up into a more senior position and manage a larger team, but you might also have a difficult relationship with your boss that has prompted your decision to leave.
When deciding how to answer, it’s important to present yourself as a positive, proactive and rational person who is leaving for the right reasons. As a result, it’s best to avoid listing reasons that reveal issues with other members of staff or with the company overall. If that’s unavoidable, it’s important to put a positive spin on things.
For example, if you’re applying for a role as a manager but have had issues with a more junior colleague, don’t say:
“I really want to leave because of our team assistant, Mark. He just has no idea what he is doing and I end up having to pick up all his work and do it for him, giving me double the workload for the same salary - it’s really frustrating.”
Instead, you could say:
“I’ve been working closely with a junior colleague to help him improve his performance and as a result have undertaken additional tasks and responsibilities. I’ve really enjoyed being able to mentor and train him and am looking for a new role that will enable me to develop these managerial skills. I understand the junior manager role here has two direct reports and I think it would be a great opportunity to use the skills I’ve learned in my current role and develop them to the next level.”
Even if you were forced out of your old role, don't focus on the negative reasons as to why you left.
The way you answer this question depends on your current work situation. For example, if you’re currently employed and looking to leave your job, you’ll tackle it slightly differently (and may find the question easier) than if you’ve already left your previous role and are out of work.
That’s because many employers worry that leaving a job before you find a new role indicates there was a serious issue, and will be on the lookout for replies that point to real problems.
Regardless of your current situation, it’s possible to formulate an effective response that will give future employers the right impression and demonstrate not only your ethics and ambitions, but also your knowledge of the company and how they fit together. Below are tips on how to structure your reply, based on scenario:
You are in a strong position. Be honest about your answer and use your employment as an asset. Tell them that you are looking for a better opportunity and that you are currently on good terms with your employer.
Yes, there is some explaining to do as to why you have remained unemployed - but don’t present yourself as a victim. The best way to answer is to show that the time you have spent unemployed was productive, i.e. you learned something new that adds to your skill set.
If you were made redundant or fired from your previous job, you should focus on two main points:
1) To avoid blaming your employer for that outcome, and
2) Stating your experience before getting fired and how you value what you learned during your employment there.
If you have been a job-hopper, this is the toughest question for you. One way to answer is to state the reasons for quitting honestly while saying what you learned – for this job and the previous one at least. The second way is to be creative and say that in each case you’ve moved for an evident reason, e.g. career progression, more interesting role, better training etc.
As with all interview questions, it’s important to avoid sounding negative. Being critical of your former or current company, boss or colleagues not only looks unprofessional, but will make the interviewer question whether you will be as critical of their company should you get the job – which may well make them think twice about offering it to you.
Vague answers also won’t come across well, as it will make you sound like you’re not sure of your motivation and therefore of your interest in the job in question. There might be many reasons why you want to leave, some of which might not be very specific, but when answering the question make sure you pinpoint two or three positive reasons that you can tailor and relate back to the role you’re interviewing for, to help you give the most specific and believable answer.
Here are a few tips to help you ace this tricky question.
"I’ve been at the company for four years and have worked my way up from a junior sales role to sales manager in that time. Throughout this period I’ve had the opportunity to develop my sales skills and have worked with, and now managed, an incredible team that has consistently beaten its targets by up to 30% every quarter under my leadership. Having achieved what I set out to do, I feel that the skills and experience I’ve gained there have equipped me to take the next step in my career.
"I’m ready to tackle bigger challenges in a more senior regional sales role. This position in particular really appeals to me, as it will enable me to use my existing experience to take the step up to managing a larger team, while using my strategic planning skills to help the company beat targets across a wider product range."
"I worked at my last company for 18 months and I learned a lot in that time. When the company was taken over by GTV Banking, restructuring meant that there were a number of redundancies across several departments. In my department six out of twelve personnel were made redundant, all of whom were juniors. I’m really happy that I had the chance to work there, though, as it gave me a wealth of experience and enabled me to put what I learned during my internships into practice.
"In addition, the redundancy enabled me to seek out a new challenge with this additional experience. The role here appeals to me as I'll be able to use the client advisory experience I have, while developing in a larger team and gaining skills thanks to your training and development programme. I’ve heard great things about how the company invests in its staff and the training opportunities on offer and that’s something I’m really keen to find in my next role."
"I’ve been at my current company for two and a half years and I’ve gained a huge amount of experience in food supply chain and logistics, going from managing a supply chain of four suppliers and seven distributors to ten suppliers, eighteen distributors and a fleet of delivery vehicles. Having seen our annual turnover increase by 22%, I’m now keen to put my skills to work for a larger company with more scope for progression.
"I’m excited by this role as I know it is one that has been created to facilitate the company’s development into food and beverage sales. It looks like a role with huge scope for development, one that I can really get my teeth into and that will make use of the in-depth experience and contacts I have in the food and beverage industry, which is exactly what I’m looking for."
“I have been unemployed for six months because I chose to be so. I’m lucky enough that I was able to raise enough surplus income from my previous role to mean I didn’t have to work for a while – so I took that opportunity to live in Thailand and teach myself some new programming languages, via a combination of self-teaching and online courses. Given that this role requires knowledge of Python, which was one of the languages I learned and have since used, I wouldn’t be here today in this interview if I hadn’t taken that time off to recharge and re-educate myself.”
Now you know how to prepare for and answer “Why do you want to work for us?”, take a look at these other tricky interview questions: