How to Explain Why You Left a Job

By Martin Yate August 6, 2019
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How to Explain Why You Left a Job

Best-selling author Martin Yate, a career coach and former HR professional, takes your questions each week about how to further your career in HR. Contact him at the e-mail address at the end of this column.

I've been through a number of downsizings in the last few years. Most recently, I had been hanging on in what became a toxic environment. Then I woke up one day knowing I had to get out of there. How do I explain this?

Your reason for leaving a job is a "check-box question" for the interviewer, who just wants to know that you don't have skeletons in your closet. He or she will ask the question and then move on.

It's something you'll be asked about at every interview, so you need to have a well-thought-out and succinct answer. If you don't, the result will most likely be a rambling response. The longer you ramble, the more the interviewer may assume that you are hiding something. And depending on why you left, coming up with your answer may require some uncomfortable self-analysis. Best to get started on your response now.

Check Employer Reference Policies

Check your former company's policy on giving references. Many companies will give only the dates you started and stopped working there and, perhaps, your ending salary. Check your state's law on sharing salary history.

Play it safe by asking if prospective employers can check your references with your former managers. Even if the answer is no, call your former manager and ask if he or she would feel comfortable giving you a reference and, if so, what he or she would say. Having this information—even if the manager tells you he or she can't give a reference—will help you formulate your response.

Keep It Short and Positive

Your ideal answer to why you left your previous employer should run 15 to 40 seconds long. It should be to the point, spoken without hesitation as you calmly look the interviewer in the eye. It helps to rehearse exactly what you are going to say, and, fortunately for you, the answer is pretty straightforward.

You might say that you have been through a number of downsizings and the all-too-familiar layoffs that follow. When your most recent employer went through a downsizing, you saw the writing on the wall and decided to leave to invest your time in finding a better path for your future. End your answer with "Does that make sense?"

Notice that this sample answer ends with a reflexive question (one that encourages agreement). An answer along these lines is sensible, does not apportion blame and can be stated briefly. And that reflexive question increases the odds of on-the-spot agreement. Your interviewer has just checked off the check-box question.

Have a question for Martin about advancing or managing your career? From big issues to small, please feel free to e-mail your queries to YourCareerQA@shrm.org. We'll only publish your first name and city, unless you prefer to remain anonymous—just let us know!

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