how to answer “why did you leave your last job?”

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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.

{ 21 comments… read them below }

  1. Rachel - Employment File

    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?

  2. Anonymous

    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!!

  3. Special Projector

    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

    1. Anonymous

      My boss had three internal investigations against him, two for government fraud and one for hostile work environment. In what world does he have the moral high ground?

  4. Anonymous

    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.

  5. Ask a Manager

    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.

  6. class factotum

    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.)

  7. Anonymous

    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

  8. Maggie33

    Hello.
    I also need some advise.
    I have worked for the recruitment agency for almost 6 months.It was something which I always wanted to do so I absolutely loved the job, but I was bullied by one of my managers (I did not complain as I was afraid to loose the job). Finally I could not put up with the stress anymore and I left. Now I am working in the call centre, but I want to go back to recruitment. Which reason I could possibly give for leaving the job in recruitment agency? I already failed one interview for giving wrong answers. Thank you for any answers.

  9. satish

    If some one have one year experience in marketing field and he had left his job for two years due to his own reason and now he want to change his sector from marketing to operation what should he give excuse to the interviewer to get the job please suggest.

  10. Anonymous

    Hi.. I left my job in 4 months without an offer in hand.. What do i answer for the question why did you leave the job?:(

  11. Anonymous

    I too have a hard time answering this question. Sometimes I’m able to get away with being vague and saying it was because of the fact that I wanted to move back to my hometown. Sometimes, however, interviewers will push for more details and I always feel like I put my foot in my mouth by telling the truth (watered down of course). One of the real reasons I left my job is that after four years and three different lateral moves disguised as promotions within a major corporation I found myself pretty much on the same rung of my career ladder. In addition, I landed a great position in possibly the world’s most dysfunctional “team.” The communication was horrible, ethics seem to be a four letter word and my bosses were extremely catty and secretive about what was going on in the department which severely affected productivity of everyone. So I’m curious how do I spin that so I don’t seem like I’m whining or badmouthing my previous employer? Another factor in my move is that my mom’s health is declining but I’m weary of ever mentioning that for fear that employers will think I won’t be reliable because they would think I’d always need to take my mom to doctor’s appointments.

    1. KellyK

      I don’t think it would be badmouthing to mention that there wasn’t really room for growth in your previous role, so between that and the fact that you wanted to move back to your hometown and be closer to your parents, it made sense to leave.

  12. Anonymous

    Hi all
    Same sad topic of explaining why you left a past employer.
    Background is that it turned out to be clear cut constructive dismissal resulting in a compromise agreement where company paid you to leave yet on basis of no court case / trouble etc. PS company is small (< 30).
    The story of truth behind is sad enough and implicates some high level remaining parties in the company well enough and in a very clear way, but with no energy and desire to pursue a court case then money and departure were accepted . Not fair but then little in life is sometimes fair.
    Aspects of the truth can be easily related to a top level cover story in an interview that no support was given by line manager (who is at top of tree anyway). Thus I could say decision to leave was as a result of lacking development prospects and support which is true enough but it seems to be a negative slant against company which I understand should not be the recommended route of any comment at interview.
    Any ideas from managers out there as to how to tackle the basic question of "Why did you leave last company?".
    Leave the past and pursue a happier and more settled future is my good desire. I am sure I am not the only person to go through a nightmare few years despite the earlier years of enjoyment. I would add that performance throughout has been on mark and never been questioned or complained against.
    Any kind thoughts appreciated.
    Regards

  13. ROHAN SHINDE

    Hi..
    I left my job in 1 months without an offer in hand..
    What do i answer for the question why did you leave the job?

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