how to explain why you left your last job (or are seeking to leave your current one)

If you’re like a lot of job seekers, having to explain to an interviewer why you left your last job – or are seeking to leave your current job – might make you nervous. How candid should you be? Will your answer reflect poorly on you? Will you sound negative?

Ideally, you’d respond with the truth: You were looking for more responsibility, or wanted a job closer to home, or you were laid off, or whatever the real reason happens to be.

But what if the real reason is that your boss was a raving lunatic or you hated all your coworkers? If that’s the case for you, you need to finesse your answer a bit more.

To understand how to approach this, it helps to know the secret about the “why did you leave your last job? or “why are you leaving your current job?” interview question: It’s okay if the real reason you’re leaving is because of a crazy micromanaging boss, unpleasant coworkers, or a toxic culture. Hiring managers have all had those experiences ourselves, and we know those situations are out there. You just can’t say it in an interview, because if you do, you raise the following questions in the interviewer’s mind:

• What’s the other side of this story?
• Is your boss really a micromanager, or do you require a lot of oversight?
• Do you have unreasonable expectations of your manager?
• Are you hard to get along with? Are you a troublemaker or a prima donna?
• Are you going to be impossible to please at your new job too?
• Will you quit this job the first time something happens that you don’t like?

Given how many crazy bosses and toxic workplaces are out there, this might seem unfair. After all, why shouldn’t you be able to tell the truth and have the interviewer give you the benefit of the doubt?

There are two reasons for this: First, while interviewers will certainly allow for the possibility that your account is completely correct and objective, they don’t know you. They don’t know how reasonable or objective or sane you are, so the situation raises enough of a question mark that they’ll have to wonder and worry, and it won’t help you to have those sorts of questions hanging over you. And once those questions are raised, it is very difficult to definitively put them to rest during the hiring process

Second, rightly or wrongly, the interviewing convention is that you don’t badmouth a previous employer. You just don’t, no matter how deserved it might be. And interviewers are looking for evidence that you know what is and isn’t appropriate to say in business situations.

So instead of “I’m leaving because my boss made me sick to my stomach every time I looked at him,” try explaining that you are “leaving for new challenges,” “excited about this particular opportunity,” “taking the time to find something right,” and so forth. Your interviewer may realize there could be more behind it, but will be glad that you’re handling it appropriately, not boiling over with rage or badmouthing an employer.

I originally published this column at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 39 comments… read them below }

  1. RecentInterviewee*

    Alison, thanks so much for posting this advice. The no-negativity statements are something I strive to keep in mind during every interview.

    On Friday, I had a second round face-to-face panel interview during which the logistics of a potential start date were brought up just as I was collecting my items to leave. My response to the question was to explain that my employer was phasing out my position because of a shift in resources to another state; therefore, I would just have to provide a standard notice.

    I believe this to be honest and effective answer that carries no negative connotations about the company or its staff. After all, businesses change their direction from time to time in the name of efficiency, growth, and cost-cutting measures.

    As an aside, please keep your fingers crossed for me that my references are contacted and I receive an offer sometime soon. The interviewer is fast-tracking the position to be filled prior to the end of the month.

  2. Anonymous*

    What about if you’re bored and need new challenges? I work for a small family business, as an accountant, and the tasks that I do I can do it it closing my eyes. I love my boss and I love the laid back atmosphere, but I”m not going anywhere with this position. So what exactly is the appropriate way of telling it to potential employers? That I’m looking for new challenges and career opportunities?

    1. Piper*

      This is my reason for leaving most of my jobs. Many companies I’ve worked for did not offer room for advancement and I become bored and wanted to keep advancing and learning. Interivewers love this answer and act like they haven’t heard it that often. Are there that many people out there bad-mouthing or being negative?

  3. A nony cat*

    What about if one’s (small) company is undergoing financial difficulties? Is that a reasonable thing to say, or will the interviewer start wondering if you were the cause of said financial problems?

  4. Anonymous*

    how about

    “My career goals/aspirations didn’t compliment the company’s vision but this company (the one during interview) does and here’s why….”
    or should just be left at “new challenges”?

      1. YALM*

        “Why are you looking for a new job” is the first question I’m going to ask you. You can’t possibly know what my organization’s philosophy is yet. That’s a major part of what you’re here to find out.

        1. Piper*

          To be fair, more and more companies are putting information like this on their websites under things like core values or corporate values or even, our philosophy and what it’s like to work here. So, this is something someone could possible find some information about online by doing their due diligence prior to an interview.

          1. YALM*

            Yes, lots of companies post this information. It’s marketing collateral. To be clear, I’m not saying it’s a lie. But it’s only one version of the truth–the shiniest, happiest version. Everything you read about career opportunities and values and great working conditions may be spot on in one part of the company and an inside joke in another. Until you talk to the people on the ground in the corner of the company you’ve applied to, you just don’t know.

            If you can tell me honestly and without bashing why the situation with your current employer isn’t ideal, I’d rather hear that.

            1. Ask a Manager* Post author

              Yeah — if someone thought they knew what my org’s culture was like just from outside info, I’d think they were a little naive. (Exceptions to this would be if it were a big company that had gotten a lot of press on its culture, like Zappos.)

              1. Anonymous*

                ok, so if it were to Zappos then it would be ok?

                what about if it’s more the industry that you want to change. Can you say that this new industry is a better fit for your career goals?

            2. Piper*

              I agree that you can’t find out everything (and it’s ridiculous to think so), but at least do some research so you have an idea of what kind of image they are projecting. And then, see if it matches up with what’s really going on.

              Trust me, I know it’s not always a match. I’ve been forced to write the shiny, happy, marketing crap, knowing it was all lies. But at least for a job candidate it’s a place to start. That’s all I’m saying. I’m not saying you can possibly know everything about the internal workings of a company from what they post online.

              1. Anonymous*

                Agree, to a point.

                Yes, absolutely, scope out the web site and see what the company says about itself. I want to know that the candidate has some idea of who we are, what we do, who are clients/customers are, what we want the world to think about us…

                Do use the information from the web site to develop questions about the culture, about career growth, about values, and all that other jazz. Then ask those questions during the interview. Make sure the Utopia described on our Careers! page is not just a mirage.

                Don’t use that information to answer the “why are you job hunting” question the way that Anonymous asked about. Don’t show up at the interview presuming to know the reality. If a candidate does, and is new to the job world, I might be generous and think s/he’s naive–depends on how the rest of the interview goes. If the candidate’s been working a while, I’ll think s/he’s either a suck-up or a fool.

                And, as our hostess pointed out below, I now have fodder to ask all sorts of questions the candidate probably does not want to answer. It’s red meat. Don’t tease the hiring manager that way. The hiring manager is a sucker for red meat.

              2. Piper*

                Agreed. Things you find on the website shouldn’t be the reason you want to leave your job, but they could be part of the reason you were intrigued to come work for the company you’re interviewing with. And when you interview, you can try to gauge if those things you’ve read and heard are, in fact, true, or just some inside joke at the company.

  5. Suzanne*

    I had a nightmare job that I stayed with for not quite a year before I decided it was either quit or book a room in the asylum. I’ve been asked more than once about it. I always say it just wasn’t a good fit. One interviewer asked if it wasn’t a good fit from my perspective or the employer’s, to which I answered from my perspective and stated that the employer thought I was doing a great job (with my mind adding that the employer wouldn’t have known a good job from a bad). One of the interviewers was more concerned that I didn’t have my supervisor from that job listed as a reference, which I didn’t because the guy bordered on crazy and badmouthed every former employee that I ever heard him mention.
    I didn’t get that job, but at least I think I answered that question appropriately.

    1. J_Mo*

      I have the same issue in my search. I can’t list my supervisors, because they are nuts and have a very unrealistic view of…everything. :(

      I’m looking for other people within my company whom I can use as references. (Past coworkers and supervisors.)

  6. An*

    I’ve used those generic type responses , but they dont always work. Like on occasion I’ve been put on the spot when I’m applying for a job that’s less challenging/less pay. Or I get a” I get the sense there’s more to why you left.”. How should I respond? I don’t want to tell them my boss was an a-hole but I don’t want to lie..

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Yeah, you don’t want to say it when it doesn’t make sense (like when the new job would be less challenging). You’ve got to come up with something credible.

      1. Anonymous*

        So what could you say that would seem credible in this type of situation?

        I am currently applying for jobs that are less challenging and lower paying than my current one, because I would gladly take $4 less an hour in exchange for not having to wonder every day if I will come home that night or get killed in an armed robbery at work.

  7. kkelley805*

    I’d like to see an article from you about when an interviewee should disclose the real reason they’re leaving a company (like a toxic situation at work).

    We all know those situations do happen, and I’m tired of some interviewers/hiring managers/HR reps acting like every company always employs angels and saints that can do no wrong!

    Having said that, I do agree with you that letting it all hang out can reflect poorly on the interviewee.

    I like reading your articles and appreciate your wisdom.

  8. Krissy*

    I work for a foreign government in the US. I am the only assistant to 7 different people (positions). The job is a fairly good job, and I’ve been here for four years. However, I’m ready to move on for three main reasons. First, all of the other staff members (aside from myself) have terms of only two or three years. Since I assist 7 different people, this means that at least once a year one of my bosses leaves and a new one comes. Whenever a new person comes, they want to change my duties. The constant change is tiring and can be frustrating at times. It’s almost like I’m starting a new job with a new boss every year to 6 months. Second, they don’t offer any sort of benefits or health insurance. Last, as a foreign government, they don’t take out any taxes from my check which means I have to file self employment. It is an enormous pain to have to file self employment and jump through all the hoops. Also, that means I end up paying more in taxes. I realize I can probably just leave the last two out, but I don’t really know how to frame the first one. It isn’t that I don’t like challenges or new responsibilities, I just need something a little more stable after four years of constant change and upheaval. How can I phrase that to make it sound better?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      These are such reasonable reasons! I’d just say that there’s a lot of change in who you report to, so it’s like having a new boss every six months and you’d love some more stability.

  9. John Doe*

    How can you phrase an answer (without coming across aggrieved or disgruntled) about why you left your former position within your current company to work in another position in the same company whilst applying for another vacancy/position within the same company?

  10. lyn*

    What about if you had to leave town to take care of some family situations. how do you put it without being see as unserious or unreliable

  11. Harley*

    How do you answer the why did you leave the company when you were let go for “no cause”. Simply, we are ending your employment with us”. There were some bad vibes but there was no specific reason given and I have been using “budget cuts and restructuring of the organization to meet the budget”. In reality the company was going into the new fiscal year with a huge budget deficit to begin with and several high level people have been let go since that time so it’s not totally untrue.

  12. Anonymous*

    thanks for all your comments. They are very helpful. I resigned my job because I was dealing with a lunatic as a Manager and made my life a living hell after being in the position for less than a year and it is difficult to explain this to an interviewer without embellishing the truth.

  13. Jon Rogers*

    Here’s an example of an explanation for when you’re leaving your current job that I think works well:

    “It’s important to me that I have the chance to grow and work for a company that offers the best opportunities in my profession. Although I’m doing well where I’m currently working, I’m really looking for a job where I have more opportunity to demonstrate and grow my skills.”

  14. Jaem*

    What should I tell to an interviewer to the question, “Why did you leave your job?”, I left my job because of health reason. Also, what should should I tell them if they ask follow up questions?

  15. Sandy*

    Hi All,

    Can somebody help me in this. I left my previous organisation to look for a new job opportunity within my domain as earlier was not in my interest. Now its been long time but i haven’t got any good opportunity even in my domain. Want to get back to that domain as can not sit at home.

    So can anyone please tell me a good reason of leaving my last organisation or job that will satisfy the recruiter?

    Thanks and Regards!

  16. Kay*

    Is it okay to tell a potential employer during an interview that you left your previous job because you were pregnant? How do you explain that time lapse on resume?

  17. Rhonda*

    when applying for a job what should i put down for reason for leaving if I was injured and I am applying for the same type of position

  18. jasa backlink trackback*

    Hi there would you mind sharing which blog platform you’re working with?
    I’m going to start my own blog soon but I’m
    having a tough time choosing between BlogEngine/Wordpress/B2evolution and Drupal.
    The reason I ask is because your layout seems different then most blogs and I’m looking for
    something completely unique. P.S My apologies for getting off-topic but I had to ask!

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