how to explain to your interviewer why you left a previous job

When you’re interviewing for a job, it’s very likely that interviewers will ask why you’re leaving your current job or why you left previous jobs. In theory, this should be straightforward – we’re usually pretty clear in our own heads about why we leave jobs – but in reality, sometimes answering can be fraught with landmines.

Interviewers will pay attention to the way you talk about a previous boss or the job, and they’ll notice how you discuss what you did and didn’t like about the office culture. From that discussion, they’ll draw conclusions — sometimes correctly, sometimes not — about how well you’re likely to adapt to this job if they hire you. How, then, do you talk about leaving previous jobs in a way that’s honest but won’t harm your chances?

Here are six of the most common reasons people leave jobs … and how you can explain them to your interviewer.

Your boss was a nightmare.

Interviewers know there are plenty of terrible bosses around, and that you might be leaving a job because of one. The only problem is that interviewers don’t know you well enough to decide if your assessment of a terrible boss would line up with theirs. If you bad-mouth your old boss in a job interview, they’ll wonder what the other side of the story is, or whether you were really the problem. For example, if you say your boss was a micromanager, maybe it was really because your work wasn’t great and required a ton of oversight. Or it can seem like you have unreasonable expectations of a manager, or that you’re difficult to get along with.

Additionally, one unspoken rule of job interviewing is that you should never bad-mouth previous employers; it’s considered indiscreet and a little tacky. So some interviewers will be put off no matter what if you mention a bad manager, even if what you’re saying is credible.

Given that, if you’re leaving a job because of your boss, you’re better off with an answer that isn’t about your boss at all. Instead, explain that you’re “ready for a new challenge,” “excited about this job because of ___,” or another less potentially fraught answer. (One catch: You can’t use this to explain leaving after only a few months! In that case, you’d look oddly flighty and out of touch with how jobs normally work. If you’re in that situation, use my advice here.)

You were laid off.

If your job was eliminated — meaning you weren’t fired for performance reasons — you don’t need to beat around the bush. Layoffs are normal and not something you should feel any stigma about. You can be straightforward: “My company had to do layoffs and my position was one of the ones that was eliminated.”

That said, if you’re able to share information that will put the layoff into a broader context for the employer, it’s helpful to do that. Context like, “They cut everyone who had been hired in the last year” or “They laid off the whole training team” will help underscore that the decision wasn’t performance-based. (But if you don’t have context like that to provide, that’s fine too.)

You were fired.

If you were fired, you might be tempted to try to cover it up — but don’t. If you lie and say you left voluntarily (or frame it as a layoff or otherwise misrepresent what happened), the employer will likely find out the truth when they contact your references or do a background check. And if that happens, the lie itself would be a deal-breaker – whereas an honest explanation often wouldn’t be.

People also are sometimes tempted to overexplain a firing, feeling they need to provide a long, detailed explanation of what happened. You don’t! Saying too much will make it a bigger deal than it needs to be, and generally you’ll come across as pretty defensive. Typically all you need are a few sentences explaining what happened. For example:

“Actually, I was let go. That’s on me — I took a job that required pretty advanced design skills, which frankly I don’t have. I thought I’d be able to get up to speed quickly, but I underestimated how much I’d need to learn. They made the right call, and I was relieved to get back to editing.”

“Actually, I was let go. The workload was very high and I didn’t speak up soon enough and ended up making mistakes because of the volume. It taught me a lesson about communicating early when the workload is that high, and to make sure I’m on the same page as my manager about how to prioritize.”

Plenty of people get fired from jobs and still go on to get hired again! The key will be in how you talk about it — ideally concisely, calmly, and without defensiveness.

You were underpaid.

There’s a school of thought that says you should never cite money as a reason for leaving a job, but if you’re truly underpaid for the market and that’s the major thing driving you to leave, it’s okay to say that. For example, you could say: “I love the work I do, but we’ve been in a budget crunch for a while, and as a result our salaries haven’t kept up with our competitors. I’ve learned a ton here and been able to do really satisfying work, but I’m looking to raise my salary to be better in line with the market.”

It’s also okay to cite a lack of major benefits, like health insurance: “I love my work here, but the company doesn’t provide health insurance, and that’s not sustainable for me long-term.” Any reasonable interviewer will understand that.

You didn’t like the work.

It’s to your advantage to be straightforward about not liking the work itself, because it will help you screen out jobs that you might dislike for similar reasons. The key is to frame it in a positive way, where you also talk about what you do want to be doing. For example: “The role turned out to be largely marketing work, and I found that I really missed working more closely with scientists.”

You can be similarly straightforward if the issue was something related to the work, like the amount of travel you were expected to do on the job. For example: “I was on the road about 75 percent of the time, and really wanted a position with less travel.”

You hated the culture.

Similarly to explaining why you didn’t like the work at a previous job, it can be to your advantage to explain you left because of the office culture too, so that you screen out employers who have similar cultures. The trick is to find language that sums up what you didn’t like fairly concisely (so you don’t sound like you’re mired in negativity about it) and to frame it in a nonjudgmental way (so that you don’t sound overly negative). For example:

“I’m used to smaller organizations with a lot of room for moving quickly and being entrepreneurial and, while there are lots of advantages to larger companies, I found myself missing that.”

“The culture of a company is really important to me, and I realized I wanted to work somewhere that’s more team-focused with more opportunities to collaborate. Not only do I get a lot of satisfaction from that on a personal level, but I also think it generally makes the work stronger as well.”

I originally published this at New York Magazine.

{ 136 comments… read them below }

  1. savethedramaforyourllama*

    This one is hard for me because I was fired from a former job *because* my boss was a nightmare. And actually it may have been an ADA violation as well I just didn’t have the documentation in line. Its hard to explain the situation without the potential health issue being a red flag (I try to say now-resolved health issue if I have to mention it) and also the fact that the boss was legit insane.

    1. Detective Amy Santiago*

      I was also fired because of a nightmare boss/bad culture. Here’s how I’ve talked about it:

      “I was terminated because some things fell through the cracks after my workload tripled in less than a year. In August, our team of 4 was supporting 150-200 teapot painters every month. By the following September, we were supporting 600+ teapot painters every month without additional support. Despite me flagging this issue starting in March or April and warning my direct supervisor that things were going to start falling through, nothing changed.”

  2. StringCheese*

    What if you were fired for a really egregious reason? Like stealing or sleeping with the boss?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      If it was something like stealing, you’re probably going to have to work less-desirable jobs for a while in order to rebuild a work history. If it was sleeping with the boss, I’d say that you ended up in a relationship with a colleague and the company had an anti-fraternization policy.

      1. LSP*

        Richard: So, why do you want to work in television?
        Bridget: I’ve got to leave my current job because I’ve shagged my boss.
        Richard: Fair enough. Start on Monday. We’ll see how we go. And, incidentally, at ‘Sit Up, Britain’, no one ever gets sacked for shaggin’ the boss. That’s a matter of principle.

  3. Murphy*

    I’m at the point now where I can leave this job off my resume, so I probably won’t have to answer this question again, but what if you were fired without actually being given a reason?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Ideally you want to know what they’d say if called for a reference. If that’s not possible, you try to figure out what happened to the best of your ability, but it might not be perfect, of course.

      1. anoniaa*

        How much detail in the situations you provided would you give to the interviewer? I don’t know when they’ve asked enough, or what you’d do in the situation that you felt they had asked a lot about it already.

          1. anoniaa*

            What would you do if the interviewer kept asking more about the situation? For the insurance one you used, I’ve seen people turn that into something. Like they offer insurance, but what if one day they didn’t, would you stay as an employee? Uhh Maybe I’ve been to some really bad interviews?

    2. designbot*

      It’s okay to say “I was let go and it really came as a shock to be because the feedback up until that point had been really positive.” or some such thing to demonstrate that you aren’t just clueless, they had really given you mixed signals.
      That said, I’ve interviewed somebody that was clueless about why he was fired before and it was really disconcerting, because some possible reasons jumped out at us really quickly—he was hired in at a really senior position for his experience level, and then let go really quickly, so I could pretty easily make an assumption about why he was let go. The fact that he was clueless to it came off really weirdly. So, before playing it totally clueless I’d ask a couple of friends, preferably in the industry, to read over your resume and be frank with you if they see any red flags like that or seemingly obvious possibilities that might require more explanation.

      1. designbot*

        Sorry I meant to also say it’s okay to say something like, “They didn’t give me a reason, but if I’m honest there seemed to be a bit of a mismatch between what was advertised and what the role wound up requiring” or something else (preferably neutral) that shows you were thoughtful about it and learning from the experience.

      2. Murphy*

        When I interviewed for my current job, I said “I wasn’t given a reason. I’d just had a positive evaluation from my boss, and then the head of our department let me go a few days later without an explanation.” Obviously I got my job, so it worked out OK. And I’d practiced being matter of fact about it, but I was less knowledgeable about work things then than I am now.

        In reality, it wasn’t a complete shock…I was only there a few months, and I knew the boss wasn’t happy with me. Some of it justified, some of it not. She didn’t give great feedback, so I didn’t always know what she was unhappy with. But I’d just had a check-in/feedback session with my boss that was completely positive, and then two days later she left the office early (very unlike her) and my grandboss and the head of HR fired me. When I asked why, HR said “We’re not legally obligated to give you a reason.”

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          FYI, if anyone reading ever encounters “We’re not legally obligated to give you a reason,” a good response is, “Of course. But I’m asking because I’ve been a member of this team and invested a lot of effort here and would like to understand what happened so that I know what I need to work on in the future. I’d hope that after our mutual investment in each other, you’d be willing to share that with me.”

          They may still refuse, but they’ll feel even more ridiculous doing so.

          1. Scubacat*

            Ah well. It would be nice if employers answered this question. During one termination meeting (my only one), I did ask for the reason why I was being let go. Rephrasing Alison’s script a few different ways didn’t work. All that my supervisor had to say was….
            “Your services are no longer required.”

            I hope that they felt silly in refusing to answer.

        2. Bea*

          They fired you because they didn’t like you. Anyone with actual reasons will give them to you but the boss failed to give you proper feedback, so they’re falling on a “don’t have to tell you, covering our asses right nowwwww” sword.

          The good news is you’ve got a buffer job between those idiots and more experienced self. Less likely there will be digging.

  4. bdg*

    I’m looking for a job in my hometown so I can be closer to my family — my dad was recently diagnosed with cancer. Can I just say that’s why, or do I need to go into more detail about wanting a more technical role?

    1. rldk*

      From previous advice, it seems a good strategy is to say that you’re looking to be closer to family in the area, and then immediately pivot to specifics about the role that make it appealing in itself. So like “I’m actually moving back to Smallsville to be closer to family, and the I’m really interested in how X role will allow me to use my experience in technical certification Y.”

      1. Blue*

        More than once in my relatively short career, I’ve applied/interviewed for jobs in states to which I had no connection. I addressed my desire to move very briefly in the cover letter, and there was a follow up question in every single interview. I always framed it as [reason I’m looking to move] + [reason this specific job spoke to me/seemed like a good next step] and it worked really well every time.

        1. Emily K*

          Having interviewed out-of-state (and out-of-country) candidates before, this is exactly the kind of answer I want to hear – that 1) the move isn’t the only reason you’re looking at this job and 2) this job isn’t the only reason you’re looking to move. (Exception to #2 would be in some very limited circumstances with fairly high up senior-level roles, where an equivalent opening might not be available where they live and the person has enough work experience under their belt that the risk of them suddenly going “Oh gods, doing Dream Job for Dream Company is nothing like I thought it would be and I hate New City and I just want to go home” is less than it would be with an entry-level/junior position.)

          1. Jessen*

            My only worry is that sometimes the reason to move isn’t socially acceptable.

            I’ve been seriously considering moving just so as to put some physical distance between myself and my family. I hate having to worry about chance encounters around town with a toxic parent, especially one who is good at “playing to the crowd”. But I am aware there’s really no way to say that in an interview acceptable format.

    2. Detective Amy Santiago*

      I think you can say that you’re looking to relocate to be closer to family, leaving out the specifics of your dad’s diagnosis, and then detailing why you are specifically interested in this position.

    3. Antilles*

      I’m looking for a job in my hometown so I can be closer to my family
      You can say exactly that. Moving for family reasons is pretty much a bulletproof reason – even employers who don’t care about work/life balance usually like to tell themselves that they do, so nobody will have an issue with it.

      1. Trout 'Waver*

        Exactly this. It also gives the signal that you’re going to stay for a long time.

    4. Bea*

      When I moved, they just wanted to know I’m looking to park my butt there for awhile. So to be closer to aging family works well. Bring it up in your cover letter or you’re getting binned for being out of town a lot more than you know!! Say you’re moving for family. Then launch into your desire for the technical role.

  5. Kathlynn*

    My concern is that I’m going to be trying to switch fields, due to increasing health issues (asthma, where I’m surrounded by triggers), and the fact that my manager is promoting a coworker I can’t stand for legitimate reasons. (essentially he gets to decide if he wants to do his job or not, without consequences. And I’m the one who gets into trouble if things don’t get done)

    1. LadyByTheLake*

      “Due to health concerns, I am looking to move into a field that involves less exposure to paint/pollen/fumes. I think my skill set is transferrable to X because …”

    2. Anonymeece*

      I would just focus on the “switching fields” part, leaving out the colleague. The medical reasons is up to you if you want to disclose or not.

      Possible script:

      “I’ve been doing X for Y years, and have enjoyed the experience and learned a lot from it, but I realized I really wanted to [take on new challenges/follow my passion for/etc] and so I’m looking for jobs that more closely align with my passion” or something similar and maybe not so cheesy. But people switch fields all the time. If it’s early on, you may want to say something along the lines that you found that it wasn’t the right fit; if you have some years experience doing Field 1 already, then the “take on new challenges” (for adjacent fields) or just switching because you realized that’s your goal would probably be more appropriate.

    3. designbot*

      OMG, you just described my situation at work to a tee. I’ve been kind of beating myself up about it, oscillating between feeling justified in my outrage, and then telling myself that I’m far too concerned about somebody else’s promotion. But reading what you wrote describing this phenomenon so succinctly, as well as just knowing I’m not alone, helps me remember that it’s okay to think that this is not cool.

    4. Turquoisecow*

      Honestly, that also sounds like a bit of a culture fit problem, if a person you can’t stand is going to be in power. I’m not sure how you’d word that exactly – maybe if the person prioritizes things you don’t agree with. Or is taking the company in a new direction.

      It’s probably better to focus on the health reasons overall, though, unless you have some concrete, objective reason for disliking the person.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        And even if you do, I’d still focus on the health reasons. It’s always better to go with the most mundane, least-open-to-interpretation reason you have.

    5. TootsNYC*

      I would think that “surrounded by asthma triggers” would be a major reason to switch fields that wouldn’t make people think they needed to worry about your health.
      maybe you say “environmental contaminants” or something.

  6. Not Today Satan*

    I hate this question. I left my last job because massive layoffs (almost a third of the staff) caused an undue burden on remaining staff. Some people even think that mentioning layoffs is “indiscreet”!

    1. Detective Amy Santiago*

      I think it’s perfectly reasonable to mention layoffs and I feel like you probably don’t want to work somewhere that thinks it is indiscreet to mention them.

      I’d probably say something like “There was a round of layoffs that resulted in my workload becoming unmanageable.”

    2. Blue*

      If someone is going to judge for mentioning layoffs…I’m not sure that’s a person I’d want to work for, to be honest.

    3. Ask a Manager* Post author

      No reasonable interviewer has a problem with someone explaining they were laid off. It’s a factual answer and any other would be a lie.

      1. Lily Rowan*

        But in this case, the person interviewing wasn’t laid off — I still assume it’s a reasonable reason to be looking for a new job.

        1. Ali G*

          Yes because there can be downsides to not being laid off. NTS mentions the most likely – that the staff left are still doing the same amount of work that needed to be done before layoffs. Perhaps they are also underpaid (cheap labor).
          But, whether or not it’s 100% true, I think the best thing to say would be, “While I survived this round of layoffs, it is likely that there are more coming, and I would like to find stable employment before that happens.”

        2. CatCat*

          Totally a reasonable person to leave. “Unfortunately, my current company has had to lay off 1/3 of its workforce recently. Accordingly, I am looking to move somewhere with more stability.”

        3. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Oh, I misread. Still totally fine to explain that — “we’ve been having mass layoffs and I’m looking for something with more stability.”

    4. SusanIvanova*

      We had massive layoffs after a merger, which led to massive departures, and when we asked upper management if they were concerned they said “only you can protect your job.”

      I think at least half of the remaining engineers sent out resumes that day.

  7. Anonymeece*

    Excellent timing!

    I’m in a situation where I have been working at an extremely toxic workplace for 4 years now in my current position. It’s gotten untenable; I’ve increasingly had more and more responsibility put on me and paid below market value and have been experiencing health problems (physical and mental) because of the job.

    I went to grad school and graduated with my degree so that I could have new opportunities, but it’s gotten to the point that I’m thinking of quitting my current job without another one lined up. I’ve always been told NEVER to do this, but I don’t think I can do this anymore without having a complete breakdown.

    How would I approach answering about leaving a job without another one lined up?

    1. Detective Amy Santiago*

      “I needed to take some time off to deal with a health issue that has now been resolved.”

    2. ZuZus Petals*

      You’ve been there for a while, so I don’t think it’s going to look super flighty if you leave without another one lined up. I think if your workload is also unmanageable, you can use that in your explanation. For example, “While I really enjoyed doing teapot design, I was ready for a position that allowed me more creativity in my work. Unfortunately as I realized that I was ready to start looking for new positions, my workload that quarter also increased significantly. I decided to put in my notice so that I could focus on my job search, and am really excited about this position because…”

    3. RandomusernamebecauseIwasboredwiththelastone*

      If you are newly degreed, I think you can go with the ‘life change’ angle. Say something like “with new degree I want to focus on the next chapter in my life and devote my time and energy into finding my next career. I wasn’t able to do my previous job justice and focus on my future at the same time so I chose to focus on my future”

      Or something like that.

    4. TootsNYC*

      “I felt that it would be easier to manage the career switch without the distractions of a job, especially since the workload there had increased so much. Fortunately, I can handle the expense for a little while, especially with some temp work.”7

    5. Not Today Satan*

      “I knew that it was time to move on and wanted to take some time with my family/to rest/whatever before taking on my next role.” Tbh, given the crappy vacation days most American employers offer, I’m surprised more people don’t quit a job before taking on a new one.

      I know that this site often recommends using the phrasing “a health issue that has been resolved” but as another person with health problems, I fear that the stigma against people with illnesses is too strong for me to ever use it.

    6. Ali G*

      I did almost this exact thing last year – this is what I say:
      “After 5 years of lots of change in management and job duties, it because increasingly clear to me that my job was not going in a direction I would enjoy. Luckily, I was in a position to be able to take some time off to really decide what I wanted to do next. That is why this job is so interesting because, blah blah blah…”

      1. Anonymeece*

        Thank you! This is super helpful and I like the positive way you framed it (and also good to know I’m not alone in this boat!).

        I had 16 direct reports when I started and I have 42 now, and my boss wants to put another 16 under me (with not a single raise in pay other than cost-of-living or title change), so it’s also kind of true. I REALLY do not want to be in the direction my job is going!

    7. Emily K*

      I had a lot of success telegraphing “toxic bad environment” without using those words by saying something like, “the high level of frequent turnover across several departments has made it exceedingly difficult to see long-term projects through to completion, as they tend to get re-organized or delayed every time a position turns over,” and saying that I’m looking for “a more stable environment” where “I can commit to long-term projects.”

      Employers love to hear that a prospective employee plans to stick around if all goes well, and most people read between the lines that any workplace where people in every department are frequently quitting is probably objectively terrible.

  8. seethingsdifferently*

    This is a tough question and the best answers are the ones that don’t lay blame but state the facts. I hired a guy recently who said he had been fired because he wasn’t being reliable–was coming into work late and missing too much work.

    He realized the employer was right and so he has been working as a volunteer at a local non profit and has been on time for every single shift (and hasn’t missed one) to demonstrate that he has learned his lesson. He’s been working for about 6 months and so far he has been exceptionally reliable.

    1. Sam.*

      In the case of firings, the “what I learned from that experience” piece is really key.

  9. Yet another Kat*

    Depending on my comfort level with the interviewer, I’ve been referring to some combo of “rapid changes in company leadership leading to uncertainty in goals/vision” and “dearth of resources due to rapidly shifting priorities” but it’s hard not to be really negative about how toxic this place is.

  10. ThatGirl*

    I got fired from a job about 11 years ago; that job search was hard. I struggled with what to say and how to say it. A friend of mine is actually a lawyer specializing in employment law, and she told me that I could phrase it however I wanted to, but I couldn’t lie. Eventually it got easier.

    Last year I got laid off, and that job search was much easier – I had a lot more experience under my belt, I was let go through no fault of my own, and I had all this good AAM reading to draw from. Part of my severance was an “outplacement services” firm package, and there were a lot of people there who struggled with how to say they got laid off — and I thought, this is so normal and easy! Just say it, it’s fine! Being laid off is like, the best way to involuntarily leave a job because everyone knows you didn’t do anything wrong.

    1. Jadelyn*

      If anything, getting laid off is an indictment of the company, not you as an employee. And it’s a sympathetic reason – we’ve all either been there, or can imagine how much it would suck to suddenly find out your job doesn’t exist anymore. Just make sure you’re matter-of-fact about it rather than sounding bitter, and I can’t imagine an interviewer taking issue with it.

      (Okay, I can imagine it, but only because of the horror stories we’ve heard around here about awful interviewers!)

  11. Senior Staff Accountant (Public Practice)*

    What I said: “After long discussions with my wife about what we need, I need a break from public accounting.”

    What I really meant: “Because after my mother passed away in tax season, I was informed that I had to make up the 80 hours I had missed while she was in the hospital, after I was told to take whatever time was needed.”

    1. Sam.*

      I’m sorry about your mom and that your employer was such a jerk. That’s a really horrible thing to do to someone, and I’m glad you got out. But I’d be interested to hear other people’s perspectives on your first statement, because I can find it off-putting when people bring partners/spouses into the decision-making process like this. I’ve never been the person responsible for a hiring process, so it’s never really mattered if it rubbed me the wrong way, but I have wondered whether or not that’s a reasonable reaction on my part.

      1. Senior Staff Accountant (Public Practice)*

        Because I was interviewing in industry, the answer has been pretty much, “Yeah, I get that. Great news, we don’t have timesheets here!” I am not going to miss accounting for every 6 minutes of my day.

        If I’d been interviewing with other firms, I don’t know how I’d have answered that.

        1. Sam.*

          Whoops, I should’ve refreshed again! But yeah, that sounds horrible. Glad you found something better!

        2. CM*

          Exact same experience when I left a big law firm. I said something like, I’m looking for a different pace / different expectations about availability. It was good for weeding out jobs that would have had the same issue — prospective employers who said, “I get it, we don’t have timesheets here” were places I wanted to work, and others would frown and say, “This is not a 9-to-5 job, we expect you to be available whenever there is a business need.”

      2. Sam.*

        (I should clarify that I obviously support involving partners in the decision-making process; it’s the bringing that into the interview that always surprises me. Maybe it’s because discussing/asking about personal things in an interview is generally frowned upon, so it throws me when interviewees bring it up?)

        1. Jadelyn*

          I’m the same way – I wouldn’t disqualify someone over it, but it does strike me as slightly off-putting. I guess because I’m looking at hiring you, not you and your partner, so I don’t need to know or care what your partner thinks about your job search.

      3. Senior Staff Accountant (Public Practice)*

        And that may have been a reason why I didn’t get some call backs, so definitely something to consider in my next search.

      4. Bea*

        Yeah in this case, I wouldn’t see the point of mentioning a spouse. Of course if you quit, you discussed it with your partner if you have one.

        But when those of us are relocating for a partner, they do get brought up.

  12. V*

    What do you say when your last job ended in a mental breakdown?

    I can’t get into details as many of them are very specific to my situation, but the short version is that I went from being mentally well to suicidal within a year due to the actions of my employer. (I’ve been in treatment since and have gotten better, but am still not up to working again.) I don’t know how to frame this when talking to new jobs. My work history is already spotty, and this is a huge black mark :/

      1. V*

        Thank you, I’ll try using that. Unfortunately it’s not fully resolved (I have a lifelong disability that will always impact my work) but it’s a start.

  13. Lilo*

    Is it ok to site an issue with the work style? My current working environment is very reactive and almost not at all proactive, which is problematic for me because i’m a type a planner and spend so much time putting out fires that I have no time to come up with a way to prevent future ones. My boss says this is just the type of working environment our industry has, but that’s not true. Most of my coworkers would rather just deal with problems rather than do any planning to prevent them.

    Can i say this in an interview? Or does it come off badly as not being able to adapt to working styles? It’s not that I can’t handle solving problems, it’s that I can’t handle metaphorically throwing my to do list in the garbage every morning because my “priorities” have to change by the hour, which is so unproductkve for me

    1. Detective Amy Santiago*

      I’m going to disagree with Alison and say that if you have the luxury of being choosy, this is definitely something that you can mention. I was very clear during my job search that I was looking for something where I would not be the first point of contact on the phone or in the office. It may have selected me out of some positions, but I was not desperate for something new and it was extremely important to me.

    2. Mad Baggins*

      To be honest I’m like you, I like to move at my own pace and fully concentrate on a problem, not be told at 4:30pm that the thing I worked at all day needs to be scrapped and redone (or be interrupted every 5 seconds!).

      I don’t think you should use it as your main reason for leaving because you’ll come across as pretty inflexible (unless you can afford to be choosy as Detective Santiago said). What I did was use it as a secondary reason (“I’m also looking for a position where I can be proactive, not reactive, and Llama Planner sounds perfect…”) and ask lots of questions about work culture, how projects are assigned, how much autonomy you would have, etc.

  14. Salad*

    I recently had a phone interview, and when asked why I was looking to leave, I was honest and said I loved my job and was paid well, but I wanted to relocate. I wondered afterwards if that was TOO honest, like I’m just using them to get to my new city? But I wanted them to know I could be picky, and I would only leave for a job I was excited about and that paid well.

    I got an in-person interview, so I guess they were ok with it.

  15. Tau*

    What I’ve found is that it’s important to swerve into “why your job is so much better for me than that old one” quickly – even if you have a reason for leaving that’s pretty unimpeachable, it’s better to spend your time interviewing talking about why you’d be great at ProspectiveJob and not what was wrong with HopefullySoonToBeExJob. Last job search, my reason for leaving was “because Brexit is happening and I find being an EU citizen in the UK really uncomfortable right now.” Although people were generally very understanding I still didn’t think dwelling on the details was really going to help my candidacy so I quickly followed up with “And I’m excited about your position because I really love working on teapots and I think there’s a lot of potential in the spout focus you’ve chosen yadda yadda.”

  16. anoniaa*

    I’ve been in situation where I had multiple unsuitable sales positions (my blame), and sales was not a good skill set. However upon trying to explain to an employer trying to get into a different field the reasoning the other position didn’t work out, the interviewer always would add, well we stand a lot here also, or there is customer service and some sales here, almost leading the meeting into contention. It wasn’t something I could find they could find an agreeable way out of.

  17. Anon for this one*

    How timely since I was just about to write in with this exact question! I think I’m pretty obviously being managed out: received my first negative performance review just days after returning from maternity leave, boss blatantly tells me one thing in one on ones but when I act on his direction, he tells me off in team meetings and says I should have done the exact opposite, undermines me to my junior staff. Everything was pretty good, even during my pregnancy, but as soon as I came back it all went kerblooey. But after reading the article and comments I think my best bet is to go with something bland about wanting a new challenge?

    1. Lily Rowan*

      Yeah, I think that’s always the best bet unless there’s something more obvious (relocating, totally changing fields, etc.)

  18. Lily Rowan*

    I’ve almost never been asked “why did you leave this job” about jobs in my past, which means I’ve never talked about the job I was fired/”laid off” from, since I went to grad school right away so there wasn’t a gap I ever had to explain, and in talking people through my resume, I just say, “I worked there and did blah blah blah, and then I went to grad school and blah blah blah…”

    So I never feel like I’m even fudging the truth, but is there any reason to proactively talk about this?

    1. CAA*

      Nope. If nobody asks why you left, you don’t have to bring it up. You do need to figure out whether you were fired or laid off though, because those are different things. A lot of applications ask if you have ever been fired from a job and you don’t want to say yes if it was really a layoff.

      1. Lily Rowan*

        I was actually fired, but they agreed to process and record it as a layoff, so I got unemployment and didn’t have to tell other people I got fired.

  19. Hiring Mgr*

    “We had a difference of opinion on the direction of the company–I wanted to keep working there, they wanted me gone”

    /s

  20. Michael*

    What if you worked two part time jobs (both 6 hours a week each) and were fired from one of them, and it was never asked in a future job interview why you left your previous job? Should I feel guilty they didn’t ask? On the job application, it just asked to list “work experience.” It wasn’t specific, so I left off the job I was fired from since it wouldn’t make a gap in my work history since I had that other job. There was a question asking me if I have ever been dismissed from any job, and I explained one time I was laid off. I would appreciate your feedback very much, thank you so much for your help!

  21. redbug34*

    This was so helpful! I’m job hunting now because I’m being paid below market value, and I know a larger institution would have higher base pay, better raises, work incentives, etc. But I didn’t know I could just say that! I’ve been answering these questions by talking about room for professional growth and position advancement (which my current employers is also low on, so not a lie, just not the main reason.)

  22. I have a filing cabinet*

    I have an interview literally tomorrow and I have no idea how to say I’m leaving my current job because my boss doesn’t know what he’s doing and I’m just clinging to my filing cabinet and pretending to know.

    1. Ali G*

      Can you focus on what the new job has the old doesn’t? Like “I haven’t had the ability to use my marketing skills at my old job and knowing that’s a big part of this job makes me very interested in the position.”
      Just re-frame it to what you like about the new job, or would be good at, and benignly compare to old job.
      Hope you and your filing cabinet make it!

  23. Persimmons*

    If you have a perfectly reasonable answer (like layoffs) would you also include information to clue them in to a messed-up culture? Or let it go?

    So “They downsized the staff by 30% including me” versus “They actively hid problems through deceptive record-keeping for months, despite knowing layoffs would be inevitable, and then told me the day I returned from my honeymoon.”

    1. I have a filing cabinet*

      Thank you for the suggestion! Unfortunately “reasonable” has yet to come into play at my current position. I could express excitement for a better environment but I think I’d be working from home in the new position most of the time anyway?

    2. CM*

      I think you should let it go… you risk sounding bitter and like a problem employee otherwise. No matter how justified your complaints are.

      1. I have a filing cabinet*

        Yes I do fear sounding unprofessional by talking about such thugs. I am more curious about how to phrase how/why I left if the interviewer asks.

    3. Ask a Manager* Post author

      If you have a bland answer (layoffs), use that. There’s never any benefit to the other one when you have other explanations that would work just fine.

    4. Hiring Mgr*

      The layoff is good enough–I wouldn’t mention that for the reasons already stated… Also, depending on location and industry, yours may be a small world, so you wouldn’t want someone interviewing you who knows your old boss saying something like “she said the place was a complete mess!” (even if that’s true)

    5. The New Wanderer*

      I just used the layoff answer, framed it as my position was eliminated because they were shifting away from research so lack of work (the reason I was given), and pivoted to talking about now being able to return to doing the kind of work I wanted to do.

      The part I left out was that reposting my mid-senior level job a few months later as an entry level/early career job was a Big Clue that it wasn’t that there was a lack of work, it was all about cost savings.

  24. Old WineBox*

    How to say you want to leave your current job because what you’re doing isn’t what you were told you’d be doing in the interview? Not to mention it’s way more entry level (think basic admin work) than your skill set?

    1. Mimmy*

      I have a similar situation. My current job at a teapot instructional center was a newly-created position – they acknowledged during the interview that they were still working out the details, but the center director had all these ideas that I thought would be valuable experience for me, so I went ahead with the application process. Turns out, his ideas were more grandiose than that of my now-supervisor, and her vision won out. So instead of helping out in multiple instructional areas–caramel, chocolate, vanilla–I ended up just in the vanilla area. Not just helping the vanilla instructor, but eventually being the primary instructor.

      So to add to Alison’s suggested script, I’d probably say something like “the job didn’t have as much opportunity to use my X skills or my knowledge in Y as I’d hoped”.

      1. Old WineBox*

        I think this is a good script to follow, but I hope it doesn’t seem like I am bitter. Good luck to you and your situation. It feels like such a let down to sign onto something that wasn’t close to what you thought it was going to be.

  25. catlover18*

    Out of curiosity –

    How does this apply if you are currently working somewhere (a university in my case) that is known all across the city to be going through serious financial problems/scares?? Are you able to just allude to that? I’m not ready to jump ship myself (at least yet), but I’ve wondered how that works… the other college/universities nearby will surely assume that’s the reason why anyway. (Especially if someone hasn’t been working here long)

    1. CAA*

      I don’t hire in academia, so it’s possible this could be different there, but in regular private sector positions it’s fine to bring up your employer’s financial problems as being the reason you want to leave, whether they’re well known or not. “My current employer is experiencing some financial difficulties and I’m looking for something that will be more stable for the long term.” Of course, you should not do this if it’s confidential information you only have because you work in the finance department, but if it’s generally known within the company you can use it.

  26. Charisma*

    I have an odd one. A good friend of mine runs in the same circles as a former terrible boss of mine. They aren’t friends, just acquaintances. Old boss is known for being a bit of a cheat and a cad even among them. It has come to my attention that said former boss tells people that he fired me even though he didn’t. I left after finding a position that was a much better fit for me (and much less . It was difficult but I gave him 2 weeks notice and everything. I knew the guy was an a-hole, but I had no idea he was lying to people about me, and I have no idea for how long.

  27. animaniactoo*

    My co-worker who was fired used the broader truth without revealing the finer details: “There were some internal politics I was not aware of and I stepped on a landmine.”

    1. College Carer*

      In my experience this almost always invites a follow-up question that you’d better be prepared to address.

  28. Mimmy*

    This is tremendously helpful, thank you Alison!

    One question: A long time ago, I was let go from one job after just short of one year. It was framed as a layoff but I was the only one to be laid off – is that even normal? From what I remember, they told me they were eliminating my part-time teapot specialist position and changed to a full-time teapot specialist position that had additional duties. They never said I was being let go for performance and invited me to apply. I was suspicious though because I’d struggled in the job due to the multi-tasking, and the full-time version of the position required exhibiting at conferences and events, which was not feasible for me because I can’t drive. I think they told my coworkers simply that I wasn’t interested in going full-time, which wasn’t completely true.

    In subsequent job interviews, I always said I was laid off / the position was eliminated. Was this the right call based on the above facts? Should I even be concerned? This job was 10 years ago; yet, I do feel it’s relevant to my career goals in a roundabout way. Not to mention it fills a hole in my somewhat-spotty job history.

    1. CatCat*

      I think you’re fine with you’re wording even. Ultimately, they did eliminate the part-time teapot specialist position. I don’t think it’s even weird to layoff one person. The needs for the position changed. It wasn’t just that they needed a full-time teapot specialist. They needed a teapot + other things specialist.

      Now, maybe there were performance related factors. Who knows. That’s not what they told you nor was it what they told other people. You’re fine.

  29. Peaches*

    My mom interviewed a lady years ago who, when asked why she left her previous job said, “my boss randomly hated me. He had no reason to not like me but just played favorites. It was stupid for him to hate me.” My mom said she said it with no hesitation and such confidence.

    I still cringe thinking about that story! Always stuck with me.

  30. Mary*

    How do I explain that I am effectively looking for a lower pressure job? I am currently in a workplace where deadlines are set from above and normal requests to prioritize are met with “no, we cannot possibly cut any features”. Some of the deadlines have been bad enough that they could not be met even with many people working 60 hour weeks – and the team was blamed for it even though we warned the management several months in advance. I tried speaking up individually or as part of a group of experienced co-workers to no avail. I have burned out and want to move on. In my industry a lot of jobs are high pressure but not all of them are and I want a better work-life balance. I’d rather like to avoid this sort of a job again but I would not want to create an impression that I cannot work hard or deliver effectively.

    1. Cedrus Libani*

      I would be concrete about it. “At current staffing levels, my team is routinely working 60 hours a week and still missing deadlines. I don’t have time to do more than apply band-aid fixes, and frankly, that’s not how I like to work.” This might actually play in your favor for a company like mine, where the customers really need the code to work the first time (and get quite cranky if it doesn’t).

    2. JSPA*

      Your answer is in your question. “I want a better work-life balance” is a really normal thing to say. You can add that, with better balance, you feel energized and enthusiastic about taking on occasional special projects / larger challenges, or meeting the demands of a busy period.

  31. Anonymosity*

    My situation: My job changed, I struggled in the new role, and was fired for being unprofessional.

    What I say (Alison-influenced): When my boss retired at the end of 2015, our department merged with a larger one. The nature of my job changed significantly from what I was actually hired to do, so I’m looking for a position where I can focus on X work.

    (If they ask about the actual leaving) We agreed that it was no longer a good fit. (If they ask) Yes, they said I was eligible for rehire.

    Nothing I say or do seems to be making a difference, but that’s the best I can come up with.

  32. Brett*

    Not one I have to deal with anymore, but these are three semi-common public sector situations, all related.
    I’m not sure how to deal with these (other than just using a different reason).

    A new chief executive (mayor, county executive, governor) gets elected and:
    a) You are fired because the chief executive is replacing you with his own staff. (patronage position instead of merit position)
    b) You are forced to resign because the chief executive wants to hire someone else in your role. (merit position instead of patronage position)
    c) You want to leave the position because you do not agree with the politics and policies of the new chief executive. (could be either patronage or merit)

    1. Mimmy*

      Just curious…what’s the difference between a patronage position and a merit position?

      1. JSPA*

        Best person for the job vs best buddy/biggest supporter of the person (or party) in power.

  33. Don't pass go*

    I’d be curious how you would discuss leaving a job because the employer wasn’t paying you on time. (I am in a fairly senior role working in an emerging market country, and in an industry that’s supposed to pay well. But my employer has consistently been late in paying me, often for months at a time; that’s kind of a thing in developing countries, even though our company has western investors.) I want to move back to the US but am at a loss as to how to begin to explain this situation without looking like I’m badmouthing my current employer.

    1. CAA*

      If you’re interviewing for a position in the U.S, you can certainly say “I wasn’t getting paid on time and I really need a regular paycheck.” If a candidate told me that, I’d immediately feel appalled on his behalf and extremely sympathetic. I still expect him to be interested in the actual job I’m filling though, in addition to the money.

      Since you’re also relocating, you can explain that you’re leaving your current employer so that you can move back to the U.S. for whatever reason you have.

      1. JSPA*

        “Because of issues with exchange rates and currency fluctuations, locally-acceptable paycheck delays have become untenable to those of us who have international financial obligations.” (This is probably true, as well as face-saving for the company. It also emphasizes your international aspects, as well as your familiarity with &allegiance to a standard (as opposed to a highly elastic) form of scheduling.

    2. Bea*

      It’s okay to say you weren’t being paid on time. Barring you being the CFO and responsible for the checks not bouncing, nobody you want to work for is turned off because you require a paycheck on a regular basis.

  34. Misclassified*

    How would I handle my situation?

    I left because my bosses/owners were misclassifying me as an independent contractor. I went to the IRS to get it straightened out. The IRS determined, fairly quickly, that they had misclassified me (along with everyone else in the office, down to at least one receptionist). The IRS also notified my bosses who requested the determination. After that happened, the bosses didn’t fire me, but they made my final six months there very difficult.

    When asked why I left the job, I’ve been fairly honest. I say something like “This is a bit of an odd story, but it turns out they got in trouble with the IRS because they were misclassifying all of their workers, from my position down to the receptionist, as independent contractors. When it came out that the IRS started its investigations due to my tax returns, they made it a very difficult place to work. I tried to make it work for a few months after that, but the situation was untenable.”

    Basically, I’m trying to give the real reason without indicating I’m a whistleblower. I feel it necessary to give them the real reason that way if they contact the old employers, and anything negative is said about me, it could be possibly disregarded as the ex-bosses being vindictive. Is my approach the right one?

  35. missc*

    I’ve had to deal with this sort of thing in recent interviews, and it isn’t easy! Backstory: I left a job that had become toxic, but ended up getting myself into an ‘out of the frying pan, into the fire’ situation as the job I took to get me out of Toxic Company turned out to be almost as bad. Add the fact that I was still feeling the after-effects of my treatment by Toxic Company and the whole thing was a mess. I lasted 6 months before agreeing with my boss that it simply wasn’t a good fit for me, and I left there and then. I then decided I needed a break from the office environment and went freelance, which I did for a few years before taking the job I’m currently in.

    The whole ‘left one job – moved to another – left that job after only 6 months – went freelance’ thing is always questioned in interviews, and my answer is always ‘I wanted a new challenge, which is why I moved to X Company, but I soon realised that they couldn’t provide the opportunity for me to do X and Y, which spurred me on to take the leap and go freelance – something I’d been thinking about for a while’. Seems to go down well.

    I’ve also had to deal with ‘So why do you want a full-time/office-based job, having been freelance for so long?’ and my answer is ‘I’ve very much enjoyed my time as a freelancer, but over the years I’ve realised that I really enjoy being able to see a project through from start to finish, which is something I don’t often get the chance to do. Freelancing has given me the opportunity to think carefully about what I want to do, and [job I’m interviewing for] would give me the chance to do X, Y and Z, things I’ve come to realise are of particular interest to me’. Of course, half the real answer is ‘Because I want a regular wage and more money’ but I don’t say that!

  36. ValaMalDoran*

    I’m late to this post, but I’ve got to ask: what do you say when there was immoral, possibly illegal stuff going on? The ED was later fired, but some board members also lied, and tried to discredit one of my former coworkers (who was asked to do things by the ED that were definitely illegal, but my coworker knew better.) Oh, and they tried to gaslight coworker too.

    Another wrinkle: this is a still functioning non-profit, and the shady stuff is not really known by outsiders.

    1. Scubacat*

      I’d probably use the reason that I was looking for other challenges. Or something equally unremarkable but truthful. (I’m looking for a new job due to recent changes in upper management. Since the new director was hired, our company has shifted focus to llama training. My strengths are in llama grooming, so I’m looking to return to that type of job.) Unless the immoral company woes were notoriously wide spread, I wouldn’t bring it up.

  37. JenIsNotAFanOfStartups*

    Ha this is perfectly in my experience because I am on my 9th job within 9 years (and some were 1.5-2 years). A lot were at startups, so at this point, I sometimes just shrug and say “startups are not very stable!”, but other times I say things like this:

    – Job 1: reality – left because my boss was an absolute nightmare and I hated the work, what I say – “turned out to be more of a project management job and I wanted to do development”
    – Job 2: reality – one of my coworkers was harassing me, what I say – “I needed to move to Boston”
    – Job 3: reality – I wasn’t getting any work and just sitting for 8 hours a day doing nothing, what I say – “It was a contract position and I want salary”
    – Job 4: reality – A lot of higher ups were leaving and it made me uneasy (laid off 30% of staff after I left), what I say – initially “I’d prefer not to work in advertising”, but now I just tell the actual story
    – Job 5: reality – My team was great but my boss was a nightmare who actually said “he managed me out”, what I say – “I was given a great opportunity to lead a team” (got recruited by another startup)
    – Job 6: reality – super tiny startup that was an absolute nightmare, what I say – “It was a really tiny startups and there were personality conflicts”
    – Job 7: reality and what I say are the same – when I switched to working remotely, I found that my team wasn’t very good at communicating and I was very isolated.
    – Job 8: reality – not too bad, just hated the language and not being fully remote, what I say – “wasn’t really looking, but I’d like to get back to the language that I love working in”

  38. Just Because*

    I left a previous job because of a toxic manager without another job lined up. Interviewing for a new job was not easy, but I made it through by talking about how I’d hit the ceiling in my position there & wanted new challenges (both things were true), and that I wanted to take some time to figure out what came next (not true) and was lucky enough to have the flexibility to do so (true).
    But the really tricky part was references. Under no circumstances could I list my boss, even though I had worked there for years. I ended up listing the “next highest up” person in the company who I knew would give me a great recommendation (he did), but I felt strongly that I had to acknowledge the weirdness of not listing my actual boss. I ended up waiting until the last possible minute of my last interview (when I knew they would be checking references next) and blurting out that the reason my boss wasn’t listed as a reference was because we hadn’t seen eye to eye (or something equally lame; I don’t remember exactly what I said). I got the job, but have often wondered how I could have handled this better.
    Anyone else deal with this?

Comments are closed.