‘Why did you leave your last job?’ :
Here’s the best way
to answer this question

Very often, when I help job seekers prepare for an interview, one of their primary concerns is how to answer questions about why they left their most recent job.

Sometimes the answer is easy and obvious: for example, in cases where the applicant reached the end of their contract, moved to a new area, or their employer went out of business.

However, in some cases, one’s reason for leaving a job can be a very delicate subject to explore. My advice is to avoid giving a generic response, along the lines of I wanted to explore new challenges.

It’s a big mistake to think that you can dismiss this question with a simplistic answer. You should personalize your answer and, most importantly, tell the truth about why you left your last job, even if it’s a little painful to do so.

Here are some ways to handle two difficult situations related to this question.

1- You were fired

The disadvantage

A recruiter may worry that you will repeat the same behavior that got you dismissed from your last job, and may also lose sympathy for you.

My advice

If you made an error in the course of your professional duties, it’s important to take the time to explain in detail what happened. Provide context without attempting to excuse your behavior and don’t try to downplay what you did by pointing to examples of others who have done worse.

If you were fired simply because your performance was considered inadequate, this isn’t considered a case of professional misconduct. However, since the result is the same, you should take the time to provide a thoughtful explanation of what happened.

You can reflect on how you felt at that moment and what you could have done differently in retrospect:

I was going through a period of depression, as I had recently gone through a separation. If I could go back, I would have asked my doctor to give me some time off work for depression, but at that time I was too proud to ask for help.

You should emphasize to the recruiter that the person you were at that time is very different from the person you are now. Explain how you’ve changed, what you’ve learned and how your personal growth will help you avoid making the same mistakes again.

Also, do your best to show some compassion for your previous workplace:

When I lost my job, I was angry, but in retrospect, I understand why they made the decision they did. It wasn’t an easy decision on their part, I’m sure. I was in a difficult place at that time.

If you feel there was an element of injustice involved in the loss of your job, you can add some nuance to your version of the situation, but you should still acknowledge that you bear at least some responsibility for your termination. It’s very important to remain cool and not adopt an angry tone as you explain what happened. Practice at home if you need to in order to keep your emotions in check:

I still believe that my previous employer was severe in their firing of me, and that my boss didn’t take the time necessary to get my version of events. In my opinion, my dismissal wasn’t justified. That being said, I should have communicated better with my boss from the very beginning – that would have helped.

Remember: your goal is to convince the recruiter that there is no chance that you will repeat the same behavior that got you fired previously.

2- Termination related to a bad work relationship

The disadvantage

A recruiter might get the impression that you have trouble working with people and that hiring you might negatively affect the work environment.

My advice

It might be that you still feel strong emotions about your previous employer and that you have a desire to defend yourself when the subject of your dismissal is raised. While I understand that you may have convincing arguments to make, now is not the time to try to settle old scores.

Instead, focus on what it was that divided you and your supervisor or coworker in the context of the work you were doing at the time in order to bring some objectivity to the situation:

I’m a person focused on rigor and expertise, while my supervisor was very sales-oriented. She preferred to be very direct with people, while I favored a more consultation-oriented approach. Looking back, I think that we simply weren’t compatible; it was better for everyone that I left.

The recruiter will appreciate you providing details about the situation while not going out of your way to make your previous employer look bad.

Of course, it could happen that the recruiter might identify more with your previous employer than you: We are also focused on sales and prefer to be direct!

In this case, you may not get the job – but would you really want to find yourself in the same situation again?

In conclusion

Preparing your response to this difficult question requires a lot of work, not to mention a strong dose of humility. On top of everything, there’s the chance that you won’t get the job in the end.

If the recruiter isn’t convinced that you’re the right person for the job, it’s their right to reject your candidacy. But even if this is the case, don’t fault yourself for trying to be honest. Take it as a ‘speed bump’ on your larger journey.

It would be far worse if a recruiter caught you in a lie. Your reputation would suffer immeasurably and it would be that much harder to regain your own confidence, especially considering that the job market is small and word gets around.

Don’t forget that while everything needs to be said, there is also a good way to tell the story. It’s worth it to take the time to find the best way to say something.

By: Mathieu Guénette, Guidance Counsellor at Les Chercheurs de sens

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Mathieu Guénette

Mathieu Guénette is a self-employed Guidance Counsellor with over 20 years of experience, as well as an author and a lecturer. He has worked with a diverse clientele (teenagers, adults, managers, job hunters). In 2017, he has simultaneously obtained the Ordre des conseillers et conseillères d'orientation du Québec’s Professional Award and the Ordre des conseillers en ressources humaines agréés’ HR Book of the Year Award for his work Le candidat visceral. He provides services in Montreal, Lanaudière and remotely. His website is full of handy resources for you: Les chercheurs de sens.

1 Comment

  • .
    July 19, 2018 10:53

    You forgot:

    ‘Why did you leave your last job?’:

    “I suffered career-ending injuries resulting from being on the receiving end of a customer’s act of workplace violence.”

    Workplace violence is an increasing problem with real-world consequences that continue to punish the victim for years after the fact. How do I know?

    This happened to me and I have never managed to get hired since… as if it were my fault.

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