Answer This: “So Why Did You Leave Your Last Position?”

I was talking to a good friend of mine who was let go from her full time job on Monday. We were trying to figure out if she was laid off, or actually fired, and in the end I think we came to the conclusion that she was in fact “laid off” (if we have to put a label to it). Her supervisor told her she could use her as a reference, which typically doesn’t happen so graciously in firing situations.

Maybe they didn’t like something she said to a client and this was their “legal” way of letting her go, without having to make reference to poor job performance.

Or perhaps she was one of the highest paid employees in the company and they could no longer afford her (but that’s a sticky conversation to have).

Could be that they are simply doing away with her role altogether.

Or they just don’t like her (again, sticky conversation to have). I don’t like her, so I wouldn’t be surprised. Just kidding – she’s awesome.

Really it doesn’t even matter, and you won’t always have all of the facts. Of course it matters to her from an emotional standpoint. But what matters from a jobseeker perspective is how she takes the situation she was dealt and positions it when she’s sitting in front of her next potential employer in the interview, and she’s asked point blank, “So why did you leave your last position?”

Many people, understandably, feel uncomfortable talking about how they were either let go, laid off or, of course, fired. Being fired obviously doesn’t make you look great, but hey, it happens, alright? Being involutarily let go for reasons not pertaining to job performance however, aren’t as big a red flag. However, they don’t add much to your advantage as far as marketing yourself as the top candidate, unless of course you spin it in a positive way. “Whaaaaaaaat??” you ask? So how do we deal with that conversation topic when it comes up?

There are two rules to adhere to when talking about any type of departure with a former employer, whether it was good, bad or ugly:

1. Never be negative. This is uber crucial. Don’t try to shift the situation away from yourself by talking badly about the company, their practices, the staff or your supervisor. All that does is position you as someone who potentially stirs the pot or is difficult to work with, and you can be sure the next company doesn’t want that person on their team. Send that message, and congratulations- you’ve just made the situation worse. Let me show you the door.

2. Reframe the situation as a positive, and an opportunity to explore something better. Something better being the new job you’re trying to get here. If you were let go involuntarily, say laid off, you can speak to that and talk factually (not negatively) about the reasons behind it (reductions in staff, company closing, reorganization, position eliminated etc.). And then bring the focus back to you by enthusiastically discussing how you’ve utilized the situation to your benefit. Perhaps you enrolled in a class, or you’ve simply dedicated your time to really focusing on your job search, and clarifying what your next career move is, and how you’re excited to grow (how coincidental, it just happens to be working for this company!).

“Having this time to dedicate to my job search has allowed me to really do my research and understand the type of environment where I do my best work, and the type of organization I would love to partner with, and Company X really fits that mold. Here’s why…”

Now if you were fired, my advice to you is to not use the word “fired”. Instead, you can say that you were let go, or if you are a contract employee you can say that your contract or project ended, and then clarify that it was not due to your job performance. Jobs can be terminated for a number of reasons, sometimes for small issues or mistakes that don’t necessarily deem those people as bad employees.  However if you were fired because of your performance or behavior, well then you might have to be a little more creative in how you position yourself, because poor performance or attitude are mighty big red flags for any potential employer to overlook. That’s a post for another time.

Please note that I am in no way advising you to lie about the circumstances of your seperation. Hiring managers simply want to know that they are making a good investment in hiring you (their @ss is on the line, after all), and they will dig hard for any background information to help them make that decision in the best way possible. So avoid giving them any reason to hesitate. You’ve heard the saying that when one door closes, another one opens, and this is your opportunity to position yourself as someone who is professional, honest and an opportunist.

And honestly, being laid off or let go is hardly taboo anymore, with the way of the modern job market. Yes, those who are unemployed traditionally have a more difficult time finding employment because of the existing “unmarketable” stigma that we’ve attached to that status. But make no mistake, as I mentioned in an earlier post, you are NOT unmarketable. Unless you can’t perform the basic functions of the role, you most likely possess some qualities, talents and skill sets that you can bring to the table. Don’t let your friends, the media, recruiters or anyone else tell you otherwise.

Finally, avoid the tempting mistake of trying to explain away the situation. Take the weight off of the past, and make the decision to move forward. It’s simply about being strategic in the interview process, and knowing how to direct the conversation so that it’s always focused on your on your best attributes and your most marketable qualities. That is what sells, my friends.

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9 Comments on "Answer This: “So Why Did You Leave Your Last Position?”"


[…] the Author: Dana Leavy founded Aspyre Solutions, focusing on small business development and career consulting. Her mission is to support creative […]

Candice Guilliams
12 years 9 months ago

Excellent advice. One question I have is, how do you positively spin your response when the question is, “So why are you looking to leave your current company?” I have been blessed by not having to suffer the consequences of being laid-off or fired; however, after leaving my comfort zone of nearly 12 years and only being with my present company for 6 months, I know this question is inevitably going to come up. My core reason for searching elsewhere is that I am so under-utilized it is depressing. I left my former company to join one with financial stability and strong potential for career growth; objectives of which I made clear in my interviews, but my reality is zero potential for career growth (and frankly, zero interest in growing within this particular company). My passion is leadership in the health care industry, and although I have a B.A. in Health Care Administration, unfortunately because I have zero hands-on experience within a hospital I am finding it impossible to get past HR. Thoughts?

Mark Paulsen
12 years 11 months ago

This has to be the hardest question for a job seeker who was forced out of a previous job. Your article makes good points. Another article on the subject emphasized; “keep it honest, keep it short and keep it moving”. Honesty is critical, but a candidate should keep the answer as brief as possible and move to more positive subjects.

12 years 11 months ago

I really need some help with my “story” – I was involuntarily let go a few weeks ago – given the option to resign or be fired – I chose to be fired so I could ultimately get unemployment after my severence runs out. Boss said there had been “complaints” about me from committee and board members – but wouldn’t say who or what the nature of the complaints were. I had very little interaction with committee or board members in the months previous, so I don’t buy his story. He has made up things like this before that I later found out to be untrue – both about me and about other employees. He did say it had nothing to do with my job performance. I have an interview tomorrow – yeah! Here is what I’m thinking about saying: I was let go a few weeks ago – I was told it had nothing to do with my job performance, but I wasn’t really given any other reasons why or information to go on. The culture had really changed over the last few years, and it was no longer the highly motivated and innovative organization I joined 4 years ago. I thrive on being a part of an organization that is consistently looking to better itself and looking for ways to move forward and constantly improve – and while I was continuing to try to do that within my own responsibilities, my efforts were met with increasing resistance by my former boss. So now I am looking forward to joining an forward-thinking organization like this one that values innovation and hard work. Thoughts anyone?