How to Answer 'Why Did You Leave Your Last Job?

Young woman giving her CV to potential employers at a job interview

Whether you feel like you’re stagnating, you’re sick of the nightmare commute or you’ve simply had enough of your boss’s antics, deciding to leave your job can be both a liberating experience and a pivotal turning point in your life.

When it comes to finding a new job, however, recruiters are inevitably going to be interested in why you’re jumping ship from your previous role. In fact, it’s one of the most commonly asked interview questions in the world, so you’d better have a good counter prepared.

Luckily, this is where we come in. We know this can be a tricky question, so we’ve prepared some fool-proof responses to keep your potential employers onside.

Here’s how to answer ‘why did you leave your last job?’ to ensure interview success.

1. Understand why recruiters ask this question

Recruiters can sometimes be guilty of veering towards the nonsensical with certain lines of questioning but wanting to know the reason for your most recent departure isn’t one of them. Indeed, your motives for leaving can tell your potential employers an awful lot about your suitability and character for their own company, so don’t be surprised if it’s the first thing they ask.

If you left on something of a whim, for example, then this may suggest that you’re a job hopper. This is bad news, as employers need to know that you won’t get bored and turn your back on them six months down the line. Conversely, if you didn’t leave voluntarily (ie: you were let go or even sacked), then they need to derive from your explanation whether you were the problem or if your termination was genuinely beyond your control.

Finally, if you’ve already left your position, then recruiters are keen to see what kind of relationship you had with your previous boss and if your exit was on good terms. If they are listed as a referee on your CV, for instance, then this is a good sign that you’re mature and professional, and that there was no malice or conflict involved in your departure.

2. Know how to respond

Of course, depending on the reasons for your leaving, there are several answers that may be applicable. The most important thing is to employ a positive spin and not come across as bitter. Remember: you need to pitch your impending job change as a move towards something good rather than an attempt to run away from something bad.

With that in mind, here are some acceptable responses:

‘It’s not that I want to leave them; it’s that I want to come here instead’

This is probably the best answer you can give, as it’s definitive and positive, and it shifts the focus away from your past and on to your future. After all, no recruiter wants to sit there and listen to how poorly your last boss treated you and how the hours were rubbish. Instead, they want to see how driven and excited you are about the idea of working for them.

Maybe you are drawn to the culture of their company, for instance, or perhaps you’re attracted to the kind of projects and clients they’re involved with. Whatever it is, make sure you emphasise that you’re driven by what potentially awaits you, and not what you’re escaping.

‘I enjoyed my time there, but I’m seeking a new challenge’

This is a great answer, too, as it demonstrates respect and deference to your previous employers, while it also suggests that you can achieve more with your new company.

It also shows ambition. Organisations don’t want employees who are happy to slip into their comfort zone and not allow themselves to be challenged; they want dynamic and innovative workers who want to constantly develop and improve. If you’ve recognised that you need to move elsewhere in order to do that, then there are few companies who will see that as a bad thing.

Don’t confuse ambition with ruthlessness, though. Wanting to grow and better yourself is one thing, but if your interviewer gets the impression that you see their company as another stepping stone on your way to the top, then they might think twice.

When giving your answer, focus on how your drive and enthusiasm can better the company’s prospects – not how it can better yours.

‘It better suits my interests/educational background’

Another acceptable reason for moving jobs is because the new role is more suited to your personal interests or, if you’ve recently acquired a professional qualification, to your education. There is nothing wrong with wanting to put your newfound skills or interests to better use, after all.

Indeed, if you are passionate about getting involved in a specific line of work or a particular kind of client, then recruiters will pick up on your enthusiasm. If you’re interested in fashion, for instance, then emphasise how your new employer’s major retail accounts are a big draw. Alternatively, if you’ve spent the last five years coding but you just completed a business degree, talk about how you’re attracted to the increased project management opportunities that are on offer.

Ultimately, if you can demonstrate your passion and suitability for your new role throughout the application process, then nobody will be too worried about what you did before.

‘It’s for practical reasons’

Sometimes, career decisions are driven by logistical forces. For instance, your spouse may have landed a job in a different city and you’ve, therefore, had to uproot, as well. As long as you had no issues with your previous employer, this is a simple and justifiable excuse (you will actually have to have moved for this to fly, though).

Alternatively, it may be more convenient for you. If your previous commute was bordering on Siberian or your hours were totally incompatible with your other responsibilities, then nobody is going to begrudge you for looking for something a little less stressful.

Again, don’t overplay your hand, though. If it takes two hours just to get to your desk in your current role, then it’s a valid gripe. On the other hand, ‘I can sleep in for another 10 minutes’ isn’t, and your prospective employers won’t be impressed.

‘I was laid off/made redundant’

It should go without saying but don’t use this excuse unless you actually were laid off (employers do check these things, you know). In this scenario, your interviewer will only be interested in trying to ascertain one thing: if the redundancy was truly beyond your control or if there was something more to it.

Essentially, be honest. If you were an innocent casualty of corporate restructuring or poor senior management, then you should still be able to obtain a good reference from your previous bosses. If you were sacked because you were useless, and you’re trying to cover it up as a mandatory dismissal, then recruiters will be able to sense this immediately – and guess what? They’ll check.

3. Always be positive – Don’t be bitter

Whatever you choose to answer, the one key thing to remember is that you should never be negative about your previous role and experiences. Not only does it make you come across as petty and vindictive, but it also makes you look unprofessional, as well as gives off the vibe of a toxic employee that bears grudges and doesn’t play well with others.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you have to give a glowing endorsement, either; the whole point is that you don’t have to give any kind of review. Instead, shift the focus onto where you are going – not where you have been.

Are you looking to change jobs? What has been your experience so far? Let us know in the comments below…

It’s a question that pops up in every interview, but job seekers still seem unsure how to answer; this is how to explain why you left your last job…