One of my resume clients (let’s call them Pat) reported to the CEO of a start-up business unit of a Fortune 500 company.
Pat grew the business unit’s sales so effectively that the CEO felt threatened. As the relationship tanked, the CEO’s behavior became Pat’s reason for leaving the company.
“Reason for Leaving” Is a Popular Interview Question
As we all know, “Why are you leaving your job?” is one of the most popular interview questions.
When I recruited, my first interview with candidates covered education and work history. I asked:
- Why they chose their school(s)
- What made them pick their major(s)
- Why they took each of their jobs
- Their reason for leaving each of their jobs
Then, I looked for patterns and red flags as we walked through their professional lives.
I didn’t care much if a candidate had run into one boss they didn’t like.
However, I paused if I saw a pattern of negative resignations, firings, or other problems. I rarely advanced the person to the next round of structured, behavior-based interviews.
Interestingly, those first interviews usually eliminated about 50% of the people on my shortlists.
Thus, Pat would benefit from preparing to answer these questions for each job s/he has had:
- Why did you take the job?
- Why did you leave the job?
Because answers to the second question can be deal-killers, s/he needs to be ready.
How to Answer, “What’s Your Reason for Leaving Your Job?”
Pat and I batted this question around for a while, and then I suggested I crowdsource some ideas on LinkedIn. Pat loved that idea, so I asked for help.
If you’re not a job club member, remember that LinkedIn can be a helpful resource.
We got great ideas and good reasons for leaving.
Tell the Truth
First, several people suggested tactfully mentioning the problem. Pat and I had discussed this, but it didn’t feel right.
Annette Richmond, a resume writer, noted negatives might make the interviewer wonder:
- What you’ll say about them when you leave their company
- If you’re a complainer
Step Around the Elephant in the Room
Other people suggested tactfully skirting your real reason for leaving.
Andy Foote, a LinkedIn coach, suggested the following:
“Though I have…had many successes at X Company…to take my career to the next level, I need to move to an organization which provides different challenges and opportunities.”
I’m a former recruiter. That answer would have made me wonder if the candidate was leaving something out.
I would have received their tactfulness positively. I also would have asked each of their references why they were leaving.
Thus, if you use a “tactful” answer, align your references with your explanation.
BTW, always talk with HR and your boss about how they will handle your reference calls.
If the Potential Employer Presses You for Details
Heather Flanagan, a facilitator, mentioned that body language has to match words.
If it doesn’t, and you’ve given a diplomatic answer, a recruiter or hiring manager might press you for details.
That could sound like, “I understand you’re looking for an opportunity to grow. We would offer you that, but is there anything else driving your departure from X Company?”
How to Respond When Pressed
Now that you’ve been pressed, you can explain:
“My boss and I worked together successfully for several years. A few things shifted recently. That, along with my desire for the types of challenges and career path your job offers, brought me here today.”
Then say nothing.
If the interviewer continues to probe, add, “I hope you’ll let me omit the finer details.” (Thanks to community manager Elad Yakobowicz for that language.)
Tell a Truthful, Data-Based Story & Add a Pitch
Dal Jeanis, a data consultant, added quantitative data and much of this language:
“I tripled the business’s sales in the last X months and trained my successor. Because I report to the CEO, who plans to stay put, I have limited growth opportunities. I will leave on good terms, but I am looking for my next challenge.
…(segue to pitch)…
What fascinates me about this role is the opportunity to work for a company that (describe how your skillset can be used and what can be accomplished).”
Thanks to everyone who shared their ideas and tips to support Pat’s job interviews!
Whether you left your last job or it left you, reasons for leaving challenge most job seekers. If you can’t figure out what to say, job clubs and crowdsourcing provide great ideas!
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Updated December 2022
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Donna Svei, an executive resume writer and former C-level executive, retained search consultant, and CPA, authors all of AvidCareerist’s posts.
She is a Fast Company Contributor and has written for and been quoted by 100+ business and general media outlets, including Forbes, Inc., Entrepreneur, CNBC, the New York Times, USA Today, Time, US News & World Report, CBS, the BBC, Lifehacker, Social Media Today, IT World, and Business News Daily.
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Great post! Thank you.
I had an interesting situation at one company. The brilliant-innovative-energetic-visionary physician who founded the company was asked by the board to step aside as they were bringing in their own CEO to help take the company to the ‘next level’.
I was bummed. I was joined at the hip with the original founder for several years, served as her marketing leader, worked very well together, and became friends. The ‘new guy’ came in, called a company meeting explaining how we were going to do this, do that, change this, change that. As a healthcare company, thank goodness one of the clinicians in the meeting asked, “What do you have planned for the best interest of our patients?” Wow. We caught him off guard. He stammered and said something like, “Oh …. um, yea … the patients … bla bla bla.” Many of us–both corporate and clinical– knew the minute he walked in … that the company was taking a very different approach that was … not patient-centered. Yikes!
Thank goodness he replaced several positions, including mine, with his own cast of characters from California. Many talented people not on his list also left within a year. So on the rare occasion when I’m asked why I left I answer with, “The CEO brought in his own marketing VP. Truth! And actually … not too uncommon in the world of marketing. Happily … that question has never been a ‘stopper’ for me in any employment situation.
That is such a disappointing reason for leaving. Yet, it happens so frequently that, “The new CEO brought his/her own team along,” is a common and accepted story.
I really appreciate you sharing your experience!
What would you answer if one employer didn’t pay me at all and we were in a legal dispute as a result, another employer and I couldn’t come to an agreement on new terms he wanted to add for an extension of my contract, and another employer wasn’t paying me accurate commissions due?
Thanks for asking.
First, consider vetting your next employer more carefully:
1. Ask to talk with the previous incumbent. If they hedge, you have a red flag.
2. Check the longevity of their current sales team on LinkedIn. If you see short tenures, you have another red flag.
Now, what should you say in interviews?
1. For your first example, “Unfortunately, I haven’t been paid. I’d like to stick it out (this softens the negative report), but it’s not meeting my family’s needs.”
2. For the next two, “My employer changed my compensation plan.” While this might bump you out of contention, it will also help you avoid potential employers that will cut your pay after they hire you.
Sales can be a rough and tumble world. Let’s get you lined up with an ethical employer who will keep their promises to you.
P.S. Other readers, I’d love to hear your input on Michael’s question too. A variety of perspectives helps tremendously in crafting answers to sticky questions!
What to say in best way taking the high road when your boss and other bosses who are Senior Executives or even the CEO or maybe even the current US President(as certain in many cases coming to light) are the worst of worst demeaning, inhumane bullies and tyrants with no professionalism and cannot say anything positive of you even after leaving?
1. How can one in this situation take control of situation if he or she surely must leave for his/her own sanity and well-being, while answering professionally with taking the high road?
2. What happens if this scenario happens 3 to 5 times or more in a career, while he or she has few good references from only 2 places but cannot get a good reference for nl reason at current place desiring to leave?.
In general, I think you can use the advice in the post above to craft an interview answer. You want a more significant challenge; you prefer not to go into the finer details, etc.
Also, unless your manager has told you that you won’t get a useful reference, you might find your company will be more helpful than you think.
While you don’t mention being fired, please read this AvidCareerist post:
How to Ask for a Reference After Being Fired
It applies whether you leave your job or it leaves you.
Then, be aware that internal and third-party recruiters know more about other employers’ reputations than you might think. They get outreach from people leaving jobs every day. Thus, they have a much better idea of which companies have trouble keeping people than job seekers realize.
In regard to your second question, if that keeps happening to you, put more focus on vetting companies and hiring managers before you accept job offers.
This post will give you a good start:
12 Things You Wish You’d Known Before You Took the Job — Infographic
This is a question we receive often. It is often complex to resolve. The best responses are as honest as possible while not saying anything negative about the past company or the past manager.
I like Dal Jeanis’ response the best:
“I tripled the business’s sales in the last X months and trained my successor. Because I report to the CEO, who plans to stay put, I have limited opportunity for growth. I will leave on good terms, but I am looking for my next challenge.”
It’s honest, but doesn’t reflect poorly on the previous employer.
I also like how the answers on LinkedIn continued to build on what other people had said.
Thus (anyone reading this), if you’re grappling with how to answer a difficult interview question, shoot me a note about it via the Contact form here. If it sounds as though it would have broad interest, I’m happy to pose the question to my LI network.
Thank you very much for this awesome article
Such a great aspect of interview you have mentioned in here. Amazing work. Hopefully more light will be put on it soon.
Jack, Thank you. Donna