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 deteriorated, 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 viable candidates covered their entire 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.
As we walked through their professional lives, I looked for patterns and red flags.
I didn’t care too much if a candidate had run into one boss they didn’t like.
However, 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 eliminated about half of the people who had appealing resumes.
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 for you.
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 quite right.
Annette Richmond, a resume writer, pointed out that when you volunteer something negative, the interviewer might 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.”
As a former recruiter, that answer would have made me wonder if the candidate was leaving something out.
While I would have received their tactfulness positively, I would have also noted to ask each of their references why they were leaving.
Thus, if you use the “tactful” type of answer, line up your references, including your boss, to give the same reason for your departure that you’ve given.
BTW, whether you resign or get fired, it’s always a good idea to talk with HR and your boss about how they will handle reference calls about you.
If the Potential Employer Presses You for Details
Heather Flanagan, a consultant who facilitates large, global collaborative efforts, mentioned that your body language needs to match your 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, and 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, but a few things shifted recently. That, coupled 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 powerful quantitative data and much of the following language to this response:
“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).”
Thank everyone who generously contributed their ideas and interview tips to support Pat’s job interviews!
Whether you left your last job, or it left you, talking about reasons for leaving previous jobs is challenging for most job seekers.
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Image: Jérôme Rommé
Updated March 2022
© 2019 – 2022, Donna Svei. All rights reserved.
Donna Svei, an executive resume writer and former C-level executive, retained search consultant, and CPA, authors all of AvidCareerist’s posts.
She has written for and been quoted by 100+ business and general media outlets, including Forbes, Mashable, Fast Company, 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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