By Sandy Johnson, Senior Consultant
“Why did you leave your last job?” he asks casually, as he scans my resume. My jaw tightens. I press my hand on my knee to stop it from shaking under the table. I was really hoping I wouldn’t be asked this because I don’t know the answer or what I should say. He glances up looking for my reaction. The responses that come to mind are embarrassing. “I was let go,” or worse, ” I was fired.” Neither seems fitting and actually, I don’t know the real reason.
The one question that you don’t want to answer in an interview is usually one of the first questions asked. The fact is, you’re no longer working at the company indicated most recently on your resume and the decision to leave wasn’t yours. And, now you don’t know what to say. You’re not alone. Terminations don’t necessarily reflect negatively upon the professional performance of the affected employees, but instead are often a result of a decision to restructure, addressing poor business results.
When asked the question, “Why did you leave?” the natural inclination is to answer it, mirroring the way it’s been posed. “I left because…” or, “I’m not there anymore because….” Don’t complicate your story by volunteering information that isn’t requested. This tends to generate a long and cumbersome explanation that will no doubt suggest that you are at fault. Think of this from the interviewer’s point of view. When looking at the most recent date on your resume they merely want to know if you’re still at the company or why you left. Don’t make this more complicated than it needs to be. Particularly now, when so many businesses are suffering due to issues around COVID-19, take the pressure off yourself and take control of the messaging. What do you want your audience to know?
To leave a positive impression, consider reframing your answer into a concise message, incorporating three simple statements.
- Start by stating something constructive about the time you spent at your last job, such as, “While I was at Company A, I initiated….” or, “I had the opportunity to demonstrate…” or, “I implemented…” And yes, feel free to say how much you enjoyed working there if you did.
- Address the question and briefly describe what happened to cause your dismissal: “Sales recently declined and there was a decision to do some significant restructuring.” Or, “A recent merger dictated staff changes within the department.” A single sentence should do it.
- And finally, and this is the most important part, share what you want to do now. “ Now I’m looking for an opportunity to contribute by bringing my skills in ….” or, “This role is particularly appealing because…”
Be honest, but don’t dwell upon or elaborate on the reason that you left. It’s more important that you guide the conversation toward the future and in the case of an interview, why you’re there. Explain how you can offer value to the prospective employer.
The key to a successful leaving message is creating a brief story about yourself and the situation, which you feel comfortable delivering. If you’re comfortable, your audience will be comfortable. Expect the question. It’ll be asked out of curiosity and it’s not intended to trick you. If you finish your response with sharing your ideas about the future, that’s where the conversation will head.
Sandy Johnson is an ICF certified coach and career strategist at Feldman Daxon. She supports professionals who want to advance their careers in the direction of their choosing.
- On August 21, 2020