This common interview question isn’t a trap, per se, but it can feel like one.
That’s most likely because the question is a little disingenuous.
It’s not really asking why you left in terms of total honesty; it’s just trying to gauge why it is that you’re back on the job market, and whether you’re diplomatic enough to talk about your previous employers in a positive way despite the fact that you’re no longer working with them.
In this sense, this isn’t so much a question as it is a barometer for your ability to build and maintain bridges with folks who you may have a lot of reasons to resent, which is an important quality to possess for pretty much any job there is.
So let’s go.
The trick is to be honest without being a huge downer about your last boss.
After all, what the person interviewing is looking for is just a good reason why you’re no longer working for your previous employer, not a Russian novel detailing your every grievance.
Even if your boss was a grade-A jerk, it’s difficult for the interviewer to take you at your word. They don’t know you, and it’s just as likely that you were the difficult one to work with, not your boss.
Additionally, they’ll be thinking about the kind of things you might say about the company you’re applying to, should you manage to get the position.
Will you still be tactful about your new position if things don’t pan out? Or will you just be saying the same sort of unpleasant things in your next interview, somewhere down the line?
Like I said, hear me out.
There are a lot of very good reasons for you to have left your previous position, and almost all are good to share with your new boss and work friends. Just, perhaps not immediately.
You want to keep in mind that this person who’s interviewing you is meeting you for the first time as well. Even if they seem polite and understanding in person, once it comes time for them to make hiring decisions they may not feel able to take a risk on someone whose background sends up too many red flags for them.
If they know that someone they’re looking to hire had a terrible relationship with their last employer, then the immediate concern for them is not a potential hire’s boss, but their new potential employee (aka you).
Think about how you can frame your more honest answers about why you left your previous position into something that employers are looking for.
This is one situation where, because of the stigma associated with bad-mouthing any previous employer (no matter how bad), you may want to lie if your answer is anything less than flattering to your last boss.
However, you also don’t want to inadvertently bad-mouth yourself, either. If your last employer was perfect (or if you at least make them sound like they were), then the fact that you are no longer working there could be a red flag if you don’t have a good reason prepared for why you left.
The point here is to show your ability to be tactful about your previous work relationships without sending up any red flags to a potential employer. You want to show that you’re aware of what a good, healthy employment experience consists of without giving hiring managers any reason to be concerned about your ability to play nice with others.
Depending on your reasons for leaving, this may require you to be a teensy, tiny bit dishonest. Or, at the very least, not perfectly frank.
(I’m losing the metaphor here a bit. I think lying was supposed to be a lockpick or something, but those don’t work on chain locks either; someone help me out here.)
Below are some overly honest answers, what your hiring manager may be hearing when you give that answer, and some, shall we say, creative ways you can reword these answers into something that would sound better/less overtly alarming.
“I quit because I was bored,”
“I just wasn’t being challenged enough.”
“I’m a fickle person subject to naught but my own whims, and I could quit at literally any time. I might quit on day one if the office coffee is cold. In my mind I’m already quitting the job that you haven’t even offered me yet. The open sea is my only true home, and she beckons me ever daily.”
The problem here is that telling a hiring manager that you weren’t being challenged enough might make him or her concerned about your attention span.
They’re looking for someone who’s more than just capable of doing the work, but who’s also interested enough in the work that they won’t be back on the job hunt as soon they get hired.
Instead, try something like, “I worked for [X] company for [X] number of years, and it was time for me to make a change.”
Emphasize that what you’re looking for is a new experience, but that you’re still capable of making a commitment to a new organization. Talk about why you’ve chosen to apply to this company in particular. What interests you about them specifically?
At the end of the day, it’s fine if you were bored and wanted to shake up your life a bit.
You just want to be a little diplomatic about how you frame this to a hiring manager.
“I quit because my boss was a (and/or coworkers were) moron(s).”
“My boss was a jerk and I’m not intelligent or articulate enough to be nice about it. Also, I may or may not be a rude, boorish fool myself. I probably am. You have no way to know for sure, as you and I are strangers. My inability to think of anything nice to say about my previous employer is, in any case, a serious red flag that you should definitely hold against me as an interviewee and potential co-worker.”
Again, there’s no way for any hiring manager to be sure you aren’t the one who’s a big old jerk. First impressions can be deceiving, after all.
In fact, if you didn’t like them, try not to mention your boss or coworkers at all. Instead, focus on the company at large; you can disagree with the general direction of the company without sounding mean.
It can be a really great jumping-off point for talking about reasons you’re excited to join this new company specifically.
If it’s specifically a newer boss that you disliked at a company you’d already been working for awhile, a good option here is to talk about your old boss.
Discuss how it didn’t make sense for you to continue working at the company after she or he left, or how their leaving helped you realize that it was time for you to move on as well. This is a reasonable answer to a common enough situation, and perfectly sidesteps the issue of talking about your newer (idiot) boss.
“I was laid off suddenly,” or, “I was laid off for no good reason.”
“I didn’t think I would get laid off and wasn’t really prepared for it to happen, financially or otherwise, which is actually fine and doesn’t make me a bad person or anything, but it’s probably not something I should be telling you as a potential employer.”
Not an example where lying is required, but specificity is. You want to talk about precisely what happened. Was your company relocating, or merging with another? Were you overstaffed, or was your company cutting costs?
Be as specific as you can be about this. It’ll show any potential hirers that you understand the complex reasons why a company may conduct layoffs.
Showing that you have no hard feelings about this will demonstrate your ability to remain civil when this kind of unavoidable evils of the business world ends up affecting your livelihood.
“I was fired.”
Actually, probably just what it sounds like. Sorry.
It’s tough to get around this one. Obviously, it’s not ideal to tell a hiring manager that you were fired, as this is perhaps the reddest of all red flags.
However, lying about this is a terrible idea; it will almost certainly come up at one point or another. Any hiring manager can discover this about you with a minimal amount of digging. All that they have to do is call your previous employer, and suddenly your secret is out.
So, you have one shot here to convince your interviewer that despite being fired, you still deserve a shot. Your instinct here may be to trash talk your previous employer, which may make sense — if the reason you were fired because your last boss was terrible, this will clear up the issue right away.
But if you do this, no matter how justified you are, you’ll end up running into the same problem of the hiring manager not knowing who to believe in this scenario. Even if you’re right, it’s tough to look good to a stranger while trashing your old boss (even if they were bad); you’ll come off looking righteously angry at best, but cynical and mean-spirited at worst.
Part of this depends on how you left things with your last place of employment. If you can cite your last boss as a reference, that’s the best of all possible worlds. She or he can go to bat for you at your new place and tell them all about how wonderful you are, and any fears a hiring manager might still have can be squashed right away.
Of course, there are some of us who live in our own darkest timelines, and we don’t all have the luxury of being on perfect terms with our previous employers. Sometimes in life, we’re forced to set an Arby’s garbage can on fire in lieu of giving a more traditional two-weeks-notice.
In cases like these where the only person in your corner is yourself, it’s all on you to think of some method of framing your being fired in such a way that a hiring manager would be willing to give you a shot.
First of all, tell them that you were “let go”; then follow this up by talking about what you learned as a result of the experience, rather than spending your time focused on the firing itself.
Let’s start this section with a short recap. When asked why you left you last job, you should keep the following points in mind:
Be nice about your previous employer, even if they were a jerk and a half.
Keep the focus on what you learned as a result of your previous employment. Be honest about why you left, but try not to linger too long on the leaving.
When in doubt, keep to the age-old mantra; if you can’t say anything nice, yadda yadda yadda. You get it. Be nice. Get the job. Have fun.