Need to explain why you left your last job? Read this.

Posted December 02, 2020

In 2018, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported one of the highest rates since 2001 of people leaving their jobs to find something better. With jobs low unemployment, the job market was open to the influx of job seekers looking for something new. In fact, in October of that year alone, 3.5 million people quit in search of their next dream job. 

That same year, 21.9 million people were laid off or fired. And though compared to the number of employed, it’s relatively low number, that’s a whole lot of people on the hunt for a new job. Fast forward to 2020 with at least 22 million jobs lost due to Covid-19, the last few years have seen a lot of job seekers faced with the same question. Why did you leave your job?

Answering the big question; Why did you leave your job?

Searching for a new job brings a lot of tough questions. While some interview questions seem like sheer curiosity rather than actually having a point, they can actually tell an employer a lot about you, and about what kind of employee you are and will be. 

One of the questions that employer love to know is why you left your last job. 

You may feel understandably nervous about this common question in job interviews. Wondering if the wrong answer will disqualify you from consideration for a job you really want or need can be disheartening and leave you feeling like you’re walking on eggshells. 

People depart companies for a variety of reasons. Some of them are common and good, others are less than optimal. But when it comes to explaining why you left your job, it’s all about framing. 

See, you can lend a positive twist to even the worst reasons for leaving jobs, such as being fired for something you did. Sounds too good to be true, but it’s not--and the CareerBliss team is here to show you how to do just that!

Why the reason you left your job actually matters

Employers aren’t just looking to hire you. They are making an investment in you and in their company. And while they can’t foresee everything, they hope that their investment in you will pay off. After all, hiring isn’t cheap. 

According to the Society for Human Resources Management’s Human Capital Benchmarking Report, the “average cost-per-hire is $4,129, while the average time it takes to fill a given position is 42 days.” And that’s not even taking into account benefits, training, insurance premium subsidies or any of the other things employers offer to sweeten the deal and keep their employees happy and healthy. 

Hiring costs some pretty dollars. So it’s no wonder that would-be employers sift through the masses by understanding why you are even in the market for a new job.

The would-be employer is going to weigh your response to this important question of why you left your last job against the potential risk of you doing the same thing a few months or a year down the road. Most companies aren’t fond of high turnover. They want to hire someone with dedication and staying power. 

So how you respond to this answer matters.

Whether you left your job on good or bad terms, because you wanted higher pay, more of a challenge, more respect, better coworkers, or maybe you did something wrong at work and nobody could look at you the same way after that--the key is perspective and framing. You want your potential employer to know that any mistakes that you may have made were not lost on you, but that you took them as a painful lesson well-learned. 

Common reasons why employees leave their jobs

Many studies have been done on the topic. Research by Monster, Mercer and The Work Institute found that compensation, promotions, career development or change--and bad managers--are some of the top reasons why employees seek new jobs. Even so, money isn’t always the top reason. Sometimes it’s just a bad boss or an insufferable coworker that you don’t want to deal with anymore that leads people to quit.

But we know that many people have also lost jobs due to poor performance, mistakes, or some other reason that may not be quite as easy to paint in a positive light. 

So how do you paint a picture that makes you still a desirable candidate to hire, without looking like a risk for doing the exact same thing all over again--whether performing badly or just looking for more opportunity? 

Because for an employer, while ambition is a good thing, they also want to feel that by hiring you and investing their time in you, that you won’t just turn around and leave the moment another opportunity comes up.

Painting a picture that keeps you in the running for the job

So how do you actually explain your reasons for throwing in the towel at your last job (or conversely, for being let go)? 

The question is usually trying to help them understand any of a few different things, and knowing this can help you determine how to respond. So what is is that would-be employers are trying to determine when asking why you left your previous company or job?

  1. Did you leave broken pieces behind, or was your departure on good terms? Most employers want a list of references, and being able to include your previous employer as a reference is a good way of building trust in your abilities and dependability.
  1. Did you leave by your own choice, or were you forced out (and if forced, why)? Just because you were fired does not have to exclude you from consideration if you frame it right. Keep reading.
  1. What do you value in a job or company you work for? After all, if you left because you felt like you could make a bigger impact on humanity at XYZ company vs leaving because the snacks in the breakroom were shoddy--well, you can guess who’d be in the running for the job and who would be viewed as more than a bit entitled. Then again, even the poorest reasons can be framed to keep the positive light shining on you. But they will likely take some thinking and creativity, so don’t wait until the question is asked to think through your reasons and your framing.

Okay, so how do you frame your reasons for leaving your last job? Turns out there are a few little rules you can keep in mind as you start to craft your pitch for why you left or were laid off or fired.

5 Rules for answering the big question

Rule #1 Steer positive

That is, there’s two sides to every story. Perhaps you left because your job just was boring, or you felt like it was a literal dead end where employees faded into the employment abyss never to be heard from again--and you had to get out. But you would never say that in a job interview--or rather, you shouldn’t! Instead, you should focus the conversation on the fact that you are seeking new opportunities that can challenge you, stretch you out of your comfort zones and push you to new heights. Sounds better, doesn’t it? We and your prospective employer think so too. Don’t forget to mention why the job you’re applying for now caught your attention in your goal to challenge yourself. This also gives you a chance to plug your accomplishments and skills, and what you can bring to the role.

Rule #2 Highlight lessons learned

If you were fired from your last job, you certainly don’t want to drop that dangerous bombshell without qualifying it. After all, there are numerous reasons that you could have been fired, including changing needs in the department. But if the firing was due to performance problems or a big mistake that you couldn’t come back from, you would do well to keep it brief, but humbly own up to your mistakes, making a huge point to mention what you learned from the experience, and how it set you on the course to doing things a whole lot differently (and explain your new approach to work and life following the experience of being fired). Then move the conversation forward to why you want this job and how you can benefit the company.

Rule #3 Practice your pitch

When it comes to telling the story of why you left your last job, practice makes perfect. You don’t want to be caught off guard and decide which “story” you should tell in the moment. Be honest. Be brief. Be concise. But most importantly, keep the focus on where it really belongs--why you are the absolute best person for the job in question. 

Rule #4 Be future-focused

An important point to keep in mind is to always take the high road and avoid negativity and unprofessionalism. Blaming others or talking about your nasty coworker can make you seem a bit risky, gossipy, or unable to accept responsibility. So stay positive and talk about the future as much as possible, without undermining the past. The past, whatever it is, exists. It may be full of the nastiest coworkers, the most unappreciative bosses and the dullest job in the world. But just because it’s true doesn’t mean you need to stay there. Apply Rule 1 and approach it all in a positive light, then remember that the future is before you and redirect the conversation there. 

This brings us to one of the main points to keep in mind:

Rule #5 Use the question as a springboard

As you explain why you left your job, make a point to highlight and direct the focus to the skills you have and that you fetl you were underutilizing; you can highlight your drive for greater responsibility and success; your hardcore work ethic and your complete and undeniable enthusiasm for this new role and responsibility. 

With a bit of thought, practice, finesse, and of course, committing the tips above to memory, you can have a great and dare we say, winning, response the next time an interviewer wants to know why you left your last job. 

The CareerBliss Team

Your career happiness is our #1 priority here at CareerBliss. To help you succeed in your career, we offer a wide variety of tools and resources to help you out along the way. Check out company reviews, salary information, career advice and, of course, millions of jobs on CareerBliss and choose happy today!

Sign up for Job Alerts!
Show me more jobs

Resume Writing Services

Free resume evaluation from career experts
  • Guaranteed interviews in 30 business days or get a free rewrite
  • All staff writers are Certified Professional Resume Writers (CPRWs)
Learn more
We noticed that your web browser is outdated!

Update your browser to have a more positive job search experience.

Upgrade My Browser