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Written by Paul DruryPaul Drury

How to answer “Why did you leave your last job?”

25 min read
How to answer “Why did you leave your last job?”
Artwork by:Katya Simacheva
“Why did you leave your last job?” is a classic interview question that should be answered carefully. A prudent response can help you win over the employer and put you on the path to landing the position.

Interviewers love questions that make a candidate squirm in their seats. Sure, they want to offer you a stage to perform, but if they do not also probe your weak spots, they leave themselves open to issues in the future. 

You won't want to be exploring your reasons for leaving a job for long.

“Why did you leave your last job?” is a terrifying question that can make even the most confident candidate gulp and consider how they frame their answer. There may be many valid reasons for leaving a job, so which ones do you choose to talk about?

In this blog, we explore the nuances of the question, how to structure your reasons for leaving a job and the most common reasons for leaving a role with some real-life examples. We consider:

  • What are interviewers really looking for when they ask this question?
  • 5 steps to frame an ideal response to “why did you leave your last job?”
  • Top nine reasons for leaving a job with examples and advice
  • What not to say when you are answering the question
  • How to prepare for follow up questions

Exploring your motivations for leaving your previous roles can be an incredibly useful exercise. As you seek to find your ideal next move it is useful to consider what was less than ideal about your previous roles. Try to avoid a workplace environment where similar issues may come about. Considering previous reasons for leaving a job is a question of risk management for both candidate and employer.

Expert tip

Prepare your answers in advance for each job that you have left. Interview preparation is sometimes difficult as you do not know which questions will be asked, but you can be sure that this question will come up. Think about some credible (and varied) reasons for leaving each of your previous roles. It is important that there does not seem like there is a pattern of behavior which may be repeated.

What are interviewers really asking when they say “Why did you leave your last job?”

An interview is as much an exercise in risk mitigation as it is in exploring potential. You might be the most talented programmer in the industry, but if you have left roles in the past and not gone on to something significantly better, interviewers will want to know why.

If you left a job for a certain reason, what would stop you from doing it again? Behaviors tend to echo, and interviewers want to understand your motivations both from a positive and a negative point of view. It costs a great deal to hire an employee, so the likelihood of retaining talent is at the top of an interviewers list.

Of course, people do leave jobs for plenty of good reasons, but it is important that you articulate these reasons for leaving a job as well as possible. In the stress of an interview, it is all too easy to blurt out a quick explanation without fully explaining yourself. You might think that moving on swiftly is a better option than dwelling on these matters, but this is an area where you should leave no doubt in an interviewer’s mind.

This is one of the questions where an interviewer needs to be fully satisfied.

So, how do you respond to “Why did you leave your last job?”

Expert tip

Make sure that you avoid portraying yourself as a victim. Your future employer wants to hire someone who is in charge of their own destiny. You can choose to actively leave a job because of a positive choice, or you can be forced into it passively by something that is out of your control. Portraying yourself with your reasons for leaving a job as a victim of circumstance (no matter how true it might be) is not a good look. Try to find more proactive reasons for leaving if you possibly can.

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5 steps to frame an ideal response

Whatever reason for leaving your job you choose to give, there are steps that you need to take to give a satisfactory response. When you are preparing your answers, try to include these five considerations:

1. Ensure that your reasons are appropriate and clear.

Any responsible employee is loyal to their employers and would only leave when the reason is justified. When answering the “why did you leave your last job?” question, avoid reeling off a long list of reasons for leaving the job. Choose one or two and explain them with brief details.

2. Leave no doubt that you are serious about your work.

If you are a chronic job hopper who has no real direction in their careers, leaving a job won’t be a big deal. You have done it so many times in the past, after all. If you are strategic and serious about building a career, every reason for leaving a job should make sense in the context of your longer-term ambitions. We all have different priorities – what are yours?

3. Frame the discussion positively and be as honest as possible.

Whether you are looking for more responsibilities, a career switch , a better relationship with a boss or a better match for your values, there are plenty of positive reasons to look for a new job. Try to steer the conversation towards these reasons, but don’t swerve being honest. Negative situations are incredibly common, and it is acceptable to acknowledge them too.

4. Be clear about how your next job needs to be different.

When answering your reasons for leaving a job, you need to identify them and show that you do not anticipate them occurring in the next job. It is somewhat sadistic to subject yourself to the same unacceptable environment, so share your thoughts on why you do not think that a similar thing will happen again. Put your future employer’s mind at rest.

5. Don’t go into too much detail unless it is requested.

While you need to give the above reassurances, 30 seconds of explanation is more than enough. Ideally you should answer the question comprehensively to allow the interviewer to move on to move positive territory. They may well want to explore your reasons for leaving the job further, in which case you should answer as comprehensively as possible, but ideally answer well and move on.

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Expert tip

Expect the question. Any well-prepared candidate will expect this question, so while you shouldn’t launch into an immaculately prepared response (which might seem unnatural), don’t let the question phase you. Don’t go into an interview hoping that it won’t be asked. It is one of the most revealing interview questions out there. 

Blog - Why did you leave your last job - Top 9 reasons for leaving you job
Top 9 reasons for leaving you job

The top 9 reasons for leaving your job + sample answers and practical advice

You may have many reasons for leaving your role, but which are most suitable to share and what are your justifications? Here are a few of the most common reasons with some interview examples that you can adapt for any future employer.

Lack of professional development

No matter how many online training courses you take outside of work, if your employer does not give you the opportunity to practice your new skills , you will not achieve any sort of mastery. Sadly, some employers simply want their people to do a job, no more and no less, but many of us want more than that. 

Lack of professional development is one of the most common reasons for leaving a job, but you need to be careful to prove that you were worth investing in. Convince your next employer that supporting you will be worthwhile.

Why did you leave your last job? 

“I took a number of graphic design courses outside of work, and looked for opportunities to incorporate them in my previous position but I was not given any projects where this skill was required. I know that my design skills can make a difference to the brand marketing of my next employer.”

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Change to another industry sector

Staying in the same job function (marketing, sales, operations) but moving to a different industry is a common reason for a move. If you share this motivation, you need to make sure that your future employer is in the same sort of industry niche and would not seem like a backwards step. Focus on shared skills and how the move fits with your long-term plan.

Why did you leave your previous role? 

“I made a move from manufacturing to online retail as the logistics function offered more opportunities. I wanted to specialize in automated fulfillment technologies, so the online retail environment offered me a chance to broaden my experience.”

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Values no longer aligned with mission

If you don’t feel that your personal values are aligned with the company’s way of doing things, work can be a hard place to be. Of course, many of us have little choice but to put up with it, but if you can show that your values are important to you, then this is a reason for leaving the job that should be admired. Just be sure that the new employer’s stated values match the ones you prescribe – or you could find yourself in an awkward situation when the interview can’t relate.

What was your reason for leaving?

“I am a passionate environmental campaigner, so when my consultancy decided to take on a major project with one of the biggest polluters on the planet, I felt that I could not stay in the role in good conscience.”

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Seeking better benefits & compensation

Financial situations differ from company to company and if your remuneration package does not reflect the value that you bring, it is entirely understandable to look for an employer who can pay you what you are worth. Only use this reason for leaving the job if you can prove that you did indeed get a significant raise as a result of your move. Otherwise, it doesn’t quite ring true.

Why did you move from your last position?

“After doing some market research into the typical compensation for my role, I realized that my company was more than 30% below the average. After an unsuccessful negotiation, I decided to move to a place where my efforts were suitably compensated and secured a 35% uplift in salary.”

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Job specification changed dramatically

Corporate priorities can change, so if you are hired for one thing and you end up doing something entirely different, it is understandable that you want to find a role that matches your interests. Make it clear that the change of role specification was not down to your lack of competence and show that you were flexible enough to give the new responsibilities a diligent attempt before you considered jumping ship. Sometimes you need to take one for the team, but certainly not indefinitely.

Why did you leave your last job? 

“The scope of my job changed entirely after new management decided on a different strategy. It was taking my work in a direction that was not compatible with my future career goals, so after 6 months of trying to make it work I decided that the best option was to make a fresh start in a more suitable role.”

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Wanted to change career paths

When you wish to change your career path (as opposed to changing industry but staying in the same career), it is harder to assure a future employer that this won’t happen again. If this change happened a decade ago and you want to remain in your current career, then it is fine. However, if it was a recent career change, then you will have to be particularly persuasive around how happy and successful you are in your career direction.

Why did you quit this role? 

“In the job before my last one, I decided that I needed to leave my publishing career and move into social media. I have always been passionate about the written word and the opportunity to reach a large audience at scale was attractive. Five years later, I have created some of the most iconic social campaigns in the fashion industry and seek to continue my success with you.”

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Family or personal reasons

Personal life needs to take priority over work at various points in our lives, often due to circumstances that are out of our control. A relative may have become ill, or there could have been an accident, or your childcare situation might have changed – among many other reasons. Your competency will not be called into question with such reasons for leaving a job and if they can genuinely be viewed as one-off occurrences, your chances of being hired won’t be affected. Relocation to a new city or country falls under the extenuating circumstances category.

Why did you leave your last role? 

“I needed to care for my elderly parents for a period of six months as they recovered from a serious illness. They now have a live-in caregiver, so I am seeking to come back to the workforce. I am looking forward to dedicating my energies towards my career again – I know that I have much to bring to the position.”

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No promotion opportunities

It may be that your boss has been in the job for ten years and is likely to stay for another ten. There is no shame in outgrowing your role. If you can demonstrate that your achievements warranted a promotion, moving companies is the only logical step of a confident and ambitious employee. It is up to your future employer to ensure that your career can grow along with your development. Sadly, it is a common reason for leaving a role.

Why did you leave your last job? 

“I left my previous role because there was a lack of growth opportunities – either upwards or sideways. I was consistently achieving top appraisal grades and was the top performer in my department. I am looking for a new role where I will be able to take on more managerial responsibilities.”

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Company went out of business

When you work with small businesses and start-ups, this reason is an occupational hazard. If this happened, it is important to show that you did not play a major part in this business failure. Taking about any sort of previous failure is dangerous ground in an interview – your future employer wants to hire successful high-fliers. If your company folded and had to fire everyone, you have no choice but to state it as a fact. Hopefully, this only happened once.

Why did you make your last move? 

“Kahlstom Inc. was taken over by another company from Finland and my function was sadly outsourced to their head office. We were given a generous six-month redundancy package and I managed to find a fantastic new role within three weeks. I learned a lot about resilience through a time of significant uncertainty.”

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Expert tip

What do you say in an interview if you were fired from your last job? There is always a certain degree of creative licence when giving your reasons for leaving, but if you were fired and that is likely to be included on your reference , then you should not leave it out of the conversation. Share the reason why you lost the role and try to find a positive spin on the situation. Being fired is more common than you think, and it doesn’t always mean that you aren’t good at your job

Blog - Why did you leave your last job - What not to say when you are answering this question
What not to say when you are answering this question

What not to say when you are giving reasons for leaving a job

While you probably have plenty to say about the emotionally charged reasons for leaving a job (we understand that it still hurts), there are plenty of things that you would be well advised to avoid saying . Here’s what to watch out for:

Don’t say anything negative about your previous role.

It is perfectly possible to mention why you left without a negative slant on the situation. Being a professional often entails leaving emotions at the door, so no matter how much a certain situation hurts, try to focus on the facts of the matter. Your future employer will be able to read between the lines and they will be impressed by your restraint. In any case, no one wants to work with someone who has a negative attitude

Never consider bending the truth – they will be able to tell.

Lying is a slippery slope. If an interviewer senses that something doesn’t quite add up – it is often visible in your body language – they will ask questions. At this point, you either lie some more or you swiftly change your story. Either option will mean that you don’t get the job. Trustworthiness is one of the most basic human qualities, so if you can’t be honest in an interview, who knows what other demons lurk within. You can certainly choose not to say certain things, but whatever comes out of your mouth has to be truthful.

Make sure that you give a reason – but not more than two.

There is always a reason for life-changing moves like leaving a job. Whether the reason initiated from you or someone else, you need to look back and explore the background scenery that accompanied the move. Don’t go into too much detail in terms of your reasons for leaving a job and certainly don’t give more than two reasons, but by the end of your explanation the interviewer should get nodding their head in understanding (and sometimes sympathy).

Avoid saying anything that casts doubt on your future performance.

There are certain reasons that you can give which might serve to make an interviewer think that they could impact on your future performance. For example, losing a job is common, but try to share reasons that are not performance related. If you were looking for a promotion that didn’t come, highlight that the reasons for leaving your role were organizational. If you are changing careers, make it crystal clear why this new career is for you.

Expert tip

How do you prepare for follow up questions? Juicy questions such as “why did you leave your last job” will likely be the start of a mini conversation. Very few interviewers will nod and move on after your initial answer. You need to think through the possible questions that may come after your answer and prepare some authentic and believable responses. If you remain honest, humble and positive you won’t have too many problems.

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Key takeaways

  • “Why did you leave your job?” can apply to any of your previous roles and your answer can reveal all sorts of motivations that your everyday work life cannot.
  • Frame your responses carefully and consider the reasons for leaving a job that you wish to share in advance.
  • Develop responses that are positive signs for the role that you wish to secure.
  • There is no need to overshare. Answer succinctly and be ready for follow-ups.
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