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So, Why Did You Leave?

Job Interview
Job Interview
Image courtesy of bpsusf via Flickr

That Megan lost her job was traumatic enough. How to explain it to prospective employers is her greater concern. Is that your concern too?

Even if you lost your job through no fault of your own (which is the case of the overwhelming majority of us today as no one is safe from job termination), knowing how to explain it is a crucial component of your job search message. To respond haphazardly means risking irreparable damage to your brand message.

Let’s talk first about how not to respond. Following is a sampling of what not to say when asked why did you leave?

  • My previous company was full of incompetent employees including my manager, who decided to cut me from the job because he saw me as a threat to his position.
  • The company decided to lay-off employees because of a new machine that’s taking over workforce tasks. The direction the company is going will land them problems in the near future. They should not have included me in the lay-off because of my talent and skills.
  • My previous company was paranoid. They thought that the office was planning to launch a mutiny against the company’s board of directors. In retaliation, they nullified our contracts and hired a new set of employees.

What impression forms in your mind as you read these telltale responses? Now imagine that you’re sitting in the chair as the flesh-and-blood interviewer. How appealing is it to want to hire any of these individuals? Whereas you might think you’re providing a response to a checklist interview question, the savvy interviewer (and the not-as-crafty ones as well) understand what this question reveals:

  • ...if you’re carrying a grudge.
  • …if you’re possibly ‘hiding’ something.
  • …how you’re dealing with this job loss.

Your response to the why did you leave? question shines a magnifying glass on your maturity and attitude. That’s not to say that you can’t allow yourself to be angry or sad or any of the other emotions associated with losing a job. There are a myriad of books and articles detailing the emotional impact of job loss and likening it to the grieving process. You’re human; don’t beat yourself up. The sooner you can get to the acceptance stage, though, the better off you’ll be. Your response needs to convey:

  • that you ‘get’ it; life happens
  • that you are a mature professional
  • that you’re not ‘stuck’
  • that you’re looking ahead and moving forward

Make your response brief and positive, with not too many details. Lots of details will invariably take you into a muddy vortex from which it’s difficult to extricate yourself. Don't be like the job-seeker who had been employed by the company embroiled in the infamous fen-phen debacle back in the 1990’s. He felt the need to lay the foundation for his recent dismissal by referencing the negative history and the subsequent lawsuits that ultimately impacted his job. That is way too much problematic information that will no doubt prompt curious interrogation by the interviewer.

Remember to:

  1. Keep it brief.
  2. Keep it positive.
  3. Take your story forward!


Due to the reorganization/restructure/relocation within my company, my position was impacted/affected/removed. I’m proud of my X years there and what I accomplished during that time. I’m now pursuing/looking forward to new opportunities in a new role/company/industry.

The key sentence in this narrative is the final one. End your explanation with your plan for moving forward. You don’t want to leave the listener 'back there in the past' at the point that you lost your job. You want to make sure his/her mental focus is brought back to the present─where you are─as you move towards the next phase in your career! This attitude tells the employer that you aren’t bitter; you aren’t stuck. You are, rather, a forward-thinking professional who is astutely navigating (and anticipating!) your next career step.

What if, on the other hand, you were fired from your job─terminated "for cause"? That will be the focus in the next article. Stay tuned.


Charlene @

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