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"Why are you looking to leave your current role?" "Why did you leave your last job?"
I've been interviewing a lot of candidates lately, and this question (and its variants) seems to be a stumbling block. I've learned to listen carefully because the answers offer more information than some job candidates realize.
Some interview questions have a way of putting job seekers in the hot seat.
Having to explain your reasons for leaving a job is one of them. While it’s not as dreaded as the classic “What is your greatest weakness?” question, it’s certainly a tricky one to answer.
Whatever your reason for leaving is, or was, you need to be prepared to answer it in a way that reflects positively on you. Your answer needs to be forthright and genuine but also has to convey who you will be as a valued future employee.
If you left because of what you saw as toxic leadership, for instance, the last thing you should do is bad mouth your previous employer.
Preparing for this question before a job interview is important, as it determines what kind of impression you’ll give your (possible) future employer.
Most common reasons for leaving a job
- Career advancement opportunities
- Better compensation
- Career change
- Layoffs or being let go
- Bad management
- Lack of fit with company culture
Whether they’re rethinking their career or looking for a better opportunity, people have been resigning at unprecedented rates this year. According to people analytics company Visier, at least 1 in 4 people left their jobs in 2021.
Moving on from a job is normal. Even long before the pandemic, a person worked for their employer for an average of four years and held 12 jobs on average throughout their career.
So, what motivates people to leave? Let’s take a closer look at the above examples to better understand why employees change jobs. And ultimately, how to answer this question.
Career advancement opportunities
The opportunity to advance one’s career is one of the biggest motivators for leaving a job.
Employees want their careers to move on an upward trajectory. Whether or not they aspire to climb the proverbial “corporate ladder,” people want to grow, personally and professionally. They have ambitions to develop their skill set, take on more challenging roles and responsibilities, and position themselves for success over time — whether that means career options, financial rewards, influence, or status and recognition.
A Payscale survey revealed that pay incentives are the top reason employees look for a job outside their organization.
That’s not exactly a surprising statistic. Compensation is and always will be one of the most common reasons for quitting a job. This can mean a higher salary, or it can be a combination of pay and other types of employee rewards and job benefits like retirement and stock options.
Career changes are common. Since leaving college, 29% of Americans between the ages of 25–44 have changed job fields.
This happens when people realize their chosen profession doesn’t quite align with their expectations. Other times, people discover their dream job is something completely different and decide to leave their job and pursue a new career path altogether.
Layoffs or being let go
Two of the top reasons for leaving a job aren’t exactly voluntary. Being laid off or let go from a job can happen for many reasons. For example, the economic fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic caused more than 7 million people to lose their jobs.
Outside of the pandemic, people are commonly laid off when companies are acquired, restructured, or when they cut costs. Other times, employees are terminated for various reasons, like poor work performance. With job security threatened, it's not uncommon to come across candidates who have been negatively impacted.
As the popular saying goes, employees leave managers, not companies. So, what do you do if you hate your job because of management?
Eventually, toxic management drives employees to leave their jobs.
Lack of fit with company culture
A “culture fit” is how well an employee aligns with an organization’s values, beliefs, attitudes, and goals.
A lack of fit with workplace culture is the reason many employees leave a job, even if they love what they do. A research study of 1,000 workers found that 79% of American employees say company culture plays a big role in job satisfaction.
What are good reasons for leaving a job?
A prospective employer wants to know if you’ve left (or plan on leaving) your past roles for the right reasons. A good reason shows them you’re stable and responsible. For example, leaving because you’re looking for a challenge is a much better answer than leaving because you were bored. In your mind, both answers might mean the same thing, but are interpreted completely differently by interviewers.
Here are some other examples of good reasons for leaving a job:
You’re offered a better opportunity
No one can fault you for leaving a job to take advantage of a better opportunity like a more senior role, for example. Your desire to create a better situation for yourself shows employers you’re ambitious and proactive.
If the new opportunity is a pay increase, you should combine it with another reason, like taking on more complex assignments. A new employer might be put off if your main motivator is money.
You’re looking for professional growth
A desire for professional growth is another strong reason for leaving a job.
For example, maybe you’ve outgrown your current role and want to learn new skills or take on more responsibility. This is a good time to mention your professional goals and how the role you’re interviewing fits in with them.
You were pursuing additional education
People often leave their jobs to go back to school and pursue a degree or other qualifications. This is another good reason as long as your answer explains how this decision helped your professional development.
For example, a project management certification that prepares you for a more senior project management role.
It’s a good opportunity to demonstrate to your interviewer that you’re willing to continually invest in yourself.
Your organization restructured
Employers understand that companies sometimes undergo restructuring that eliminates roles.
This is a perfectly acceptable reason for leaving. If you were part of a round of layoffs due to downsizing, for example, explain to your employer that your discharge wasn’t based on your performance.
Focus on the positives that came out of this situation, and show recruiters how you added value to your previous role.
You want a different work arrangement
There are many reasons why people look for a different work arrangement. For many of the employees that left their jobs during the “Great Resignation” of 2021, the reason was a better work-life balance and a more flexible schedule.
You have a personal reason
Work is important, but your well-being is a priority.
Many people leave their jobs when they’re faced with a number of personal reasons, like health issues or family emergencies. You don’t need to disclose personal family matters. Keep your answer brief, and explain why you’re a good fit for the role you’re interviewing for.
You’re pursuing a different career path
It demonstrates you’re willing to step out of your comfort zone and go after what you really want.
Should you tell an interviewer why you left (or are leaving) your job?
The short answer is yes. When an interviewer asks, “Why did you leave your last job,” you should try to be as honest and authentic as possible. Lying about your reason for leaving is never a good idea.
That being said, the key to successfully answering this question is all about how you phrase it.
For example, say you’ve left because you had a difficult manager. Your answer should never be “I left because I hated working with my manager,” even if that’s how you feel. Badmouthing your boss will signal a big red flag to your potential employer. They may question your character and wonder if you’ve left your last job on bad terms.
Instead, you should frame your answer in a way that puts you in a positive light. Say something like, “New management changed the workplace dynamics. I felt like it was a good time to leave, as it was no longer the right fit for me.” You can follow this up by briefly explaining how the new role is a better fit.
This answer is still truthful, but it’s phrased in a way that shows you have integrity and your reason for leaving is valid.
Sometimes, answering this question can be awkward, especially when you were let go from your previous job. In this situation, you should still be honest. Lying about your reason for leaving can backfire at any point. Be truthful, but put a positive spin on it by emphasizing what you learned from the experience and how you grew.
If you have a list of reasons for leaving a job, lead with the one that’s professional and highlights your values and what you can bring to your future role.
For instance, try not to lead with the desire for a higher salary, even if that’s your main reason for leaving. Instead, emphasize your desire for career growth.
Above all, you should stay positive and present your best self.
How do you answer, “Why are you leaving your job?”
Preparation is the key to any successful interview. Here are some interview tips and ways to answer some common interview questions about why you left your last job:
Answer 1: You identified a better opportunity
First, acknowledge the positive aspects of your current position, and highlight any achievements. Afterward, briefly explain why this new position is a good opportunity for you and what you like about it. Don't forget to focus on what you have to offer the role rather than just what the role offers you.
What to say: “I’m fortunate to be part of an amazing team that taught me how to collaborate and what good leadership looks like. However, I'm ready for a new challenge, and I want to keep growing. This is an opportunity I can’t pass up. My experience doing X will be valuable to addressing this type of need, and, I'm excited about the mission and managing a bigger team and further developing my leadership skills.”
What not to say: “I was overlooked for a promotion at my current job.”
Answer 2: You were let go
This can feel like a tricky question to navigate because it is also emotional. Preparing for it in advance is important.
Keep your answer brief, acknowledge a poor fit, and never complain or throw the organization or manager under the bus. Make it clear that you have reflected on the experience and gained some perspective. This is the essence of learning and maturing as an adult after all. Highlight something positive you’ve learned from the experience, and emphasize why you’re a good fit for this new role. Avoid using the word “fired.”
What to say: “After accepting the offer, my manager and I realized the role required someone with more industry expertise. I was willing to learn, but the company needed someone who could hit the ground running. Since then, I’ve learned to ask more questions and better clarify role requirements with the hiring manager before taking on a job. I believe this position is a perfect fit for my qualifications.”
What not to say: “ I was fired because of poor performance.”
Answer 3: You were laid off
Mention that you’re on good terms with your former employer and the reason you left wasn’t related to you but to the company.
What to say: “My company downsized, and many roles, including my own, were made redundant. I’m proud of what I was able to accomplish while I was there, and my manager would be happy to give you a reference. Meanwhile, I’ve used this opportunity to think about my professional goals. I believe your company is a good fit for the direction I want to grow in.”
What not to say: “I was let go, which was a mistake on their part.”
Answer 4: You’re changing careers
Highlight your commitment to growth and adaptability and how this opportunity fits in with your new career goals. Emphasize some of the transferable skills you can bring to this new job or industry.
What to say: “I’ve recently re-evaluated my career goals and realized my passion lies in sales. That’s why I’m here today. I’d like to leverage my strong communication and active listening skills to build lasting relationships with customers.”
What not to say: “I didn’t like what I was doing and decided to try something new.”
Answer 5: You’ve outgrown your current role
Emphasize your desire for professional development and why this new company is a good fit.
What to say: “My professional growth and development is very important to me. I’ve enjoyed working in my current role for the last three years, but I’ve learned everything I could, and I’m ready for a new challenge. The opportunity to work in an innovative company like this one will challenge me to aim higher.”
What not to say: “I was bored and underappreciated. My manager assigns me boring tasks.”
Answer 6: You went back to school
Your employer might ask you why you decided to go back to school. Take this opportunity to explain how your education helped you develop new skills and emphasize the broader perspective and connections you gained.
What to say: “I resigned to obtain an MS in marketing intelligence. The skills I’ve learned during this time and the exposure I had to cutting-edge techniques complimented my experience working in this field. As a result, I feel like I’m now prepared to take on a senior marketing management position. ”
What not to say: “I decided to go back to school to figure out what I want to do.”
Answer 7: You’re unhappy at work
Whatever the source of your unhappiness at work is, it’s important to identify it and work through what it means before interviewing. Otherwise, vaguely telling an interviewer that you’re unhappy can make you seem flaky and unreliable.
A good response to this question is clear and turns the negatives into a positive. Focus on showing your own agency and awareness rather than someone who is being acted upon.
What to say: “My skills were underused in my last role. I started looking for ways to get more involved there, but I realized that I’m looking for a more stimulating work environment. I like challenges, and I'm ready for a role where stretching is valued.”
What not to say: “It wasn’t a good company to work for” or “I was unhappy.”
Do you need to answer the question?
If your reasons for leaving a job are personal or sensitive in nature, you might feel hesitant to respond. In this situation, you should still answer, but you can keep it short without going into detail.
For example, say you left work for a while to become a caregiver for your aging parents. In this case, you can simply say, “I became a full-time caregiver for an ill family member. Now I’m ready to return to the workforce, and I believe my six years of industry experience will be a great asset in this role.”
You should always avoid refusing to answer the question or getting defensive. This could raise serious doubts with your potential employer.
This is ultimately a behavioral question. Your response reveals a lot about your character and professionalism. Here are a few things hiring managers want to know when they ask this question:
- If you’ve left on good terms
- If you have a good reason for leaving (better opportunity vs. unhappy)
- Whether you’re a good fit for the role and organization
- What your goals and values are
To make a good impression, keep your answer brief, positive, and concise.
Write down your own reasons for leaving a job
You should try to be as honest as possible about your reasons for leaving a job. The best thing to do to prepare for this question is to write down your reasons.
Highlight the ones that are professional in nature, and frame your decision to leave in a positive light. You should also try to avoid leading with a personal reason or a negative experience. If you have no other choice, be honest without going into the gritty details.
Navigating a career change on your own isn’t always easy. If you need more career advice and support with your job transition, a BetterUp coach can help guide you every step of the way.