Just parted ways with your last employer in a less-than-desirable manner? Chances are you’re finding it tricky to land a new job. You may find yourself in an uncomfortable position when a job interviewer asks you, “So why did you leave your last company?”
You’ll need to walk into that job interview with a narrative that reflects well on you, no matter what actually happened. The challenge is to create a story that positions you positively in the eyes of potential employers–yet remains true to the facts. Here are the four things your narrative needs to accomplish in order to walk that line successfully.
1. Show Respect For The Company You Left
First, avoid answering the question directly. Do not immediately say, “I left because . . . ” It may feel like a dodge, but it’s important to lay a strong foundation first. To do that, start off by making it clear that you respect your former employer. No firm is likely to want you if you put down your previous company; any reasonable hiring manager will worry that you’ll eventually turn on them as well.
Sometimes being positive might take an effort, but it’s one worth making. That also means resisting the urge to blast the company on social media or even on platforms like Glassdoor that let you post anonymously. It often doesn’t take a sleuth to guess who might’ve uploaded a rant.
So kick off your account of why you got fired, laid off, or quit on a note of positivity–pretty much no matter what. Employees occasionally leave for high moral principles, criticize a company’s practices, and land on their feet by attracting a like-minded employer. But these scenarios are typically the exception. The general rule to follow is to speak favorably about your latest work experience.
2. Emphasize What You Learned
Next, turn to the contributions you made in your last job–how you advanced the goals of your company and strengthened your own skills. Sure, there were some areas that were less exciting, but in the narrative you’re crafting you don’t need to discuss everything. Explain how you gained professional experience in the role and how it positions you for the new one you’re interviewing for.
Mention, too, the leaders who influenced and mentored you, and describe how they helped you mature in your role. (By the way, don’t wait long after your departure to let those allies know you appreciated their mentorship. It’s not only common courtesy, but this bridge building will come in handy when you need a reference.)
3. State In One Sentence Why You Left–As Positively As Possible
The previous two steps should only take a few sentences–don’t spend too much time laying this foundation, otherwise your interviewer might cut you off and press you to give a straight answer.
Now we come to a crucial part of your narrative: explaining why you left your last job. Don’t lie. Clearly and succinctly state what happened, taking care to put the best possible face on the reasons for your departure. For instance, if you left as part of a corporate reorganization, emphasize those changes above all others. Those are “forces beyond your control,” and don’t reflect on your abilities or the quality of your work.
If you quit, explain that you contributed a great deal to your last firm but wanted a company where you could offer still more. If you were fired, explain (with an eye on your new firm) why the fit wasn’t quite right, but why you’re well-suited to this opportunity. Once you’ve laid the groundwork, these trickier lines are much easier to deliver candidly, confidently, and compellingly.
4. Show How Excited you Are About The New Opportunity
Your storyline isn’t done yet. Close out the narrative by showing excitement about the firm you’re interviewing with.
As the president of a company I founded and directed for 25 years, I interviewed tons of job candidates, and anyone we hired–no matter their work history, warts and all–had to convince me in their interviews that they’d love working here. The best candidates had researched our firm, and had thought long and hard about the position they were applying for. They talked more about the excitement of the job and spent less time simply praising themselves. They knew about our core offerings and who our major clients were. They did not overuse the word “I” but talked about themselves in terms of what they could accomplish in the new role. This positive, forward-looking, enthusiastic approach not only got them hired, but these were the folks who contributed the most as employees.
Good jobs are hard to come by, while bad jobs can continue to affect your career trajectory long after they’re over. Don’t let that happen. Present yourself in the best light, and others will see you that way. If you can develop, write out, and learn this narrative, you’ll be able to deliver it confidently and spontaneously in all your career conversations.