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How to answer the single most challenging interview question with confidence

Whether you quit or got fired, or stepped back from your career for a while, there are ways to reply that won’t cost you a chance at your next job.

How to answer the single most challenging interview question with confidence
[Photo: monkeybusinessimages/iStock]
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“So, why are you looking for a new job?” If you’re searching for work, you’ll likely be asked some version of this common interview question. And, if your reasons for leaving your job are unrehearsed, it’s easy to fumble with your answer when the question catches you off guard. Luckily, with preparation, you’ll be able to deliver the right response with confidence when it really counts.

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However, before you start brainstorming your answer to this tough interview question, it’s important to understand why employers ask it in the first place.

Why employers ask

Whether a recruiter asks what prompted you to apply for their open position or point-blank wants to know why you left—or want to leave—your job, the intent behind the interview question is the same. Employers are ultimately hoping your response will help them gauge your level of integrity, work values, sense of judgment, and even your ability to perform the job.

The circumstances under which you parted ways with a recent employer and how you present this information in a job interview can be critical for a recruiter. Based on your answer, the interviewer is determining whether you left (or are leaving) for a valid reason, whether this exit was (or is) voluntary, and whether you left (or are leaving) on good terms.

Unless your reason for changing jobs is straightforward such as, “My wife was transferred to the company’s office on the West Coast” or “My summer internship ended,” you’ll need to carefully prepare your response to ensure it tells your story in a positive light, while also supporting your case for landing the job.

Tell the (tactful) truth

If you’re directly asked why you left or are leaving your employer, be honest. According to a recent study by TopResume, lying during an interview is the surest way to get dismissed. The last thing you want to do is get caught in a lie during the interviewer’s follow-up questions or a background check. However, there’s no reason to go into the details of your departure. Your response should be truthful, but strategic.

Be mindful to keep your explanation brief, stick to the facts, and avoid letting your emotions get the best of you. No matter how things transpired, never bad-mouth your employer. No one wants to hire someone who spends their precious interview time complaining about their recent boss and spreading negativity. Whenever possible, try to frame your exit in positive terms.

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Focus on the lessons learned

With each new challenge comes an opportunity. Your last position—or multiple positions—may have been imperfect, but those experiences will help clarify what you want (and don’t want) in your next job and employer.

This interview question is a valuable opportunity to explain to prospective employers what you’ve learned about yourself—your skills and strengths, core values, and ideal work environment—and how these newfound insights have led you to target this position at this company. Ultimately, your goal is to redirect the conversation to the job at hand and what you have to offer a prospective employer.

How to explain you want to make a change

It may be unfair, but the truth is that it’s typically easier to find work when you’re already employed. However, a recruiter will still want to know why you’re looking to leave your current employer. While there are many valid reasons for wanting to find a new job, only some of them should be voiced during interviews.

Think carefully about how you frame your response. You should always be looking for a better, more suitable opportunity rather than escaping a bad situation. Focus on explaining what you’re looking for in your next job, and how the position for which you’re interviewing appears to be a great fit.

“I’ve been with my current employer for nearly three years and have learned a lot from working with a really talented group of marketers. When I first joined, we were writing a handful of articles a month to build our first blog; now, I’m working with a team to produce 10 times that output across three brands. I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished, but I’m ready to take on new challenges. This opportunity really appeals to me because it would allow me to take more ownership over the entire content-development process from the ground up.”

Instead of harping on the promotion you were denied, emphasize your desire to take on bigger projects, assume greater responsibility, or leverage a newly acquired skill in your next position. This explanation will better serve you in interviews.

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How to explain you were laid off

While there are many reasons why a company may lay off its employees (e.g. cost-cutting, staff reduction, relocation, buyouts, mergers), it’s important to note these reasons are strictly related to the business. Recruiters understand if you were laid off, it had nothing to do with your individual performance or your value to the organization.

When crafting your interview response, focus on highlighting your achievements and contributions to your former employer. Avoid sharing any details that may make you seem resentful, unprofessional, or unmotivated. For example, you might start your answer with something like this:

“Unfortunately, my company was forced to lay off over 500 employees in an effort to streamline its operations. Although I was promoted to senior manager last quarter based on my performance, my role was among the group that was eliminated. However, I’m excited to leverage what I’ve learned about e-commerce and the account-management skills I’ve developed over the past two years at a company such as yours.”

If you’ve been in between jobs for a few months, be prepared to explain how you’ve used that time productively by volunteering (bonus points if you pursue a skill-based volunteering opportunity), pursuing professional training to sharpen your skills, and investing in your professional network.

Remember: You control the narrative during your interview. Prepare a short and simple response that is truthful, professional, and positive.


Amanda Augustine is the resident career expert for Talent Inc.’s suite of brands: TopResume, TopInterview, and TopCV. She has more than 15 years of experience in the recruiting and career-advice industry, and she is a certified professional career coach (CPCC) and résumé writer (CPRW).