“Tell me, why did you leave your last job?”
You’re going to get this question in just about every job interview you walk into — but the information your interviewer is looking for isn't always as straightforward as the question they’re asking.
It's one of those trap questions interviewers love to ask, because your answer says a lot about who you are as a person and a candidate.
Talking about your reasons for leaving a job can be overwhelming and confusing. Is there a best answer? Is there a right answer? Should I be honest? If so, how honest is too honest? The list goes on.
The good news is, you're in the right place. When I started out my career, I cycled through four different jobs in under two years. I also interviewed at over 50 companies during that time and I was terrified of this question in every single one. After all, nobody wants to hire another job hopping millennial.
But after some serious research and experiments, I cracked the code on exactly what employers are looking for when you give a reason for leaving your last job. In this article, I'll share the examples and templates I used to overcome objections and land job offers at Google, Microsoft, and Twitter (despite my history of “job hopping”).
What Are Employers Really Looking For When They Ask, “Why Did You Leave Your Last Job?”
The job interview process is crafted to learn more about what you'd be like as an employee. Whether you’re reliable, whether you’ll integrate seamlessly into the company culture, and – most importantly – whether you're going to drive results for the business.
You may be a right fit for the job in other ways, but the interviewer will probe a bit to find out about your patterns of behaviors and attitudes throughout your previous positions. Your answer, and your ability to deliver it clearly, provides clues about your track record as an employee and your reason for applying to this specific position.
There are several things the employer is checking to see about you when they ask about your reasons for leaving a previous position:
- How do you handle difficult situations?
- Do you have a legitimate reason for leaving your last job?
- Can you maintain relationships and stay on good terms with others?
- What sense of obligation do you have to your employer?
- How much value do you place upon work (and work/life balance)?
- Are you pursuing a new opportunity or running away from difficulty?
There is so much information the interviewer can get from your answer, both in the content and the delivery. A great answer comes down to bridging the gap between being honest with yourself and understanding what your potential employer is looking for.
How To Explain Your Reason For Leaving Your Job
We can break down the reasons for leaving your job into two general categories:
- Professional reasons – looking for better employment, looking for a job with more growth potential, or maybe even a change in industry.
- Personal reasons – family obligations, a long commute, interference with school, or needing time to work on a prolonged personal project.
It's important to remember that neither reason is inherently “good” or “bad,” as there are good and bad reasons that fall into both categories.
The largest factor in how your answer is received is your reasoning and delivery. It's super important that you properly explain your reasoning in a way that is concise and positive. Don't fall into the trap of oversharing and never ever badmouth your current employer (no matter what the situation is).
We’ve all had bad experiences in our careers, but that shouldn’t be what you lead with (or mention at all) in your answer.
Instead, dial in on skills you have learned (even from a difficult situation), relationships you have built amid challenges and obstacles, positive customer interactions, and your ability to problem-solve in difficult circumstances.
Focus on where you want to go in the future and why this company is a good fit vs. what went wrong in the past.
Trim your response down to a few sentences max, then shift to a brief tie-in showing why you are the right candidate for the new job. In this case, practice makes perfect! Spending time rehearsing your answer will pay big dividends on interview day.
How To Plan Your Answer
You know you’re going to get this question during virtually any job interview, so you should be rehearsing exactly what you want to say. Practice over and over again until you have the exact timing and delivery down to a tee.
If you want to level up your prep, use an app like QuickTime or the camera on your phone to record yourself. Then watch the reply and see where you can improve. Keep an eye out for your tone, cadence, emphasis, and crutch words (“like,” “um,” “you know,” etc.)
When planning ahead and scripting your answer, put in the time to take stock of all the reasons you have for switching jobs. There are two important parts to remember when performing this exercise:
- Why do you want to leave your old job?
- Why are you looking for a new job at this time?
Here are some questions to think about before you begin:
- Do you have long-term career goals? Do you have a five-year plan? A 10-year plan?
- What are your values, both professionally and personally?
- What are you looking for in a job and in your workplace environment?
- Are you working in the industry that is best suited for you?
- Does your company’s mission align with your personal values and passions?
- What do you like about your current or previous job? Was there something you disliked?
- How would you describe your professional relationships with coworkers, customers, and managers?
- How do your old job and your potential new job align with the answers you have written out?
With all the information in front of you, use your list to focus on the answers that frame you in the best light. Remember, you don’t want to be misleading or leave out crucial details.
When you have the chance, lead with professional reasons over personal reasons, and positive reasons instead of negative ones.
Next, think about how the interviewer might perceive your answer. Rather than saying, “I don’t like the company,” take a moment to think about why you don’t like the company and then reframe your answer to focus on what you're looking for in your next company.
Instead of saying, “I need to be paid more,” focus your conversation towards taking on new responsibilities and challenges that may earn you more pay.
Rather than complaining about being bored at work, think about how your skills could be put to better use and ways to challenge yourself!
Bad Reasons For Leaving A Job [10+ Examples]
Before we jump into the good stuff, it's important to understand what you need to avoid. Regardless of how it felt to you, there are specific reasons for leaving a job that recruiters and future employers view as “bad.”
Those “bad reasons” for leaving your job might have been the right choice for you at the time, but they’re not reasons that an interviewer will want to hear from a potential employee.
Some of these bad reasons include:
- You want to be paid more
- You hated the hours of your job
- You were bored at work
- You don’t like the job
- You don’t like the company
- You don’t like your boss
- You don’t want to work overtime
- You’re tired of office politics
- You had problems with some of your coworkers
- You were fired
- Your boss did not keep their promises of a future promotion or a raise
- Your family didn’t support you in the job
- Your company set targets that were difficult to achieve or were not realistic.
Remember, the interviewer is aiming to figure out how well you can get along with others and how you deal with difficult scenarios.
Many of these “bad” reasons are centered around conflicts and “self centered” problems. Hearing all about your personal issues with your former boss at a job interview would be like talking about your worst ex during a first date — it's not great!
At the end of the day, it takes two to tango. Even if the conflict was entirely someone else’s fault, all the interviewer will come away with is that other people had conflicts with you. They don’t want to know about what problems you had in the past (and what kind of problems you might cause at their own company), they want to know about what positives you can bring to their company going forward.
Finally, it's important to note that “bad” answers are also bad because of their delivery. Wanting to make more money isn't a bad reason to leave your job, but it's terrible if you deliver it exactly like that – “I wanted to make more money.”
If you wanted to level up and make more money, that's awesome! You just need to spin it the right way:
“My current job was a fantastic place to grow, but I feel like I've hit my ceiling and I'm ready for more responsibility and new challenges.”
If you have a “bad” reason for leaving, think about how you can spin it into a positive for the new company!
Good Reasons For Leaving Your Job [15+ Examples]
Awesome! Now we've got the ugly stuff out of the way, let's talk about “good” reasons to leave your job.
In most cases, “good” reasons are usually a “bad” reason reframed in a positive way or something straightforward that's generally accepted by recruiters and employers as a viable reason to head out. You want to find a reason that's easy for employers to accept and shows that you're the best candidate for the position you’re interviewing for.
These are reasons like:
- You are looking for new challenges at work
- You are ready to take on greater workplace responsibility
- Your company or industry had poor growth prospects
- You are looking for a change in the direction of your career
- You are looking for professional growth, better career prospects, and interesting work opportunities
- Your company wants to send you overseas or across the country
- Your company is downsizing
- Your company has gone through a restructuring process
- Your company was acquired or merged with another company, and your job became redundant
- You need more time to take care of family obligations
- You were employed for a short-term project
- Your company has closed down
- Your position involves too much business travel
- You took a one-off, extended trip as part of your lifelong dream
- You left your job to pursue more training or an opportunity to study
Focus on reasons and answers that are relatable and readily understood as positive. Now, let's talk through some specific examples for different scenarios!
Best Example Answers For Each “Leaving Your Job” Scenario
Ok, so now you know there are good ways and bad ways to handle this question.
Let’s walk through some different scenarios and highlight some examples of good (and bad) answers so you can see what this looks like in action. Feel free to steal any of the good answers for yourself!
As I mentioned before, it all comes down to framing. A “bad” reason can easily be turned into something good with the right spin and vice versa.
Example #1: You're Bored At Work
This is a totally valid reason for wanting to leave any job. Being challenged, solving problems, and stepping outside of our comfort zones is how we learn to grow!
That said, you don’t want to frame this in a way that highlights the negative. To you, being bored at work might mean that your position doesn’t fit with your skills and abilities, or that it's below your capabilities. But to an employer, saying you're bored could be a sign that you're not applying yourself or that you’re quick to tune out if a particularly project isn't interesting or entertaining.
Here are examples of the wrong way and the right way to speak about being bored at your job:
Example of a Bad Answer
“Honestly, my work right now is kind of boring. The projects I'm working on are really easy and I'm just not being challenged at all. It would be great if my job was more interesting, but it's not, so I want to change.”
You want to focus your answer on the energy and knowledge you could bring to a new position, as well as your willingness to step into new opportunities and more responsibility.
Example of a Good Answer
“My current job has been a fantastic way to learn and grow. I'm really grateful for that opportunity, but I feel that I’m ready to take on new challenges and more responsibility. This role at [Company] excites me because it builds on my background and experience in [Skill] and will help me expand my abilities through new projects and initiatives are [Reason The Company Is Hiring For The Role].”
This answer emphasizes that you appreciate what your employer has done for you, but also that you're someone who is determined to learn and grow and will take initiative to make it happen. Finally, it closes by demonstrating how you can use your skills and experience to benefit your new employer.
Example #2: You Don’t Like The Company
This is a tricky one — there are many reasons why you may not love a company. It could be that the culture isn't right, you don't have a great manager, or you question the company's future.
The key here falls back to our constant theme of this post — spin your reason into a positive one for the person you're speaking to.
Is your manager the problem? Say that you're looking for the opportunity to be challenged and mentored by someone with more experience / a better grasp on the industry.
Not in love with the company culture? Talk about how it was a great place to build a foundation, but you're looking for a company that really meshes with your outlook — somewhere you can set roots, stay a while, and grow.
Is your company running some shady practices, treating people poorly, or running out of cash? Simply mention that you're looking to go somewhere with better structure and a solid plan to achieve their goals in the future.
This is your opportunity to tell the interviewer why you're excited about them, their team, and their company.
Be careful to avoid badmouthing your old company no matter how rough the situation is. If you have a horror story, companies may wonder if you'll end up saying the same thing about them.
Example of a Bad Answer
“My boss was kind of a jerk who always forced us to do things his way. On top of that, the company was going in a direction that made no sense, so it's a good time to leave.”
This type of response creates more questions than answers.
Is your boss really a jerk, or are you someone who just doesn't want to go the extra mile? How many managers have you had that were “jerks?” How do you know the company's direction doesn't make sense — do you have evidence to back it up, or is that just your opinion? What will happen if you disagree with a decision before thinking it through here? Etc.
You want your answer to make the interviewer feel warm and fuzzy, not turn them into a skeptic.
Example of a Good Answer
“My current job has been a fantastic place to learn and build a foundation. I'm ready to be challenged and mentored by someone with a bit more experience, which is why I was so excited to speak with [Hiring Manager]. On top of that, I love that [Company] has a crystal clear vision of where they want to go next and how to get there. I'm excited to execute again a concrete plan of action.”
This answer positions your hiring manager as a veteran thought leader that you want to learn from, instead of focusing on the shortcomings of your current manager.
It also praises the new company for having a great vision and plan (something every company wants to hear) vs. talking about how your company is making poor directional choices and you need to get out.
Example #3: You Want To Be Paid More
You and me both! But being honest about this reason could make your interviewer think that you're just chasing dollar signs and question your loyalty. What's stopping you from jumping ship if the competition comes along with a more compelling offer?
If you think that compensation needs to be addressed during the interview, shift the focus to the value you bring to the table and the new responsibilities you will take on. You can read more about handling the salary conversation in your interview here.
Example of a Bad Answer
“They just didn’t pay me enough no matter how hard I worked. We just had a second baby and I’m worried about saving for their college while paying off my own debt.”
Now this could be a totally legitimate reason for your job search! Most of us have been through major life changes that came with additional expenses. But it's the interviewers job to assess the risk/reward of hiring you and directly complaining that you weren't paid enough is a big red flag.
Similarly, you might think that expressing concern about paying for college bills will demonstrate advanced planning and long-term dedication, but the employer will hear that you put your personal concerns before their professional concerns.
Here's a better way to handle it:
Example of a Good Answer
“I'm ready to take on new challenges and responsibilities that will help me grow personally and professionally. My goal is to drive as much value for the business as I possibly can and compensation is a great motivator there. However, my goal is to prove my value first and I'm confident that you all will be happy with the results.
This answer focuses on the fact that you are motivated to achieve a high level. You acknowledge that pay scale matters, but you are open to the opportunities and responsibilities that come along with it and you're dedicated to proving yourself first.
Example #4: You Were Fired
Oh boy…This one is always tough. The obvious follow-up question is almost always, “and why were you fired?”
It's important to remember that you’re not alone. Many people are let go throughout their careers and they go on to find new positions where they thrive.
People are typically let go for two reasons:
- They were laid off as part of a restructure or cut back by the company
- They were fired for making a mistake or a bad choice that had serious consequences
The first reason is easier to explain because it's typically not indicative of your performance. If the company hit a rough patch and cut an entire team or department, you can simply say that.
It wasn't you, it was them, and they didn't discriminate about who was let go. You're ready to take what they taught you and use it to drive results for the new company!
The second requires a bit more finesse.
First, you never want to lie about what happened. You also don't want to avoid answering the question. The best way to handle this answer is by admitting what went wrong, acknowledging why it was a bad decision, and then speaking to the actions you've taken to ensure it doesn't happen again.
Example of a Bad Answer
“I was let go because I was chasing deals that the company deemed to be ‘too risky.' Sure, they had some gray areas, but they were also worth 3x our average deal size. It's a risk/reward thing and I took the risk. I guess the company wasn't interested in higher margins.”
Nice one slick, you just told the interviewer that you're willing to compromise your integrity and the integrity of the company to make a few extra bucks. Also, you've done nothing to show that you recognize why that might be a problem. No employee is worth that hassle.
Example of a Good Answer
“Our company was in a make-or-break year with investors and we needed to find a way to meet their goals. I stumbled upon these deals that were worth 3x our average deal size on paper, but the legality around them was a bit of a gray area. I got caught up in the heat of the moment and the pressure and decided to move forward to try and hit our goals.
Looking back, it was a terrible decision. Not only did I put the company's reputation in jeopardy, but I sacrificed my own personal integrity. That's something I've had to live with and something I will never do again. I've made it a personal practice to bring all of my deals to my manager and legal for second opinions before moving forward.”
One of the good things about this answer is simply the fact that you avoid using the word “fired” or the phrase “let go.”
The end result isn’t any less harsh, but you focus on demonstrating that you own the responsibility for your actions and make a commitment that it won't happen again. You also mention a plan to help you ensure that you stick to the path.
Example #5: You're Currently Unemployed
If you've been wrestling with this one, I've got good news! Explaining why you've been out of work isn’t as difficult as it seems. There are plenty of valid reasons for gaps of unemployment, short and long.
The good news is that you're going to a job interview! Clearly somebody sees potential in you and the value you bring to the table. It's your chance to prove them right!
One of the worst things you can do when you're unemployed is paint yourself as a victim of the circumstances. In most cases, being unemployed isn't a voluntary choice and it can be incredibly stressful — money can get tight, you could be applying for dozens of jobs with no results, and your self esteem starts to take a big hit.
When that happens, it's easy to point fingers but that's only going to make YOU look bad:
Example of a Bad Answer
“I’ve been unemployed for 6 months now. I was laid off from my old job because my manager gave our team bad advice on a project which went south and the whole team was laid off. No one seems to understand that we were just following our manager's direction and he's still at the company. It's not really fair but here we are, ugh, sorry for venting but I just want you to know what went wrong wasn't my idea, I was against it, but we had to do what management said. Anyways, I'm really excited for this opportunity!”
This situation might be true, but that answer paints you as someone who wants to point fingers and shift blame — not a good look. It also doesn't speak to anything that you learned from the experience or what you've done in the six months since.
When speaking about your unemployment, there are a few keys to a great answer:
- Be honest about why you're unemployed, but paint it in a positive light
- Keep your answer short and concise
- Focus on how you've taken the time off to learn and grow
- Shift the conversation to the future and the role
Here's how we'd take the example above and spin it into a great response:
Example of a Good Answer
“I left [Company] after they decided to change direction and a project went south. Management was pushing us hard, we knew that there were gaps and issues but no one on the team spoke up which was a big mistake that I take full responsibility for and is a great lesson for the future.
Having a few months to reset and focus in on what I want has actually been fantastic. I've spent a lot of time reflecting on where I want to go next with my career and I realized through [Thing A] and [Thing B] that a shift into [Target Area] is what truly aligns with my passions and skills. That's why I'm so excited about this role.
I did some self assessment and knew I had a few skill gaps to make up, so I've spent the last 3 months strengthening those areas! I've taken [Course A] and [Course B], got certified, and actually started building my own [Project]!”
This answer addresses why you left your last company and shows that you're the type of person to acknowledge what went wrong and learn from it.
It also shows self awareness in the fact that you took your time off to assess what you wanted from your career and then came up with a plan to get there.
Finally, it shows that you're a go-getter who's willing to invest in learning the skills and experience you need to do something!
Preparing For Follow-Up Questions After Telling Your Company That You’re Leaving
Don't get too comfortable leaning on the answers above, you can bet that most of these questions are going to come with some follow ups!
You want to spend some time thinking about how your answer is going to be perceived and what questions an interviewer might have about the situation. If you're unsure, you can always ask a friend, family member, or someone in a career/jobs group to help you out! Tell them to be as honest as possible, you want to be able to handle anything that comes your way.
When answering follow up questions, you want to leverage the same principles we spoke about throughout this post:
- Find ways to frame your answer in a positive light
- Don't badmouth your current employer or the people you work with
- Keep it short and sweet
After your interview is over, your potential new employer will likely check in with your previous or current employer. And that's a good thing! If they're taking the opportunity to research you further, you clearly offer something they are looking for.
If you no longer work at the company, it may be a good idea to inform your previous manager or human resources department that you’ve had another job opportunity arise so they expect the outreach. It's probably best to avoid mentioning it if you're still an employee at the company. A call for references doesn't guarantee an offer, and you don't want to end up in a situation with no offer and a grumpy employer.
If you treat everybody with respect, you'll come away with double the professional connections and even more lucrative opportunities in the future.
Do you have a reason for leaving your job that we didn't cover? Feel free to leave it in a comment below!