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‘How Do I Explain Reasons for Leaving a Previous Job?’

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When you’re interviewing for a job, you’ll very likely have to explain your reasons for leaving a previous job or why you want to leave your current company. In theory, this question should be straightforward — we’re usually pretty clear in our own heads about why we want to move on — but in reality, answering can be fraught with land mines.

Interviewers will pay attention to the way you talk about a previous boss or the job, and they’ll notice how you discuss what you did and didn’t like about the office culture. From that discussion, they’ll draw conclusions — sometimes correctly, sometimes not — about how well you’re likely to adapt to this job if they hire you. How, then, do you talk about leaving previous jobs in a way that’s honest but won’t harm your chances?

Here are six of the most common reasons people leave jobs … and how you can explain them to your interviewer.

Your boss was a nightmare.

Interviewers know there are plenty of terrible bosses around, and that you might be leaving a job because of one. The only problem is that interviewers don’t know you well enough to decide if your assessment of a terrible boss would line up with theirs. If you bad-mouth your old boss in a job interview, they’ll wonder what the other side of the story is, or whether you were really the problem. For example, if you say your boss was a micromanager, maybe it was really because your work wasn’t great and required a ton of oversight. Or it can seem like you have unreasonable expectations of a manager, or that you’re difficult to get along with.

Additionally, one unspoken rule of job interviewing is that you should never bad-mouth previous employers; it’s considered indiscreet and a little tacky. So some interviewers will be put off no matter what if you mention a bad manager, even if what you’re saying is credible.

Given that, if you’re leaving a job because of your boss, you’re better off with an answer that isn’t about your boss at all. Instead, explain that you’re “ready for a new challenge,” “excited about this job because of ___,” or another less potentially fraught answer. (One catch: You can’t use this to explain leaving after only a few months! In that case, you’d look oddly flighty and out of touch with how jobs normally work. If you’re in that situation, use my advice here.)

You were laid off.

If your job was eliminated — meaning you weren’t fired for performance reasons — you don’t need to beat around the bush. Layoffs are normal and not something you should feel any stigma about. You can be straightforward: “My company had to do layoffs and my position was one of the ones that was eliminated.”

That said, if you’re able to share information that will put the layoff into a broader context for the employer, it’s helpful to do that. Context like, “They cut everyone who had been hired in the last year” or “They laid off the whole training team” will help underscore that the decision wasn’t performance-based. (But if you don’t have context like that to provide, that’s fine too.)

You were fired.

If you were fired, you might be tempted to try to cover it up — but don’t. If you lie and say you left voluntarily (or frame it as a layoff or otherwise misrepresent what happened), the employer will likely find out the truth when they contact your references or do a background check. And if that happens, the lie itself would be a deal-breaker – whereas an honest explanation often wouldn’t be.

People also are sometimes tempted to overexplain a firing, feeling they need to provide a long, detailed explanation of what happened. You don’t! Saying too much will make it a bigger deal than it needs to be, and generally you’ll come across as pretty defensive. Typically all you need are a few sentences explaining what happened. For example:

“Actually, I was let go. That’s on me — I took a job that required pretty advanced design skills, which frankly I don’t have. I thought I’d be able to get up to speed quickly, but I underestimated how much I’d need to learn. They made the right call, and I was relieved to get back to editing.”

“Actually, I was let go. The workload was very high and I didn’t speak up soon enough and ended up making mistakes because of the volume. It taught me a lesson about communicating early when the workload is that high, and to make sure I’m on the same page as my manager about how to prioritize.”

Plenty of people get fired from jobs and still go on to get hired again! The key will be in how you talk about it — ideally concisely, calmly, and without defensiveness.

You were underpaid.

There’s a school of thought that says you should never cite money as a reason for leaving a job, but if you’re truly underpaid for the market and that’s the major thing driving you to leave, it’s okay to say that. For example, you could say: “I love the work I do, but we’ve been in a budget crunch for a while, and as a result our salaries haven’t kept up with our competitors. I’ve learned a ton here and been able to do really satisfying work, but I’m looking to raise my salary to be better in line with the market.”

It’s also okay to cite a lack of major benefits, like health insurance: “I love my work here, but the company doesn’t provide health insurance, and that’s not sustainable for me long-term.” Any reasonable interviewer will understand that.

You didn’t like the work.

It’s to your advantage to be straightforward about not liking the work itself, because it will help you screen out jobs that you might dislike for similar reasons. The key is to frame it in a positive way, where you also talk about what you do want to be doing. For example: “The role turned out to be largely marketing work, and I found that I really missed working more closely with scientists.”

You can be similarly straightforward if the issue was something related to the work, like the amount of travel you were expected to do on the job. For example: “I was on the road about 75 percent of the time, and really wanted a position with less travel.”

You hated the culture.

Similarly to explaining why you didn’t like the work at a previous job, it can be to your advantage to explain you left because of the office culture too, so that you screen out employers who have similar cultures. The trick is to find language that sums up what you didn’t like fairly concisely (so you don’t sound like you’re mired in negativity about it) and to frame it in a nonjudgmental way (so that you don’t sound overly negative). For example:

“I’m used to smaller organizations with a lot of room for moving quickly and being entrepreneurial and, while there are lots of advantages to larger companies, I found myself missing that.”

“The culture of a company is really important to me, and I realized I wanted to work somewhere that’s more team-focused with more opportunities to collaborate. Not only do I get a lot of satisfaction from that on a personal level, but I also think it generally makes the work stronger as well.”

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Order Alison Green’s book, Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work, here. Got a question for her? Email askaboss@nymag.com. Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.

‘How Do I Explain Reasons for Leaving a Previous Job?’