While you search for a new job, you may be currently employed, you may be recently unemployed, or you may be stepping into your tenth week (or year) without any form of steady employment at all. But no matter which description matches your status, your interviewer will probably ask a very common question: "What happened?" In other words, why did you leave? And if you're currently employed, why are you eyeing the door?
No matter how you slice it, this question is tricky. And it's meant to be. Your interviewer has plenty to gain by looking for red flags, and she really, really wants to know if you were dismissed as a result of performance, behavior, or discontent. But she's also looking for positive signs (call them "green flags") that can elevate your profile as a candidate. So keep your answer honest and positive, and keep the focus on your target company and away from yourself. Here are a few hypothetical scenarios with corresponding recommendations.
You weren't making enough money
No matter what the circumstances were, don't bring up money to justify your departure. You don't have to invent a reason for leaving. Instead, frame your reasoning so that the focus is on your skills. Keep it positive, and show how excited you are for a new opportunity.
So, why did you leave your last job?
In my two years at DeeDee's kitchen, I learned a lot about efficient food prep and Southern cuisine. Even though I feel thankful for this, I'm ready to move on to a new kitchen that values those skills.
You hated your commute
On average, most people start feeling stressed and re-evaluating their jobs when their commutes exceed about 30 minutes each way. Even so, remember that you are competing for this job against people who are passionately interested in the company. If the choice comes down to you and one other person, who will the hiring manager choose: the person who is leaving their job because of the commute, or the person who is leaving their job because they've wanted to work at this company for a long time and now see an opportunity? If you feel that you must bring up your struggle, you can mention work-life balance in your answer.
Okay, why did you leave your last job?
Working at Jeffery's Tires taught me a lot about the automotive industry. Lately I've felt a struggle to maintain good work-life balance. One of the things that attracted me to Loni & Sons Tires is your family focus. I like that you're closed on Mondays for 'family day.' I think that says a lot about a company.
You didn't get along with your boss
If left your last job because your boss was a jerk, answer carefully. Word your response in a neutral way ("We disagreed on the direction of the organization") and don't place blame for the split on your boss or on yourself. In fact, don't blame anyone for anything. Just let your interviewer know that you and the company weren't a match.
Alright then, why did you leave your last job?
The leadership in my team wanted to go in a different direction. I'm more interested in building customer relationships, which is why this sales position intrigued me. Leaving my last job was a hard decision, but I think it's for the best.
You were laid off
If you were laid off for no fault of your own, say so. Be sure you use the term "laid off" specifically. Very briefly describe the restructuring or cutbacks that led to the decision. If multiple people were laid off, mention that. Tell your interviewer what you learned from the experience. If a significant amount of time has passed since your last day of work, explain what you've been doing.
Why did you leave your last job?
As you may have heard, Stinson was acquired. Following the acquisition, 50 of us were laid off. It was not a good experience, but I learned that I can't take business decisions personally. I'm thankful for that. That was two months ago. Since then, I've spent a lot of time volunteering at the animal shelter downtown.
You were fired
If you were fired due to poor performance or a behavioral issue, treat this information like a stink bomb: don't set it off by talking about it too much. Keep your answer short and emotionless, then move away from the question as quickly as possible. Anything you decide to say will need to be honest, so don't say much. It would be wise to note what you learned from the experience.
Let me ask, why did you leave your last job?
I was fired. The leadership on our team was lenient and relaxed about rules, and I did not thrive in that environment. They made the right decision. I'm actually grateful for it because now I know that I need to work for a company whose structure is by the book. That's something that impressed me about your company website; you emphasized rules and structure.
You were sick
If you left for a personal reason (a health concern or a family-related issue), you don't need to share the details with your potential employer, and you have a right to keep them to yourself. In fact, it's illegal for your interviewer to probe into this territory. Use the rights you're afforded by law and simply say, "I had a medical issue." Make it clear that you are ready to get back to work, and won't be out sick again any time soon. Share more if you choose. Otherwise, move on.
Why did you leave your last job? I see a bit of an employment gap.
I left because I had a medical issue. It's taken care of now, and I'm excited to get back to work.
Since this question can be tricky and you'll need to answer with confidence and clarity, practice at least once or twice in front of a mirror or with a friend. You can also check out MyPerfectResume for more interview preparation tools and tips!