Job Interview Questions: How Do I Explain Why I Left My Last Job?

Dante from Clerks considers his career prospects and gives thought to taking a job interview or two
Dante from Clerks considers his career prospects and gives thought to taking a job interview or two. | Miramax Films

Jobs aren’t permanent fixtures in most people’s lives. Work, as we know it, might be. But individual jobs? Typically not. We job hop. People look for better opportunities — raises, promotions, etc. — at competing firms or in new industries entirely. It’s a basic feature of the labor market. And a strategic move to another job can open new doors that might have otherwise remained closed.
The churning of the labor market means people come and go. Employees are fired or laid off, or sometimes they just get fed up and quit. There are a million reasons why someone might leave a job, but it’s generally advisable to keep those bridges and networks intact. You might feel like tossing a Molotov cocktail (literally, or figuratively) as you leave a job for the last time, but it might only end up hurting you down the road.
Assuming one day you are going to quit or be fired from your job, you can plan ahead to account for what went wrong. Perhaps nothing went wrong — say, you were offered a better job somewhere else. But if you couldn’t show up on time or had a tumultuous relationship with your boss? That’s a bit tougher to explain.
And you can bet you’re going to have to explain. Once you’re on the job hunt, employers are going to want to know why you left previous positions. You’ll need to have a good answer.

Navigating tricky job interview questions

A career coach reviews a job seeker's resume and interview skills
A career coach reviews a job seeker’s resume and interview skills. | Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

During a job interview, you’ll be hit with all kinds of questions. But, as we all know, there are some specifically designed to be tricky — interview questions meant to throw you off or make you uncomfortable. You might be asked about your greatest weakness or all manners of hypothetical situations and how you would react. There are ways to wiggle out of those.
Next: But when it comes to the specifics as to why you left previous jobs? That can be a tougher line of questioning to navigate.

Tell the truth

job interview
If you left under reasonable circumstances just say so. | Imtmphoto/iStock/Getty Images

The best course? Simply tell the truth.
Did you leave for a better opportunity? There’s no shame in that — everybody does it. And nobody can blame you. In fact, there’s a good chance you’re interviewing for a better job than the one you had previously. If another employer offered a promotion or raise, you were only acting out of self-interest by taking it.
Where things get even trickier, though, is if you left a job on bad terms. If you were laid off, that’s one thing. But if you were fired? Or simply walked out one day? That can be harder to account for, especially if you suspect your prospective employer might want to contact your former employer.
Next: Avoid colorful descriptions.

Why you left your last job

A hiring manager takes an application from a person looking to fill a job opening, likely peppering him with interview questions
A hiring manager takes an application from a person looking to fill a job opening, likely peppering him with interview questions. | Joe Raedle/Getty Images

You’ll want to remain as truthful as possible. If you were fired, it might be a wise strategy to explain why. Get into the context and circumstances. Things happen, and an interviewer has probably experienced a similar situation at some point in their own career. You’ll need to be honest, though, because there is a chance that your former employer might be contacted. If that happens and you lied about why you left that’s not going to bode well for your future prospects. Just never say your former boss was a jerk. That only will damage your image.
Next: Keep this info quiet.

Avoid explaining this

woman uncomfortable in job interview
Try to talk around this. | iStock/Getty Images

But what if you went out in a blaze of glory — walked out on the job or just stopped showing up? That’s the really tough one to explain — and why you should avoid that type of thing. If you were willing to do that to a past employer, who’s to say you won’t do it to a new one? In that case, you might be better off omitting it from your resume or giving a deeper explanation as to what happened.
Sometimes, we’re just not a good fit for certain positions. You should explain those situations, as well. Simply saying, “My boss was a jerk,” won’t suffice. Work on your explanation, and figure out what you want to say. Interviewers will be able to sniff out shenanigans, in most cases, so be sure to tell the best version of the truth you can.
Next: Head off talking points that could damage you.

Righting the ship

A man and his boss look over paperwork
Do what you can, so you’re not abruptly fired. |

If you really want to do yourself a service, avoid getting into difficult positions in the first place. Of course, few of us would walk into a situation if we knew it was going to turn out to be difficult. But there comes a time where you start to recognize the warning signs. We can take these red flags seriously and consider them when making difficult career choices, or we can ignore them and hold onto a sense of naivete because it’s a job we really want.
The problem, though, is we might not be qualified. Or there’s an evident gap in our skill set that’s not easily remedied. Some of us can push through this. Others recognize there’s a problem and take steps to get out of the situation. That might involve sitting down with your manager and working out a new role, or it might mean quitting. For some, it ends in a dismissal.
This is what you want to avoid. It’s when you have to start answering for these abrupt departures in future interviews that you run into our initial problem.
We’re all going to find ourselves in a position where we feel overwhelmed or outclassed. That’s natural, and it’s a part of anyone’s career progression. The important skill here is being able to recognize and act when you’re in too deep. Or, if it’s an issue with your employer, being able to know when it’s not going to work out and start planning for a smooth exit.
Next: One more thing …

Planning ahead

A man contemplates whether he's the right fit for the job
Recognize when you want to leave a job, so you do it smoothly. |

You’ll need to come to terms with the fact that not every relationship — professional or otherwise — is going to work out. Sometimes, we’re simply not the right person for the job. Perhaps it’s a cultural or personality clash, or maybe we lack the skills and know-how to get the job done. Sooner or later, everyone finds themselves in over their head.
Again, the key is to be able to recognize when you’re in that kind of situation and to know how, or when, to take measures to remedy it. More often than not, that will probably mean finding another job and making as smooth of a transition as you can. This is tricky if you’ve only been at a job for a short time, and this is what is probably what an interviewer is going to notice on a resume.
“Oh, I see you were at your last job for only a few months. Do you want to tell me what happened?” And so the carousel spins.
As we’ve discussed, there are perfectly legitimate reasons to leave a company. You can say it wasn’t a good fit, give an example or legitimate reason as to why, and tell them you see the new employer as a much better prospect. It’s harder to explain you worked somewhere for six months and quit abruptly because you simply couldn’t take it anymore.
One sounds better than the other, doesn’t it?