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How to answer why you left your last job

There are no truly easy questions in a job interview, but some are trickier than others. Discussing why you left your last job—or why you want to leave your current position—is one of the more sensitive interview questions you will get asked for several reasons.

Unlike questions about your skillsets or why you want this new job—both of which set you up to discuss yourself in a positive light—asking about your departure requires you to address the aspects of your previous job with which you were potentially less than happy.

Hiring managers love this question because your answer tells them a lot. If you left on a whim or for a strange reason, it might lead them to question your loyalty to a company or commitment to your work. If you were let go, your answer will help determine if your previous position was a bad cultural fit or if they need to worry about performance or potential integrity issues. If you left on good terms, you have the opportunity to highlight your relationship management skills.

With so much at stake with a single question, it’s important to know how to answer it correctly. Below are a few strategies to keep in mind when tackling this tough question:

Stay positive. It doesn’t matter how awful your old job was or how unfair they might have been to you. Hiring managers don’t make job offers out of pity. It is inappropriate to speak poorly of previous managers, colleagues or the company. So don’t make it personal. Instead, speak broadly and stick to facts. If you’re unhappy with the direction your previous company was going, it is okay to say that, but use it as an opportunity to discuss how much you like this company’s business strategy and how your skillset will help the company achieve its goals. Doing so will highlight your business savvy and demonstrate your knowledge of the organization.

Less is more. It’s important to tell the truth, but the hiring manager doesn’t need to know every event that lead to your decision to leave. If you’ve consistently been denied opportunities for advancement, don’t rehash each slight. Instead, highlight a few accomplishments and then transition to how opportunities for continued growth have diminished so you’re seeking more room to learn and develop your skills.

Discuss what you learned, then get back on topic. This is particularly important if you were fired from your previous position. Many candidates fear that this perceived black mark will make it nearly impossible for them to get work in their desired field again. That’s simply not the case. If you were fired, own up to your mistake and then immediately discuss what the experience taught you. No one is perfect, but the ability to learn from your mistakes and become a better employee is an attractive characteristic to employers.

Practice. Tone is key when discussing why you left a previous job. So don’t let the actual interview be the first time you address the question. Conduct mock interviews with family and friends until you’re comfortable answering the question—and you sound natural doing it.

Remember, everyone has left a job for one reason or another. Regardless of what brought you to this interview, be ready to use this question as a way to highlight how your past experiences prepared you to become the perfect candidate for the job.

Need more help with interview prep? Check out these 10 things not to do in an interview.

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