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Be Honest and Tactful When Answering This Question
Many prospective employers will ask you during an interview why you left your last job. They ask this question to determine how you handle conflict and job stress, what elements of your previous employment were not acceptable to you, and to judge how well you will fare in their corporate culture.
Be Honest―Within Reason
This is one of those interview questions that you should anticipate, so plan your response in advance. Give an honest answer, but temper it in such a way that it positions you in a good light, rather than casts doubt on the stability of your potential employment. Focus on an element of the reason that allows you to flip the discussion to emphasize your work ethic.
Some examples include:
- No room for growth: “It was a wonderful learning environment, and while I’m grateful for all I learned, it’s a small company, and there were finite opportunities for expanding my skill set.”
- Problems with colleagues: “There were a lot of big, independent personalities in the company, and I feel I perform at my best when I’m working in a collaborative team environment where all opinions are heard and respected.”
- Problems with managers: “My manager ran the office with an authoritarian approach, and I came to recognize I do my best work in a environment where I have more creative freedom and latitude to work with clients one-on-one.”
- Salary: “Unfortunately, budget constraints kept salaries in a holding pattern for several years, and from a budgetary standpoint, I needed to look for an opportunity that provided more room for growth and increased earning potential.”
- Workload: “Changes in the economy forced a number of layoffs, with remaining staff picking up the slack. While I definitely consider myself a team player who’s willing to pitch in as needed, the double workload started to impact my performance, and I left when I no longer felt I could produce quality work.”
- Family/Personal: “I decided to devote a year to being a full-time parent after my daughter was born. I enjoyed every minute of it, but now I’m excited to get back into the workforce and resume my career.”
Keep in mind that being honest helps ensure you find a good fit in your next position. If you’re worried you won’t get a job because you admit you don’t perform well in a high-stress environment, it’s probably a good thing―you likely would have ended up working in another high-stress environment.
What to Say When You Were Fired
It’s tough to tell a prospective employer you were fired, but when it’s the truth, your best option is to spin the event in such a way that you position yourself as someone who is still a viable candidate.
- Performance: “My employer was looking for someone who could work overtime with very little notice, and when I was unable to consistently comply due to family obligations, she opted to replace me with someone who had that flexibility.”
- Down-sizing: “Unfortunately, my company merged with a competitor and duplicate positions were eliminated. As a relatively new hire, I didn’t have seniority and was down-sized.”
- Workplace conflict: “Simply put, my supervisor and I had vastly different expectations of what quality customer service looked like. While I tried to manage that conflict to the best of my ability, she ultimately decided to replace me with someone whose views more closely matched her own.”
If you were fired for a serious workplace violation, you may have to provide a little more personal information than you might normally offer in a job interview. Temper your statement with an acknowledgement of what you did, why you recognize it as a mistake, and why a prospective employer can be assured it won’t happen again.
- Theft: “As much as it pains me to say it, my husband lost his job, and we were on the verge of losing our house. In desperation, I inflated earnings one quarter to boost my bonus and get us out of debt. I have since apologized, repaid the money and worked with a credit counselor to get out of debt. It was an uncharacteristic behavior that I am remorseful for, and I have no intention of ever repeating it.”
- Hostile work environment: “I am a very results-oriented professional, and during a product expansion last year, I asked a lot from my subordinates. I now realize that my over-assertive performance push was not productive, and in fact, was intimidating to those working for me. I have reevaluated my management style and am confident this experience will make me more mindful of my interactions with others.”
Never Bad-Mouth a Former Employer
If you left a toxic work environment or escaped a demanding or harassing boss or colleague, it can be difficult to find anything nice to say about them in an interview setting. However, it’s in your best interest to never disparage a previous employer in any way, shape or form. The old standard, “I decided to explore other, more challenging professional opportunities,” remains a neutral go-to for this sometimes tricky interview question.
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Lisa McQuerrey has been a business writer since 1987. In 1994, she launched a full-service marketing and communications firm. McQuerrey's work has garnered awards from the U.S. Small Business Administration, the International Association of Business Communicators and the Associated Press. She is also the author of several nonfiction trade publications, and, in 2012, had her first young-adult novel published by Glass Page Books.