January 3, 2019 ・ Written by T.J. Duane

Why did you leave your job?

Possibly the most awkward interview question

Why did you leave your job?

Interviewing is stressful to start. The moment somebody starts picking apart a gap in your resume is enough to make anybody sweat.

“Why did you leave your last job?” is a totally loaded question. The minute this comes up, you’ve got to do a tightrope walk. Be truthful. But not too truthful. But be confident! But don’t brush the question away. Take this concern seriously.

Yikes. That’s a lot to handle.

If you’re unemployed, it can be twice as hard to explain your time away from the working world. The longer you’ve been out, the more side-eye you seem to attract.

But try not to stress. There’s a way to explain almost any resume gap that will leave you looking great, and won’t cast additional doubts on your candidacy. Whether you’re unemployed or had a long hiatus a few years back, these techniques can help you shine.

Tell the truth. Just use the right spin.

Rule number one should be obvious: tell the truth.

If you lie during your interview process, you can absolutely get fired for it later. It’s simply not worth making an interview slightly easier if the fabrication will make your life harder in the long run.

You can absolutely gloss over more colorful details (the choice words you gave your last manager…those can stay between you and them.) If you’re not happy with how your resume gap appeared, practice a short explanation that sounds matter-of-fact, accurate, and upbeat.

You might want to roleplay this with a friend. Have them probe at why you left your last position. Practice staying on-message, not oversharing, and focusing on the future.

The interviewer will take their cues from you— if you seem embarrassed or nervous, they might assume there’s something really wrong. Rule number two: always play it cool.

Spin for a horrible boss.

If you quit in a rage because of a horrible boss…don’t worry. Tons of people have been there before (maybe even your interviewer).

Just because this is a common situation doesn’t mean you should be quite so upfront about it. Bad mouthing former employers is a serious interviewing offense.

The best approach here will depend on why your didn’t get along with your last boss. If you’re able to clearly articulate reasons why the relationship wasn’t working, then you can spin them positive. Drive the conversation toward your ideal manager/employee relationship, rather than what went wrong in the past.

For example, you could say,

“My last job just was not the right cultural fit. There were a lot of expectations that weren’t communicated effectively, so I found myself wondering what I needed to do every day. I’d love to talk about how you like to relate to your employees, how often you check in, and what channels of communication you use to keep things running smoothly.”

See that pivot? It’s relevant, it’s forward-thinking, and it shows you’re somebody who clearly understands what they need to be effective at work. All good things.

Spin for performance problems.

This one’s tougher. If you were fired because of performance problems, I hope you’ve carefully considered what went wrong in your last job, and how you can correct for it in your next role. Maybe it was impossible to meet the expectations that were being set, or perhaps life obligations got in the way of your ability to perform.

Even if all that is true, you never want to play the blame game.

Again, stay focused on the future. Call out things about this job that are better than your last role, that might help address the root causes of your past performance issues. Without going in depth (if at all possible), take ownership of your misfires, and talk about what you’ve learned. Here you can show your ability to reflect and grow—that’s a wonderful quality that’s hard to find.

Good luck on your next interview!