How to Answer Why You Left Your Previous Position

"Why did you leave your previous position?” This is a fair question and will more than likely be asked in an interview and in your networking actives as you search for your next position. How you answer can heavily influence the individual you are speaking with weather it be a decision maker in an interview, network connection, or recruiter. You need to plan a concise and accurate response. Remember, your prospective employer will check your response either through your references or via a direct query to your former organization. Your response needs to be politically accurate and non-emotive.

Many times, a concise, accurate response is sufficient. However, you need to be prepared for an expanded discussion during an in-depth conversation. Sometimes an answer such as, “There was a change in management over the past few years where I was under a new supervisor and with the new changes they decided to go in a new direction and let me go” just isn’t enough. It can leave your audience wondering why?  Did you not get along with the new boss? Was this performance related? Do you not adapt well to change?

The key driver in developing your expanded response should be to eliminate any doubt in your audiences mind as to why you are in the job market or why you separated from your previous position. The goal with this statement is to answer the question and then move from this topic as quickly as possible. Why? You do not want the reason you are no longer with your previous employer to be the focus of your conversation. What happened in the past is just that, in the past. Be prepared with well thought-out answers that support your candidacy for a new position or the next chapter in your career. Do not become defensive, especially during this part of the conversation.

This response needs to be strategically thought out, but not sound scripted. While each situation will vary depending on how the individual phrases the question, there are basically four key elements to your expanded response:

  1. A positive statement about your former employer and previous position. Why start your answer in this way?  It’s a psychological move. By starting with something positive about your previous employer, you are showing that there is no bad blood or ill will with the separation. Keep it short and sweet.  Here are a few examples:

“I’ve had 7 very engaging years at XYZ Company…”
“I have loved my time at XYZ Company and am really proud of the successful marketing campaigns that I have conceived and managed.” 
“I have been at my company for three years now and have learned a lot from working with some amazing salespeople.”

  1. Give a high-level overview of what your previous company does and who they are. Your audience may have never heard of XYZ company or have any idea what they do. By giving your audience a high-level overview of the company you are showing what industry they operate in and what part of the marketspace they occupy. So, what does that look like?

“I’m not sure if you’re familiar with XYZ Company, but they are a $1.65 billion global company specializing in the technology market, specifically e-commerce.”


  1. The Backstory leading up to the separation - What triggered your departure? Providing a backstory not only answers their question as to why you left, but it also should eliminate any doubt they have as to why you are no longer employed or looking for a new job. Providing a compelling back story leading up to your separation helps them gain insight to the separation.

“Over the past few years, XYZ company has been aggressively acquiring organizations, which ultimately made them a target for acquisition themselves. About 18 months ago, XYZ Company was bought out by ABC Company.  With a change in leadership, and a new leadership team in place, there was a strategic realignment of a number of key divisions and departments resulting in the consolidation of a number of departments.  This consolidation lead to the displacement of 200+ individuals, including myself.”

Do you see how this answers their question and eliminates doubt better than “under new management they decided to go in a different direction”? 


  1. The value proposition you can bring to an individual, organization or the marketplace in general. Unlike steps 1-3 which will stay consistent, step 4 becomes audience specific. At this point, you have answered the question of why you have left the company and are in the job market and now is the time to move past why you left and set-up the remainder of the conversation. We don’t want to dwell on the past, we want to focus on the future. This is the value proposition you bring and is tailored to whomever you are speaking with.

An example for an interview setting:

“Unfortunately, my time with XYZ Company was cut short, but I am extremely excited to be sitting down with you today to discuss the E-commerce Manager position. I truly believe that with my background, experience, education that I will be an immediate contributor to XYZ’s needs.”

An example for a network setting:

“Unfortunately, my time with XYZ Company was cut short, but I am extremely excited about my next chapter and looking to align myself with an organization where I can utilize my 10+ years of E-commerce expertise. I truly believe that with my background, experience, education that I will be an immediate contributor in my next role.”

By ending your answer to this question with how you will be of value gives you the opportunity to speak to why you are the ideal individual for the position. It also takes the focus off why you left your previous position and sets-up the conversation with a forward-thinking focus.

While it is difficult to script answers in advance, prepare to speak to each of the four areas. Remember, this subject is typically difficult for most to talk to in length without having a high level of emotion. How well you handle the questioning will play a significant factor in your networking and in the decision of whether an organization will hire you.

 

 

Scott Miles is the Managing Partner and Operations Manager at Miles LeHane Companies.  Scott works with clients, consultants, and client organizations on matters relating to reorganizations and career transition. Scott specializes in preparation for the day of separation.  

Career Transition