Job Interview Tips: How to Answer 'Why Did You Leave?'

Last Updated May 6, 2010 4:05 PM EDT

I've mentored a lot of people in the course of my career, and I can guarantee them of one lesson gained by personal experience: Anyone who hasn't made a professional blunder or two isn't trying very hard.

That being said, some career-management faux pas are more daunting than others. The Wall Street Journal this week spoke with three successful executives who were able to right their careers after early errors: a failure by American entrepreneur and Seventh Generation Inc. founder Jeffrey Hollander to secure a Canadian work permit for an early business, Blackstone Group LP co-founder Peter G. Peterson's expulsion from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to the ranks of department-store employee, and a series of accidents in which future J.C. Penney Co. CEO Myron E. Ullman III did physical harm to his boss.

The common thread? A willingness to reflect on errors and grow beyond them. "Early setbacks represent a key developmental event that successful executives cite when they look back over their careers," Ellen Van Velsor, a senior fellow at the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, N.C., told the Journal.
By the same token, the ability to contextualize rocky patches on your career path is essential to a successful job interview. In a story titled "'Why Did You Leave?' How to Address Past Employment," TheLadders' Lisa Vaas learned from hiring managers that a negative spin on the circumstances behind their departure rarely serve job candidates well.

When asked why you left your last position, be ready to tackle it head-on, but do it in a way that redirects the conversation to your strengths. If your position was eliminated because of a downsizing or reorganization, be sure to put the transition into context. Instead of saying, "My position was eliminated," say, "MORE THAN X number of positions were eliminated as a result of this business decision."

If your departure reflects some other parting of the ways, executive coach Debra Benton recommends taking the initiative. She suggests approaching it something like this: "‛Here I am telling you how wonderful I am, but I'm wondering, are you curious why I left XYZ?' If they answer, ‛No, we know that happens,' fine, it's taken care of. If they answer, ‛Yes, we were wondering,' then you can give your thought-out answer."

Here's Benton's example of one such answer, which steers you past the rough spots and redirects the conversation to the future: "XYZ is a great organization, and I enjoyed my time there very much. They felt I was a real contributor to their organization, as evidenced by the two company awards I won. But, as you know, things change: New people come in, the economy, a new culture is put in place, and so forth. I could see that my work was done there and I needed to move on. ... So let's talk more about where/how I can contribute to your organization."

Moving ahead in your career requires fearless self-examination, and it also requires you to recognize that people will have questions. A little reflection can save you a lot of embarrassment and actually turn low points into selling points for your job.

  • Matthew TheLadders

    Matthew Rothenberg is editor-in-chief for TheLadders, the world's leading online service catering exclusively to the $100K+ job market. In addition to traditional job search services, TheLadders.com also provides a host of specialized career development resources. Previously he worked at Ziff Davis Media, ZDNet, CNET, and Hachette Filipacchi.