Why Did You Leave?’ How to Address Past Employment

Parting can be sorrow if you explain it wrong in your next interview. Here are tips on positioning your resume (and your head) to provide a positive answer to the question: “Why did you leave?”


Like any hiring professional worth her salt, Jillian Zavitz’s eyebrows go up when she sees short work stints on a resume – say, less than three months. Of course she’ll ask the job seekers to explain.

The answers she’s received speak volumes.

From the professional side: “The job wasn’t suited to my needs?” Fine. “I was offered a better opportunity?” You’re golden.

From the unprofessional side: “My boss was an ass.” “They didn’t pay me enough.” “I had problems with the management.”

Hear that buzzing noise? It’s the sound of the paper shredder preparing to destroy your resume and your chances of being hired.

“Their answers… [help] me determine what kind of person they are,” said Zavitz, programs manager responsible for hiring at TalktoCanada.com, an online English language-training course based in Ottawa, Ontario. “Are they easy to get along with? Is it really the boss who is the ass, or is it you? Do they take risks? [Was the] once-in-a-lifetime opportunity an exchange? An internship? Travel? A lot of people who don’t answer the question directly obviously have something to hide. If they stammer and make up a lie (you can tell) it makes me question their credibility, and I usually end up contacting that reference even if they aren’t listed as a reference.”

Obviously, answering the “Why did you leave?” question in a way that reflects negatively on you can be interview poison. Ladders talked to hiring managers, resume writers and career coaches to get some pointers on how you can prepare positive answers to that touchy question. Here’s how to position your resume and interview responses to describe bidding a company farewell – fondly or otherwise.

Tackle it head-on

Debra Benton, president of Benton Management Resources, an executive coaching firm, suggests the best way to handle the question is to bring it up first. The trick is to stay away from being defensive by keeping your answer upbeat, Benton said.

“More like, ‛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,” she said.

Benton provided this sample of a positive spin:

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.

Your cover letter and resume can help answer the question

Barbara Safani, owner of the career-management firm Career Solvers, said she believes your resume should include a reason for the transition – under specific circumstances: “If it were due to a downsizing or other business reason,” she said, she’ll include the transition detail on the resume. Otherwise, if a client left for a political or personal reason, she doesn’t include an additional explanation on the resume.

The best place to handle the situation is in a cover letter, Benton said. She recommends direct statements like:

It was the right time for me to leave XYZ. I completed (other words could be: reduced, presented, solved, accelerated, controlled, executed, established, expanded) my objectives. They benefited from my contribution. Their and my goals and objectives changed, and that is why I left.

Safani also coaches clients to lead with a positive statement about the work experience, such as “I was fortunate to work for company XYZ for five years, and during that time I contributed to a $20M increase in sales.” Next, she recommends clients explain the reason for the move.

“If the transition was related to a downsizing, I encourage the client to use language such as ‛Unfortunately, a business decision was made to… (Here the candidate can explain the situation, whether it was a company closing, office relocation, position elimination, etc.)'”

She also encourages clients to cast the job loss as a part of a bigger corporate picture instead of making it personal. For example, don’t say, “My position was eliminated.” Instead say, “MORE THAN X number of positions were eliminated as a result of this business decision.”

“If the reason for the leave was political or personal, I coach the client based on the exact situation,” Safani said. “For example, if it was political, I may recommend they say that management changed and they wanted to bring in their own team. If it was personal, I may suggest they say that the direction of the position changed and was no longer well-suited for (me).”