What’s My Best Response to “Why did you leave?”

Question: My boss let me go after 10 months. I worked very hard for an organization with an office staff of only two – my boss and me. It was a definite personality conflict.

This is the only job I’ve had since we moved to this area. How do I address this when my next job application asks about my previous employment and “reason for leaving?”

Ann, Phoenix, AZ

Answer: What’s troubling you, troubles many people. Having been an employee, an employer and an employee advocate, I think I see the problem from “all three sides.”

Did you marry the first person you dated? Attend the first college you visited? Buy the first house you looked at? Probably not. A job that didn’t last long isn’t a brick wall in your career path, but more a “speed bump” along the way. Do your best to give your interviewers an honest, positive, respectful reason for your departure. Your manner and perceived ease at explaining what happened is probably more important than what actually happened.

These are “Sklover’s Five Rules for Answering ‘Why Did You Leave?’

1. Be Honest (as Possible): While you shouldn’t advertise that one day you got so angry you made an obscene gesture to your boss, you can describe the situation as “stressful.” Don’t be afraid to tell the truth if it’s something personal, like “bad chemistry” or “differing work habits,” because we all know those things happen all the time, especially in small offices.

2. Be Bold: Always ask for a reference, or a good story – even with the worst former boss. Even if you were fired, you should ask your former boss for a positive reference. It’s in no one’s interests for you or he/she to bad mouth one another. And it costs “not a nickel” to agree to a mutually-face-saving “cover story” as to why you’re no longer employed.

3. If you were fired, “Go Neutral”: Try some of these: (a) Increasingly, more hours overtime requested than I was available for; (b) Difference in personalities; (c) Change in the skills needed for the job; (d) Limited growth, development or advancement opportunity; (e) only intended to be short-term; (f) Important client left; (g) Reduction in benefits; (h) Commuting became too taxing; (i) Reduction in headcount. Look for honest, neutral reasons that are true.

4. Always, Always: Positive and Respectful: Don’t ever forget that “complainers” don’t get hired, even if they have good reasons to complain. There’s nothing worse than interviewing a candidate who deluges you with all of the former boss’s “dirty laundry.”

5. Don’t be afraid to simply say “It was a mistake”: We all make mistakes, and that includes taking jobs that we shouldn’t have. Depending on what happened, you can even turn your mistake into a very funny story. Your interviewer might even have a story of her own. So long as the last six jobs weren’t all mistakes, you will be forgiven.

Keep your head up, and your spirits, as well. You did nothing wrong, and nothing to be ashamed or afraid of. I think you’ll bounce back sooner than you think. My best.

Al Sklover

We offer “50 Good Reasons to Explain Your Last Departure.” To obtain a copy, just [click here.] Delivered Instantly – By Email.

We also offer several helpful Model Letters, Memos and Checklists to help you get a New Job. To review a list of those that are available, just [click here.]