Tough Interview Questions: Why Did You Leave Your Last Job?

Why Did You Leave Your Last Job?

As they ask the question, notice how they try to make it seem like you should tell them intimate details of your life that are completely inappropriate to talk about in an interview. They act like they want you to confess.

Playing on that, there are two scenarios. The first is, if you got laid off, you are not obviously going to say, “I was the least productive person in my organization so it was easy for them to choose me.” That’s not the right answer from your vantage point; from theirs’, they respond by saying, “okay. Thank you very much.”

In that situation, you talk about an organization that was struggling financially and made across-the-board cuts and, unfortunately, based upon seniority, you are either (A) the least experienced person amongst your peers or (B) one of the more expensive people in the department and they decided, quality of work be damned, they could take out one person and save the money out of that department or three people and they opted for the one. That’s one approach.

Again, if you got laid off because you were the most junior, that’s easy. They took a seniority approach. “I was the most junior person in the organization.  It was not an issue or my work because all my reviews were terrific. Ultimately they chose me.”

If you are in a situation where you were not laid off, where you had a choice, this is a subtle one.

As you listen to this, remember, I believe in acting during an interview. Thus, you want to act like you are agonizing and going back in time to think about it.  Then, you say something along the lines of, “this was not an easy decision for me. I had gotten frustrated because they saw me as someone who could run this department, be very good as a programmer… Whatever it is… I didn’t want to sit in the same job for the next 20 years of my life. It became really clear to me that that was going to be the case where I was. 

“So, after speaking with my manager and he being very clear that this was the plan for me, I decided that, although I like my job, although I like the work I was doing and like the people, I had to think long term. I started to go out on interviews and organizations saw me very differently. They saw me as someone who had a huge upside. It wasn’t that I was going to come in and do the same thing repetitively, organizations spoke about how they would do career development for me to help with my growth.” That becomes a different approach.

The second scenario is when you were let go, when you had a rough situation and decided to look at other opportunities.

Using myself as an example, at one point, I left a firm where I was a top performer. I came to realize I wasn’t getting the support that I wanted or needed to do what I do. Management kept reducing tools and I kept reaching into my pocket to pay for things. Eventually, I paused and asked myself, “If I’m going to keep doing that, why, if I’m going to be paying for this stuff myself, why am I giving management such a large percentage? If I’m going to do that, why give management such a large percentage of each sale that I do?” So, I decided to hang my shingle up, open my doors, and start my own business.”

Did you notice what I was doing? 

I was painting a situation with the story so that it is understandable from the audience’s standpoint. I’m not acting bitter in any way. I’m not speaking harshly; I just decide to explain it in a very forthright way.

The fact of the matter is, there is a framework to every job and you want to speak of the framework to your job and speak of the framework of your role, rather than it being well-defined.

Why don’t you want to talk about it being well-defined?

Because you would seem like a clerk.  Like a low-level individual in an organization when it becomes well-defined.

You want to talk about the framework of your job, rather than the specifics in answering the question. For example, you might talk about, “Every day is a bit different.  The framework is…” And then you lay out a few different things.

“It’s not like from 9 o’clock to [9:15] AM, I do this.  From [9:15] to [9:30], I do that.  It is nothing along those lines. I do my own time my management, I control my own circumstances. I am asked to produce an outcome and to work within the framework of our organization in order to accomplish my goals.”  

“What are my goals?”

You might talk about 1 or 2 of them.  “Ultimately it is up to me to do my job within the framework of my relationship with others, how I’m going to accomplish these things.  I have milestones and benchmarks, deliverables to my tasks that allow me to fulfill it.  So, is it well-defined?  I don’t think so. I am given a framework to work from and ultimately, these are my choices.”

Some of you do have jobs that are very well defined.  Where you can direct the answer, as I just did, it serves you better.  


You may want to take a step up in class and do something a little bit more high level than what you are currently involved with.  This idea of speaking to a framework and making your own choice serves you better. 

Again, by pointing out that you have decision-making over your work, deliver at a high level, and achieve the deliverables that you have to you separate yourself from the “order takers,” and demonstrate that you can think independently.

Ⓒ The Big Game Hunter, Inc., Asheville, NC 2020



Jeff Altman, The Big Game HunterJeff Altman, The Big Game Hunter is a coach who worked as a recruiter for what seems like one hundred years. His work involves career coaching, all as well as executive job search coaching, job coaching, and interview coaching. He is the host of “No BS Job Search Advice Radio,” the #1 podcast in iTunes for job search with more than 1800 episodes, and is a member of The Forbes Coaches Council.

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Jeff Altman, The Big Game Hunter
Jeff Altman, The Big Game Hunter

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