Here’s the good news: It’s not as big of a deal as you think it is. And with some preparation and context, you can actually use it to your advantage.
As if the interview process wasn’t already daunting enough, what with all the cover-letter polishing, resume tinkering, and general preparation that goes into coming across as a “professional.” In the instance that you left on less than favorable terms from your last job, the process can seem even more intimidating.
But, here’s the thing: It doesn’t need to be. While getting let go from a job or quitting because of some other untenable circumstance might seem like a massive black mark on your work history, there’s no reason you can’t actually use this career event to your benefit.
“I find many job seekers get overly obsessed with answering this question,” says career coach Katie Stricker. But it’s a perfectly normal scenario, and your prospective employer probably isn’t making as much out of it as youare. They’re asking this question because they’re looking for further insight into your expectations and workplace behavior, and this is actually a prime opportunity to do some clever repositioning:
“By establishing where you are now and why you are looking for a new job as part of your overall story, you’ll enable yourself to truly own your path and quickly put any questions about why you left aside,” she says.
Sound like some fancy verbal footwork? Here’s how to approach it.
Regardless of how you left your last job, there’s an opportunity here to assess what you are and aren’t looking for in your career, and to determine how each choice you make going forward can help you craft the path you want to pursue.
Leadership expert Joyel Crawford recommends asking yourself the following questions: “What did you learn in this situation? Did you learn that you could have done things a bit differently? What steps have you put in place to ensure that you don’t repeat history?”
“There’s no shame in being let go,” she says. “If you were laid off, share that information. Companies unfortunately reduce their workforce from time to time. They also outsource or move in different directions. It happens. What’s amazing is that you’re able to take this opportunity to see to positive and lend your talents to this new company.”
If you left things a little sour with your last employer, no doubt you’re sitting there reading this right now and thinking to yourself, “But what if they call my previous employer and they make me look like a total jerk?”
True. But again, this is where taking control of your narrative as much as possible comes into play. And while it might be tempting to act like the fallout from your last gig just didn’t happen, this isn’t a great approach. “Interviewers can always tell when you’re trying to skirt around an answer when it comes to this topic,” says Andrea Gerson, founder of Resume Scripter.
It’s important to shift your own perception of events from negative to positive, says Crawford: “If you left to start a family or went off to explore the world for a gap year, share that,” she says. “Share how those experiences shaped you to become the amazing candidate they see before them. What did you learn? Did you pick up any transferable skills that lend themselves to making that organization thrive? Tell them.”
And the best way to ensure your answers are coming across in a genuine way is to practice (duh). “Generally speaking, the best answer is honest and short,” says career coach Angela Copeland. “Take the time to write down your answer to this question. Then, practice it on family and friends until you feel comfortable.”
For all the honesty that you shouldbe bringing to the table here, that doesn’t translate into letting it allcome out. In other words, this is not an opportunity to indulge in gripes about how much you loathed your previous boss or how the quality of coffee in the break room was absolutely unacceptable.
“I typically coach my clients to frame all transitions as originating from a place of seeking professional growth,” says Gerson. “Rather than emphasizing what was wrong with the job, focus 100 percent on what you are hoping to achieve by making a change.”
In other words: Don’t be petty. Your prospective employer will likely perceive this as unprofessional and chalk it up to a lack of coping skills. Keep things on the up and up, and where there once was friction, position it as an opportunity. “For example,” says Emily Liou career coach and founder of Cultivitae, “you can say, ‘Unfortunately, my company and I both agreed it wasn’t the right cultural fit. I’m seeking an environment that fosters collaboration and really allows me to be a team player.’”
With the aforementioned tendency we all have to make this question a much bigger deal than it actually is, one of the most important things you can do is to keep things in perspective. That means practicing a concise, polished answer to this question and making sure you’re totally dialed in on all the otherquestions you’ll be asked.
“Hiring managers and HR leaders realize there are changes at companies,” says Stricker. “So by addressing the lay off full frontal, you can quickly move onto the important part of the interview, which is the value you’ll bring to the role and the amazing job you’ll do for them.”
Bottom line? Don’t stress unnecessarily, keep it real, and make sure you’re killing it in every other aspect of the interview process.