Hiring new employees is expensive for a company. There’s the time and effort involved in attracting candidates, screening them, and conducting interviews. There’s staff time required to set the person up in the human resources and benefit system, plus the expense to onboard and train the new hire. These expenses can add up to hundreds — or even thousands — of dollars. As a result, hiring managers want to ensure the candidate will be a good fit. Questions asked in the interview process will help determine if a prospective employee is a good match for the company and role.

One question you’re likely to be asked in an interview is why you left your last job (or why you want to leave your current position). You need to be ready to answer this question.

The question may be asked in a variety of different ways:

  • Why are you looking for a new position?
  • Why did you leave your most recent position?
  • Why did you leave (a previous job)?
  • Your prospective employer wants to know that you’re going to be successful in your new role, if you’re offered the position. So having an understanding of why you are moving on can be critical. The interviewer is looking for insight into why you may — or may not — be a good fit at this company. Because past performance is often a good indicator of future performance, learning more about how you fit in at a previous job may give insight into your potential for success in this job.

For example:

  • Was there a good reason you left? If you were with your previous company for five years and you left when the company was sold, that’s understandable. However, if you say that your commute was too long, but you’re interviewing in the same area, your employer may wonder if you’re going to stick around for more than a few months as well! (Or they may wonder if there was another reason for your departure from your previous job.)
  • Did you quit, or were you fired? Sometimes, good employees are let go due to no fault of their own — such as when a company eliminates an entire division, or dismisses all employees with a certain job title. However, if that wasn’t the case, the interviewer will want to determine if there were performance or integrity issues that resulted in your departure. The circumstances of your separation from the company can help answer this question: Are you a loyal employee who values work?
  • Are you still on good terms with your previous employer? Employees who burn bridges when they quit may demonstrate their inability to handle conflict. But if you left a company while still maintaining a relationship with your previous boss, that’s a good sign for the prospective employer. If your previous supervisor allowed you to use him or her as a reference for this job, that’s a great sign. The interviewer wants to know if you can exit a situation while remaining on good terms with others.

There are some particular “red flags” that a hiring manager is looking for. These include personality conflicts, a negative attitude, or poor performance.

What Are Some Likely Reasons For Leaving a Job?

While there are many reasons why you might leave a job, here are some common ones:

  • Your position is being eliminated. Whether due to budget cuts, the elimination of a division, loss of a client, or working in a declining industry (such as retail), sometimes job cuts are not personal. Being laid off — particularly when it’s unrelated to performance — can happen to anyone.
  • The company you work for is being acquired. Duplication of positions is not uncommon when one company acquires another. Layoffs and job reductions can often result from a company’s purchase or sale.
  • You are seeking new challenges. If your current role doesn’t offer opportunities for advancement, and you’re looking for new challenges and/or more responsibilities in your next position, be prepared to highlight your accomplishments in your current job and be specific about what about the role you’re seeking meets your desire to take on greater responsibilities.
  • This is your dream job. Almost every jobseeker has a “dream job” in mind — and no matter how much you like your current job, if that position becomes available, you’d be crazy not to apply for it. Let the interviewer know this is that opportunity for you.
  • Expectations changed. Whether because of new management, budget cuts, a shift in company strategy, or something else, your current role may have changed enough to where either you — or the company — decide it’s no longer a fit. If you were let go because you failed to meet your manager’s expectations, make it known that you have learned from the experience (and make sure the questions you ask in the interview are geared towards finding what the expectations and outcomes of the current role would be).
  • You want to make a change. Whether you are seeking a career change — or a life change — make sure you are prepared to discuss why you want to make a change. Specifically, what will be different about your next job that wasn’t true about your previous position (or previous career)?
  • You were fired for cause. Be honest about the fact that you were fired, putting emphasis on why this was an isolated incident (if it was) and the lesson you learned.
  • It was an unplanned departure. Needing to take care of a family member, or having an unexpected health crisis can make it difficult to keep your job. In the interview, emphasize that the situation has resolved itself and what you did to stay current in your field during your absence (i.e., freelance work, volunteering, and/or ongoing training and education).

Should You List the Reason You Left a Job on Your Résumé?

Most of the time, you should not list the reason why you left your current job on your résumé. For previous positions, you may include the reason, if it helps tell the story of your career progression. For example, if your company was acquired or sold, you may include that description. (“Division was sold in 2016 to ABC Brands and position was eliminated.”) Or, if you were recruited away by a competitor, you could disclose that. “Recruited to lead newly-formed department, assembling a team that achieved 14 percent market penetration in first year.”

However, including that type of information on the résumé is not necessary. You may, however, include the reason for your departure — or your reason for pursuing the current role — in your cover letter. It’s not a requirement, however, and because it’s almost guaranteed to be brought up in the interview, you may not want to address it in the cover letter.

Four Tips for Answering The Tough Question About Why You Left a Job

  • Don’t lie. A quick phone call to your previous supervisor can verify — or disprove — the reason you provided. Better to be honest than get caught lying.
  • Never be negative about your previous employer when asked why you left the previous job. You can mention parts of the job that weren’t a good fit for your personality or experience — but only if you are sure those responsibilities are not a part of the new job too. Don’t criticize your previous supervisor or co-workers.
  • Don’t be defensive. Instead, focus on objective reasons for your departure. Avoid negativity or blame. Don’t position yourself as a victim. Stating that the position wasn’t what you expected it to be is a better way to describe the situation than “My boss didn’t give me clear expectations about how to do my job.”
  • Emphasize the positive. Why are you interested in this job? Position yourself as moving forward. If this is your ideal role or dream job, say so!

Nancy Segal is a federal human resources training and job search expert. Following her own 30-year federal HR career (much of it at the senior level), she founded Solutions for the Workplace LLC in 2003 to provide an HR management perspective to both federal managers and astute applicants to U.S. government positions. Nancy has unmatched federal career management insight, high standards, and respect for people’s time, and her clients use this to their advantage.