A woman deep in thought about her last job while waiting for an interview while holding her resume.
Image: g-stockstudio/Shutterstock

Interview tips: How to talk about why you left your last job

29 May 2018

They say to never talk badly about your previous employer, but what if being honest about why you left means breaking that rule?

In a perfect world, we would all progress through our careers with positive experiences. We would move on naturally through promotions and headhunting and we’d never need to leave a job for anything other than growth.

However, that’s not always the case. Most people have at least one less-than-stellar job in their lives and many of those have had downright traumatic experiences from which they needed to remove themselves.

There’s no shame in these experiences. They can often help you grow as a person and learn more about yourself and the world of work.

But, even when there isn’t any bad blood, the reason you left your last job might be a negative one, be it an unreasonable workload, a bad company culture or even a difficult manager.

You’ve probably heard all the interview advice in the world that says you shouldn’t speak negatively about your previous employer as it could paint you in a bad light.

However, when it comes to the dreaded question in your next interview of why you left your last job, what should you say when you’re torn between lying or speaking negatively?

Career coach Jane Downes said that even when it’s tempting to give out about a boss, it’s important to find a way to put a positive spin on this.

“Go to interview with a clear plan on how you will answer this inevitable question, which will arise. Remember, interviewers are human beings too and have probably experienced a bad boss themselves,” she said.

“That said, you need to always put a positive spin on the situation and focus on what you learned from the role and achievements within it.”

Digging deeper

A safe approach to talk about your reasons for leaving your last job without being negative is to say that it just wasn’t the right fit.

Downes suggests keeping to the point and answering questions about your previous employer in as few words as possible.

“If an interviewer digs deeper and probes more about this, you can say, for example, your boss’ management style wasn’t for you long-term.

“You managed to handle it well and have a good working relationship, but you work with more autonomy or more support etc.”

Downes also said the tone and delivery of this information is vital, so smile to avoid any negativity or bitterness seeping in.

“You can talk briefly about some of the issues but follow this up with the good aspects or what you learned from the situation,” she said.

“Remember, hiring managers understand that bad bosses do exist, but how you handle your feedback on this in interviews says a lot about how you handle difficult situations.”

Reference worries

Depending on the kind of experience you have had, you might be worried about the reference you could receive. A negative or even simply a bland reference can knock a candidate out of the running sometimes and, even if your worries are mere paranoia, it’s not something you often get a second shot at.

Downes firstly advises employees to maintain absolute professionalism right until the last day to ensure your employer has no reason to give you a bad reference.

It’s also a good idea to have colleagues or other line managers who may have left the company as back-up verbal references.

“Request a reference in writing to ascertain the angle they are taking, and request clarity if not happy,” said Downes.

“You can advise a future employer that generic broad references are company policy and you can offer some names of people who would vouch for you in the company if they want more. Remember, the logic of ‘if you don’t ask, you won’t get’ applies here.”

Jenny Darmody
By Jenny Darmody

Jenny Darmody became the editor of Silicon Republic in 2023, having worked as the deputy editor since February 2020. When she’s not writing about the science and tech industry, she’s writing short stories and attempting novels. She continuously buys more books than she can read in a lifetime and pretty stationery is her kryptonite. She also believes seagulls to be the root of all evil and her baking is the stuff of legends.

Loading now, one moment please! Loading