So, Why’d You Leave Your Previous Employer?
Posted: November 9, 2009 | 9:39 ET
Overcome the Terror of Answering If You Left On Bad Terms
A friend of mine called to say she’d landed an interview with the ad agency of her dreams. Big budgets. Stellar clients. Wildest roof parties in the industry.
Nice gig if you can get it.
Only problem was she’d left her last employer on bad terms. "Fired" isn’t quite the way to describe it. More like downsized for lack of fit. (Alright, so she’d jumped into the job because it paid a whack of cash, found out the place was a hell hole, but they turfed her before she could quit).
"How in the world do I relate this to the person I’ll be interviewing with?," she asked.
Good question. Darned good question. The thing is you want to put the best spin possible on what happened. Don’t raise red flags if you can help it. Under the circumstances she really had me scratching what’s left of the hair on my bristling scalp.
"Look," I said, "you’ve got a couple of options. First question I have for you is, do you want to tell the truth or is lying o.k. if it gets you a second interview?"
"Tell me about the lying option first," she said, not waiting to draw a breath. This isn’t her usual style, but I’ve seen what months of job searching can do to even the best of people.
"Well, you could tell a small fib, or a whopper the size of Burger King. Either way the goal is to bamboozle the interviewer, make them think your departure was hunky dory. Answer quick, sound happy, and move on to the next question."
"What if they check my references and find out my pants are on fire?"
"Then you’re toast. Not only would they be idiots to hire you, you’re reputation for integrity plunges."
She chewed on that for a while as I added she could possibly be fired later on if this new company hired her, then found out after there’d been serious misrepresentation (read: lies big enough to char her pants in an instant) during her interviews. Big silence till she spoke again.
"How about if I say something like this: 'I left due to a lack of challenging assignments and I wanted to seek out more dynamic opportunities.'"
"Good start. But if I were a savvy interview, my next question to you would be 'So you’re telling me that you resigned from that company.'"
"Er, uh…that’s not, um…"
"Oh, you mean you were fired?"
Bingo. I’d backed her into a corner she couldn’t squirm out of. Time to help her out a bit, just as she’d been there for me in the darkest days of my divorce, when I thought all was lost (it wasn’t, but most of my money was to legal fees).
"Let’s try this on for size," I said. "They’ve just asked you why you left your last job. You look them straight in the eye. Sit up firm and lean slightly forward so they can see who’s in charge here. Then say, in your most confident voice, 'I’m glad you asked that. The way I see it, I was hired for my skills as a leader and champion of change. It turns out that their version of change and mine were rather different. I can see now that I should have asked a few more questions before taking the job. We both realized it was a mismatch. They happened to let me go before I had a chance to move on myself. So this time I’m determined to find the right match, and from the people I’ve spoken to about your firm so far they say we might really be on the same wavelength.'"
"Well said! That’s pretty much just what I want to tell them. It’s true, it’s to the point, and it shows I’ve learned from my experience."
"That’s why I earn the big bucks." She giggled at that, which I thought unnecessarily cruel. But then she’s been to my home and seen the paint peeling off my teenager’s computer.
I’m pleased to report that my friend not only soared through that first interview with the company, but through the second one as well. And the third. The fourth too--what the hell do these people think they’re doing, Sarah Palin was vetted less than this--and scored the job offer.
So you see? You don’t have to become Pinocchio to explain why you left your previous job. Do your best to tell the truth. Stick to the facts. Don’t get all emotional (bitterness in particular rankles future employers). State your case with conviction and brevity. Or fib till the lie detector graph explodes off the page if you must. Either way, do it confidently and move on.
Mark Swartz, MBA, M.Ed., is one of Canada's leading authorities on careers and work, and author of the best-seller "Get Wired, You're Hired" (now in its fourth edition since 1997).
Visit careeractivist.com for his many free insights and articles.
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