I recently had one of those marathon interview days on the recruiting side – I phone screened 10 candidates back-to-back. Despite recruiting for several different roles, I asked each and every candidate why they left their last job. Many times I asked for the transition reason behind each and every past job.
Recruiters will ask why you left your last job (and probably will ask for more than one past job) because the reasons behind your career transitions reveal your priorities, motivations, commitment, and more. If you left because you felt topped out, then growth is clearly a priority. If you left because another employer opportunistically offered you more money, then you’re motivated by money. If you have left multiple jobs in quick succession, many employers will question your commitment. There are many ways that employers interpret your career transitions so you need to be deliberate and prudent about what you share and how you talk about why you left your last job.
Address obvious red flags
If you have an obvious red flag, such as a short tenure that is clearly on the resume, then address this outright. A short employment stint is not necessarily a deal-breaker. Explain calmly and clearly why you left, and point to other areas in your background where you have shown commitment. If you were part of a well-publicized layoff, don’t assume this will reflect badly on you, especially if it is within the context of a broader restructuring.
It is critical that you stay neutral and unemotional as you talk about your career transitions. I recently interviewed a candidate who cried when she discussed a layoff. I don’t think tears are appropriate at any point in an interview, but to make matters worse, this restructuring occurred six years ago, which should have given her plenty of time to recover and be able to get through an interview without losing control. This made me question her resilience, and given the fast pace of the job at hand, she completely took herself out of the running. Don’t get emotional, whether sad, angry, or resentful at your transition. If it was an emotional break for you, practice talking about it till you lose any edge in your voice. The job search has ups and downs, so learn how to manage your stress.
Stick to the facts
Even if your voice is devoid of emotion, your words might still betray you if you talk about your transition too judgmentally. I recently interviewed a candidate, still at his job, but who talked about actively looking to leave because of the unprofessional management, culture of chaos and other negatives. The subjective nature of these complaints made the candidate sound like he might be a problem, perhaps too sensitive or so disloyal and professionally immature that he would speak about his current employer so openly negatively. This candidate could have talked instead about how management decided to leave a key position unfilled or that the company strategy has shifted several times within the last year fueling uncertainty about the future direction of the organization. Both of these statements also point to disagreement with management and a chaotic culture, but they’re specific and grounded.
Focus on pull, not push
The ideal reason you are leaving your job (or left past jobs) is not related to the old job in the past, but rather to the new job you hope to land (or landed). I want to recruit candidates who are pulled to the mission of my client, not pushed out by something they didn’t like in their old job. I want candidates who are pulled to my client’s exciting strategy or the challenge of the new role, not pushed out by boredom or lack of challenge in where they were before. You don’t want prospective employers to think about your old jobs – you want them to see you in your new job with them.
Highlight career progression
Another way to positively spin your career transition is to build on each one so that your career is less about stops along the way and more about a continuous progression where one role builds on another. This doesn’t mean you have to make every new job a promotion or upward change. It is very reasonable to take a lateral move that gives you experience with a complementary function or new industry. You might have followed a mentor or taken a chance with a start-up at different points in your career. If you can tell a cohesive story that shows you made thoughtful and empowered choices, then you come across as a thoughtful, empowered go-getter who can add value to your next organization.
People don’t stay at one job for a lifetime anymore, so employers are expecting to see that you have left even multiple jobs. But your reasons should be proactive and career-driven. Your explanations should be calm and concise. Your responses should revert back to the job at hand, so you can go on the offense about why you are right for this new opportunity and not on the defense about why your last opportunity wasn’t right for you.
This article first appeared in Forbes