Explaining the reasons for leaving your job can be tricky. For both off-boarding and interviewing, how you’ll explain your decision-making process needs to be well thought out.
First and foremost, it’s important to maintain good ties with your soon-to-be previous employer if you can. Whether you loved your company or you're leaving a toxic work environment, you want to frame the reason you’re leaving in a positive light.
Melinda Hubbard, who holds a doctorate in business administration, is a leadership coach and an assistant professor at Ball State University, part of their management and HR division. She says finding the positive can be difficult, especially if you're leaving a bad situation.
“My experience is that it is very difficult for women to leave jobs, even when it’s toxic, even when they’re depressed and crying every day," Hubbard says. "Women have a really, really hard time leaving. I know this from women that I coach; I know this from research. Women have told me that they had to have a breakdown before they left.”
Given that, brace yourself for a steely exit—if you quit, lot's of "I'm excited to explore what comes next," Hubbard says—and then, focus on what you’ll say to a hiring manager. Hubbard says you should be prepared to be honest, though, again, not as frank as you might like to be. She recommends sticking to the facts of the situation, not the feelings. And remember: Your positivity speaks volumes of your professionalism.
How to talk about your reasons for leaving a job when interviewing for a new role
Spin the negative story
Okay, so you’re going to stay positive. But why? How does putting a positive spin on a negative situation impact your relationship with a potential employer?
“When I’ve left a toxic environment, I’ve never, ever, ever, ever mentioned that in a negative sense," Hubbard says. "As a hiring manager, I react very poorly to anyone talking negatively about their situation. It’s a big turnoff, and I find myself thinking,‘Oh my gosh, is this person going to ask something of me that I can’t give, because clearly something didn’t work out before.’”
Judy Howe, owner of digital product design and innovation company Punchcut, agrees with Hubbard: "Hiring managers are asking this to understand what might be frustrating to you and to gauge if that same situation might be replicated in the new company," she says. "Will you be happy here? Will we be able to deliver? What will it take to keep you? Or will you leave soon after you start?"
Pro tips: what not to do
Avoid the question.
Put the blame on others.
Play the victim.
To a hiring manager, your answer to this question is an indicator of how you’ll behave during times of conflict and when interacting with your future coworkers, which can make or break an interview. “Don’t badmouth your previous company, coworkers, or boss,” Howe says. “Don’t play the victim or highlight how you were wronged. Unfortunately, in an interview setting it tends to reflect more on you on your conflict resolution skills than on them. What role did you play in that dynamic? Do you have the maturity to deal with difficult situations? Is that how you will talk about our colleagues, clients, and partners once you’re on board?”
Creating the perfect answer
Hubbard says a successful spin on a negative situation looks something like this: If your workplace was toxic because the boss kept stealing your ideas, tell the hiring manager, “I’m looking for a position where my ideas are recognized and celebrated. That’s one thing I did not experience in my last job, and I’m anxious to find a place where I can exercise that.”
Howe recommends tying your transition out of a company to personal or career growth. “If it’s your choice to move on, make it about your needs and interests, and link it to a gap that this new company can clearly fill,” she says. “For example, frame it not as‘They micromanaged me,’ but as‘For my growth, I needed an environment where there was more focus on delegation and empowerment. From what I understand, that's an important part of your culture, and I’m eager to learn more.’ A savvy interviewer will piece the real story together and appreciate your diplomatic approach.”
If you’ve been laid off, Howe says be upfront, and, like Hubbard mentioned earlier, focus on facts. Try phrasing like, “Unfortunately, I was let go as part of a restructuring/layoff, as the company was not hitting its quarterly goals.”
“Making it fact-based and linking it to business performance takes the pressure off your individual performance,” Howe says. “If it was performance-based, you can say, “The company and I both agreed it wasn’t a fit, and that’s why I’m very focused on finding a job where I can….” Then, insert your chosen growth opportunities.
Pro tips: what you should do
Plan what to say beforehand.
Be clear in your reason for exiting.
Be honest—but not too detailed.
Acknowledge learning opportunities or areas of growth in your previous position.
Show excitement for the new opportunity.
In fact, even tying a positive reason for leaving a job to growth is a winning approach in Howe’s book. “Give this some thought,” she says. “What do you want in your career right now that you aren’t getting? Some handy phrases to keep in mind are,‘My last company taught me that I really enjoy X, and I want more of that in my career.’ Or‘I found I wasn’t thriving in an environment where X happens, and I wanted to find that in my next role.’ And then turn the conversation into a dialog about how you believe this specific job will address that growth need for you.”
‘Good’ reasons for leaving a job & how to talk about them
Of the legitimate reasons for leaving a job, accepting a new position is one of the most common. Below, you’ll find a few others. For all of them, it’s important to write a resignation letter that highlights all you’ve learned at the company, and how you’re excited to take those skills into your future career.
You got a new job
I’ve accepted a new position at another company. Although I’m sad to leave this one, I’m excited to take what I’ve learned here and apply it in my new role.
You’re making a career change
I’ve decided to pursue a career in a different industry. I’ve truly enjoyed working with everyone here, and I know the skills I’ve developed here will help me thrive in my newfound passion.
You want more career growth
I believe I’ve learned everything I can from my current role and have decided to pursue other opportunities that will advance my career.
You want more education
I’ve decided to go back to school. I’m very excited to dive into my career in a new way and hope to maintain my ties here as I do so.
There was a company restructure
The company’s recent restructure wasn’t what I anticipated when I took the role, and the adjustment has been hard for me. It’s time for me to explore new options.
My team’s workload has grown faster than we can handle, and we aren’t getting enough support to keep up. I enjoy what I do and have learned a lot here, but I want to look for a role that isn’t as high-stress as this one.
You or someone in your family is sick
I need to take some time away from work to deal with my/a family health issue. I’m sad to leave you all, but I know this will be best for me in the long run.
My partner accepted a new position in another city/state/country, so I won’t be able to continue this role. If needed, I’m happy to help train my replacement or do work remotely during the transition period.
You need more flexibility
Since having children, I’ve realized that I need a job that offers more flexibility.
I’m ready to enter the next chapter of my life!
Bad reasons for leaving a job & how to make them sound good
Chances are, you won’t have a spotless record at every company that employs you. And if that means you got fired or you quit suddenly because your boss was less than stellar, you have to think about how you’ll explain that to a hiring manager. In general, it’s best to be honest but focus on the good you took away from the experience. Even if you were in the right, this is not the time for bad-mouthing.
You were fired
Yes, at my last job, I was let go. But I’ve thought about what happened and realized I should have been more proactive about the problem. I hope to take what I’ve learned from that experience and apply it to what I’ll do here.
You hated your boss or coworkers
Now that I’ve had more experience in different offices, I’ve decided to be really strategic in looking for a company culture that matches my values, and yours seems like the right fit.
You didn’t like the schedule
The job was too difficult
I’m looking for a more collaborative work environment where we can all pitch in and learn from one another.
You were let go for harassment/tardiness/substance abuse
I made some mistakes in my last job and was let go because of them. I’m not proud of them, but I’m hoping for a fresh start here. I know I’d be able to do better given the opportunity.
You were passed over for a promotion
I see opportunities for growth in your company, and that’s exciting to me.
You were bored at work
I decided to shift gears to find my passion. I really want to be involved in the work your company does.
You didn’t want to work as many hours
Work-life balance is really important to me, and I know that’s something your company values.
You were going through a messy divorce / life crisis
I had a few major changes in my personal life and wanted to take time to reset my priorities before I reentered the workforce.
The company was terrible
I learned a lot while working there, but I wanted to find a workplace I truly loved, and that meant looking thoughtfully at my own values and what I want from my career moving forward.
Before you disclose anything in your interview, make a plan for the way you will talk about your former employer. But transparency is key: If you were fired because of something you did, tell the truth. Your story needs to line up with that of your previous employer.
One more thing...
Anyone who Googles “reasons for leaving a job” is thinking about making a change, but before you do, it’s important to understand why you’re unhappy. If you got a new position somewhere or are considering a career change, that’s great. But if you’re thinking of flipping your desk and walking out the door? Pump the breaks.
No job is perfect, and leaving your job won’t necessarily fix the problem. (You could get into another office and find, say, you still really hate data entry.) So before you rearrange the office furniture, think through what’s upsetting you and whether there’s something proactive you can do to make a change. Are you tired of working overtime and never making a dent in your work? Talk to your boss about your workload. Are you doing the same projects over and over again and feel like your career has stalled? Ask to attend a conference or look for internal mentorship opportunities that can drive other aspects of your growth.
If you find you’ve ruled out ways you can make a chance and still want to leave your job, then do it tactfully: Apply for other jobs or make a plan for what you’ll do with your newfound freedom, then write a thoughtful and professional resignation letter. After that, go find a job you love.
About our sources
Melinda Hubbard is a leadership coach and an assistant professor in the management and HR division at Ball State University. She holds a doctorate in business administration from Temple University, with research focusing on women’s lack of representation in CEO positions. Prior to founding her consulting company, The HUB, Hubbard spent nearly 20 years in corporate America.
Judy Howe is owner of Punchcut, a user interface design company based in San Francisco. Howe has over 20 years of experience in professional services consulting. She holds a bachelor’s degree from University of Michigan and an MBA from University of California-Berkeley.