You're going to get this question, so you may as well be ready for it.

While we're talking about fears during a job search, I'd like to attack one of the most popular ones: fear that someone is going to ask you why you want to leave (or why you left) your last job. If you're ready for that question, it can offer a great chance for you to share what you're looking for next in your career. If, like most people, you are not prepared for this question it can knock the wind out of you.

So let's talk about it. Now, while you're safe in your own space and can think through it all. 

Why ARE you looking for a new job? This might be tough to think about right now, but I promise you: it's important to think about this now ... before someone asks you (and they will ask you). Whether you are still employed (and just considering a move) or you got laid off (or even fired), you need to be honest with yourself and figure out why you are here. This is the first step to taking control of your career, and your job hunt. Even if you are here through no fault of your own (company layoff, merger, bankruptcy), it is important to understand the path that led you there and what that means for you in the future.

Three big reasons you need an answer for this question:

  1. For your own well being ... today and tomorrow. Understanding what brought you here will help you avoid it, or prepare for it, next time around. This is especially important if you are sitting here wondering what on earth just happened to you. It is possible that you could not have seen this coming. Even that is powerful knowledge. Imagine how freeing it is, emotionally, to know that there was nothing you could have done to prevent this. What if the answer is as simple as this? “I was in the wrong job!”
  2. So you can choose a better job next time (especially if there is something you want to avoid!) It's impossible to evaluate and pick the right job going forward if you don't know what was right and what was wrong with the last one.
  3. People will ask you this question again and again! They'll ask you when you are networking. They'll ask you during an interview. If you're prepared for it, it will be no big deal. If you are not, I'm afraid you can end up in a hornet's nest of uncomfortable questions, scrutiny and ultimately a failed conversation. That's no fun! So, be ready to answer questions about either "Why do you want to leave?" or "Why did you leave?" Recruiters and hiring managers WILL push for details - especially if you're dodgy. If you can explain it quickly and easily, the conversation will move on. If you stumble and fall, struggling to explain it, you will raise concerns and get stuck on it. Everyone knows that bad things happen to good people. What they want to know is this: Did you learn from it, will you see it coming next time around, and will you know what to do about it?

Psst! Don't be dodgy!

I know it's hard. I know you don't want to talk about the icky parts of your past. I also know that if you get dodgy in the middle of a conversation, people will jump to all sorts of horrible conclusions (Like "He must be an axe murderer!" or "She must have stolen money, or beaten someone up. Why else would she be acting so strange over that question?") You don't want that! So get ready for these questions. I promise you: no matter what your story is, if you can practice talking about it briefly, the conversation will move along beyond it without a hitch. 

What are your skeletons? 

We've all got events in our past that we'd rather not think about (much less talk about). For instance, I once got caught hiding from an Executive VP! That was NOT my finest moment ... but it was the moment I realized that working in fear was not working for me or my company. I finally stood up to her, and everything changed. It was tough for me to talk about that then and later. Once I finally examined why I was hiding from her, I was able to see and articulate what a toxic job looks like for me, where I am at my best (pssst! It's not working with a boss like her!) and what I want next in my career. It's easy to spin in any situation because I've been really honest with myself and practiced talking about it in a way that is easy, professional and dare I say it? Fun.

See the red flags in your career before they knock you over in the middle of an interview. Name the reasons you got to this stage, because if they remain the elephant in the room they will become barriers to your success in your job hunt. We will talk later about fear in your job hunt, and ways to overcome your fears. Very often, there are pieces in your past that are haunting you. We want to crush those fears and free you to go get what you want in your next job.

Are you unemployed, and embarrassed to tell anyone about it?

There is no shame in being unemployed! According to multiple long-term studies, the average American will change jobs every 4.6 years. The days of the 30-year career are gone, and yes: layoffs do happen to good people! You are not alone! I challenge you to find someone who has not changed jobs, or been laid off in the last 10-20 years. Then send that person to us so we can help them prepare for it!

So ... why did you really leave?

Let's start with something easy: which of the following situations best describes why you are looking for something new? 

  1. I got laid off
  2. I got fired
  3. I wanted to make more money
  4. I didn't like my boss
  5. I didn't like the job 
  • I hated the job duties
  • No tools or resources
  • I was bored 
  • There was no training when I need it
  1. I didn't like the company leadership/vision 
  • I could not see where the company was going
  • Priorities were constantly shifting
  • I was not part of the company’s strategy and vision
  • Communication was unreliable or nonexistent
  1. I didn't like the company culture
  • I was not appreciated or recognized
  • I could not see any career growth opportunities
  • There was no teamwork or collaboration
  1. Compensation
  • I felt I was underpaid
  • There was a salary freeze
  • My company had a 3% cap on salary increases
  1. Perceived or real company instability
  • I was concerned about a lay-off
  • My job was going away (merger/downsizing)
  1. Other: ______________________________________

Going through this exercise may uncover some real challenges for you to think about. The Name Your Fears section is a great place to work through these challenges and learn about appropriate ways to handle them. For instance, if you have been laid off twice in the last three years, you may be terrified about explaining it. In that section, I share a story about someone who had to handle that very fear.

Did you get laid off? 

If you got laid off, hear this: it is not your fault. So, let go of your shame around that. Layoffs are extremely common, and they dig deep into the fabric of talented employees. It is a rare person who will not experience a layoff in his or her career.

Did you get fired?

If you got fired, listen carefully to me. You were in the wrong job. People do not get fired from jobs they love. They get fired from jobs that are a really bad fit for them. Then, rather than quit when they should, they stay and try to make it work and end up either outright misbehaving or taking a slow and painful road to getting fired.

If you got fired, you need to get very honest with yourself about why and how. The employer may have behaved badly, but chances are good that you did, too. Ignoring this, and hoping nobody asks you "why did you leave that job?" is a recipe for disaster. 

What to say if you got fired:

If you got fired, you need to be ready to talk about it. My advice: craft your story in two to three layers. Share your first layer and hope they move on to the next question. Most people will. If they push you for details (some will), be ready with your second layer of your story. Here's an example:

Steve's story: From the #1 sales guy to fired because he didn't like the new management style

Steve was the #1 sales guy at his company, but he got fired anyway because he started challenging new management on a regular basis. For three years, he loved his job. He made a ton of money for the company ($8 million per year) and for himself (over $200,000). As they grew larger, they saw the need for a new role: VP of Sales. Steve had spent three years doing whatever he wanted, and he did not like the new management style. In fact, he hated it and he pushed back on everything the new boss told him to do. He thought that, as the top performer in the company, he could get away with it. He was wrong. He should have looked for a new job and left on his own. Instead, he started acting badly (mouthing off in meetings and refusing to do the data entry). He got fired. 

After looking really honestly at what happened, Steve crafted this story to share:

STORY LAYER ONE: "I'm a hunter. I absolutely love breaking into new markets and building millions of dollars in revenue in a short amount of time. I have never really liked the farming side of things ... managing an account once I've locked it in. I loved that job for three years. We were growing like mad, and they needed my kind of sales skills. Once they got to a stable size and needed more account management, it wasn't much fun for me anymore. That's why I am so excited to talk to you about your position. If I have heard you correctly, you're looking for someone to carve out a new niche for you. I'm the guy for that. I absolutely love creating something wonderful out of nothing."

Occasionally, people do dig deeper (ask more questions) to discover if he got fired or not. However, it's rare. I'll be honest with you: once he figured out how to talk about it clearly, concisely and with a smile on his face, most people left it at that and moved on to their next question without digging. When people do push him for the full story, this is what Steve says: 

STORY LAYER TWO: "I was really unhappy. I should have left on my own. Unfortunately, I didn't. I stayed and challenged the new leadership model. It was a really painful lesson, and I will not handle things that way ever again." No excuses. He takes full accountability for his actions, and then explains why that won't happen again. 

Remember: The more you pay attention to who you are and what you want, the faster you’ll get hired. So do not avoid this tough stuff. 

Evaluate company culture before you take a new job

Moving forward, it's important to take a close look at company culture, job duties, and other “happiness at work” factors to make sure you pick a job that is right for you. Start thinking about what a great company culture would be for you and how you will know it when you see it.

Now that you have identified what has brought you here, pay attention to those things as you move through this process, and as you look for a new job.

Okay! You are now ready to get started on your hunt for a terrific new job. Let’s go!