Chances are that this will be asked sooner rather than later in your next interview. It’s a natural and obvious query, especially if you left your last job without having a new one. Here are some pointers based on different situations.
Layoff. This is the easiest of the bunch, especially if the job loss happened because your employer failed or shrunk. I recently worked with a client who was caught in the 6,000 person layoff from BlackBerry maker Research in Motion. If this is your situation, no worries! Tell the story in a sentence or two. Then describe how you can apply what you learned in your last job to help your new employer. If it was a large layoff – either in absolute numbers or as a percentage of the company workforce – tell the numbers. 6,000 is a big number. 10 is a big number, too, if the company only had 18 people.
You Quit – Personal/Medical. People quit for many reasons. Family and medical issues, spouse’s job change, changes in family status (e.g. divorce) and other personal reasons are all drivers in the decision to leave. If this is your story, tell the truth, but be brief.
Here is an example of what to say: “I had to deal with some medical issues in my family that required full-time attention. That is now behind me and I am ready to focus my energies on my career once again.” Note how this positions your story. You are telling the interviewer that there was a medical (or family) issue, but you are not saying that it was you. A professional interviewer will take that answer and move on.
Here’s what not to say: “I was diagnosed with cancer and when through six months of radiation and chemo treatments.” Do not share these details! Your interviewer does not need to know and you do not need to share.
Be concise. Be brief. Keep it high-level. The more detail you are giving, the worse you are doing.
You Quit – It was the Job/Boss. This will require some creative thinking, with the requirement that you do not lie. Employers dig and dig, checking with your references and reviewing social media. Have you ever complained about your boss or job on Facebook, your blog, LinkedIn or in some other public forum? If so, you have to assume that the employer has already seen it. Deal with it.
Did you outgrow the position? Were you being challenged and allowed to contribute to your potential? If not, these are valid reasons for seeking other opportunities. Try this: “I realized that I had developed to the point that I needed to seek opportunities that were not available in that company. Rather than trying to find a new job while being employed there, something that would have distracted me and would have been unfair to the company, I decided to leave and launch a full-time search for my next position where I can contribute my best every day.” You will have to put this is your own words, of course, but this should give you a launching point for your thoughts.
Was your boss a jerk? Keep it to yourself. Never speak poorly of your past company or the people, no matter how much you may want to.
You Were Fired. If you were fired for performance, you are going to have to do some work. Is it possible that your performance suffered because of one of the issues above? If so, maybe you need to think about the experience, how your personal issues may have contributed to your termination, and what you learned from it. Guess what? People who have been fired find jobs. The trick is to learn from the negative experience, reflect upon the situation and what you did or didn’t do that led to that outcome, and what you can do differently in the future.
Here is one possible answer. “My performance was not what it should have been as I was dealing with some family/personal concerns. Frankly, I don’t blame the company for letting me go. I am happy to say that all of that is behind me, I learned a great deal from it, and I am excited to get back to work.”
Don’t forget that your whole career is much more than your most recent experience. If you had a solid history before, use that. “My most recent position was a stretch that didn’t end the way that I wanted, but I learned from it and have so much to offer from my entire career, including promotions and career advancement. Let’s talk about how I can contribute and make a difference here.”
In the end, you have to decide on the story you will tell and the words that will sound best.
Finally, keep smiling and answer the questions honestly and directly. You can anticipate these questions, so you must prepare and practice your answers. Preparation will keep your stress under control and you will seem more confident to the interviewer. Be ready!
Here are other useful interview question articles. Good luck in your search!
Awareness & Adaptability: Be ready to pivot. Know your stories.
Question 1: Tell Me About Yourself
Question 2: Why Do You Want to Work Here?
Question 3: Tell Me About Your Greatest Accomplishment
Question 4: When Have You Failed?