Why did you voluntarily leave your last job

Can be a very tricky question, and remember, lying isn't an option. If you left because of a dispute or were fired, see our terminations question.

If, however, you left voluntarily, it's a matter of explaining your position, and your logic to the interviewers.

Employers aren't really being nosy with this question; they need to know.

After all, if you were hiring someone, and they'd just left a job, (particularly one similar to the one you're offering them) it'd be relevant to know if they were likely to do the same thing in this job, wouldn't it?

It's a form of self defence for employers to understand the work history of their employees. With this particular question, you can also be sure they'll also ask your references.

The question has to be answered so that it doesn't generate any more questions, or raise doubts about your suitability. The answer should be irrefutable, and very straightforward.

DON'TS (And we mean DON'T)

  • DON'TS talk about personalities, people problems, fights on the job, or other turnoffs. It can sound like you're more trouble than you're worth.
  • DON'TS get argumentative about your reasons for leaving, or create further issues in the interview.
  • DON'TS sound unreasonable, or emotional. However infuriating the reason was, stick to interview standards.
  • DON'TS get too casual about it. Meaning make it obvious it was a big move, something you had to think about, which is what it should have been. Make it clear that you left because it was your decision, and back up the decision.

Interviewers don't like the idea they're listening to a made up story about something that didn't happen. Particularly not on this subject. They will have had staff leave on them, too, and some not on good terms. The previous person in the job you're after could have left in bad circumstances. You could be treading on a lot of toes all at once, so be careful. It's a quick way of killing off the interview, from their point of view.

If you sound any less than 100% on this topic, it will be a problem for you.

The real issue is your actual reason for leaving.

It was probably good enough for you at the time, but how does it look now?

The basic reasons for leaving jobs are:

  • I needed some real career opportunities that job just couldn't provide.
  • At my age I've been getting worried about what I can do to get my career moving. I felt I was losing time and couldn't really look for the right jobs while I was working there, so I took the initiative and left.
  • Personal and family commitments made it impossible to continue in that job after they made changes to my hours.
  • I wanted to make use of my skills and training, and that job was in the wrong area to do that. (This reason can also be obvious from your CV, so it's always worth pointing that out if the reason for leaving comes up.)
  • Combinations of these reasons.

These are standard, and acceptable, reasons. As you can see, the logic is pretty simple, a straightforward approach.

You'll also notice that these answers are at least part of your reason for leaving. They almost always are, because the real motives for leaving a job are invariably in self interest.

The interviewers have to tell the employer what your reasons were, too.

It's part of the process of recommending someone for a job that all this information is made available to the employer, who'll check it all out before approving the appointment.

Important: This question is dangerous

It's quite normal for people to be evasive answering this particular question. Most interviewers expect people to give convenient, rather than real, answers. It's so easy to make a complete mess of your interview doing that we need to make a few points:

  • You're going on record as giving your reasons for leaving.
  • You're employed on the basis of the information you give your new employer.
  • If you provide false or misleading information, the employer is under no obligations to you.

That's one of the reasons we say lying isn't an option. The new employer can ring the old one, and if told you were fired, you're history, unless your references can back you up, or you have evidence of leaving voluntarily.

Never make up stories in job interviews.

Personalizing your answer

When giving your answer, you'll find you can use at least part of one of the standard answers, but you'll also have some other good reasons of your own.

Career opportunities

This is one of the reasons 30% of the US workforce is on the move at any given time, and job dissatisfaction is based on a real lack of opportunities.

What you have going for you here is that your interviewers are in your industry. They will recognize a lousy job, which really can't deliver on career prospects for you, and one they'd agree isn't where you want to be.

So you explain:

There were no promotional opportunities, no real chance to get any of the higher skills I need to progress in the industry. The boss said he just didn't have anything he could give me which could help me in that regard.

I didn't like the idea of being unemployed, but I couldn't really pretend to myself that I was getting anywhere. I decided I could either go and do a degree, or get a much better job where I could develop my career and progress naturally, getting the experience as well.

Which, obviously, is also one of the main reasons you're applying for the job. This answer will stand up well if the previous job was clearly a dead end.

Personal and family commitments

A difficult, but sometimes very important, and self explanatory, answer.

I couldn't in all conscience continue in that job, because it was making a real mess of my other commitments. I tried to reshape my hours, and reschedule myself, but it was quite impossible.

The commuting really came unstuck, and I was picking up the kids and my mother hours late. I was really worried that I was letting them down, and my boss couldn't do much about giving me different hours, because we had to work 9-5.One of the reasons this job is so appealing is that those problems just won't arise.

Nothing less than the truth, and in most countries parents are legally obliged to ensure their kids are in care. This applicant obviously had a real problem, and had the sense to mention that the current job doesn't have those worries.

Skills and training

This can be a critical issue. It is a perfectly legitimate reason for leaving a job. When you know that your career is on hold in a job, particularly if you're highly qualified, the job can be a liability.

Your careers need to see your circumstances, though. Explain, clearly, why you couldn't continue in that position. The answer is much like the Career Opportunities answer above, but you'll have to be specific about what skills you need.

You also have to relate the skills and training you need to the new job.

The logic is to equate the new job with your needs.

Show that the skills and experience you'll get with the new job are what's needed.

Combinations of reasons

In combination, these reasons are persuasive, and reasonable, in context with your personal situation.

The most important point about your answer is that it is understandable to the interviewers, and can be seen as a valid reason/reasons for leaving.