No matter why you left your last job (or why you're planning to leave your current job), the most important thing to remember when answering this question in an interview is: stay positive.
Below, you'll find a few general categories that your response to this particular question may fall into, and based on that, further advice on how to answer in an honest, productive, and positive way.
You left your last job because of work-related issues
There are plenty of reasons why you may have left your last job. Perhaps you're escaping a toxic workplace, you no longer feel connected to the mission of the organization, or you feel that you've plateaued professionally.
To answer this question in a positive way while also staying true to yourself, take the opportunity to highlight your professional needs (and how they went unmet at your previous job) without getting caught up in the specifics. Here is an example of what you could say:
"Communication is incredibly important to me and while I really enjoyed my last job, after [X YEARS], the quality of communication with my former supervisor was never quite what I wanted it to be."
Once you have broached the subject, be prepared for a follow-up question; a good interviewer will go after some details. If you left your last job only after trying to address the issue that led to your ultimate resignation, highlight that in your follow-up. This is a great chance to show your interviewer that while you may have been dissatisfied, you didn't throw in the towel too soon, nor were you complacent.
"The biggest pain point was communication between me and my supervisor. While I did try to address the issue by scheduling a formal meeting and suggesting a new weekly check-in format for us as well as inviting his feedback on how I can improve my own communication style, it didn't improve. Ideally, I would like to have a mentor and a champion in my supervisor. I decided that for me, the issue was a dealbreaker."
Pro Tip: Not only should you strive for honesty and authenticity in your interview because it's the right thing to do, it's also in your best interest. You should take every reasonable opportunity to truthfully represent what you're looking for in a job, a team, and an organization.
You left your last job because of personal issues
If something came up in your personal life that made your last job untenable—schedule change, relocation, illness, or an ill relative—be honest. You don't want to hide the truth until the 11th hour only to learn that whatever obstacle caused you to leave your last job—no remote work, inflexible hours, etc.—is also an issue at this new job.
In addition to honesty, it's important that you make a connection to the organization. After all, if an interviewer asks, "Why do you want to work here?" you wouldn't say, "To pay my bills." Similarly, when an interviewer asks, "Why are you looking for a new job?" you don't want to answer, "Because I hate my commute." Instead, remember to speak to the specific job or organization. Here's an example of what you could say:
"Later this year, I'll be moving further from the city. While I really love the work and the mission, after [X YEARS] at my last job, I decided that I needed to find something that I love just as much, but that doesn't require such a grueling commute. While it was bittersweet to leave, I'm also looking at my move as a great opportunity to connect with a new mission and reenergize my interest in and commitment to the sector."
In other words, you don't want to say that you're looking for a new job strictly for the sake of convenience. Don't forget to let the interviewer know that you're interested in this specific job.
You left your last job involuntarily
This situation is a bit more complicated, and depending on the specifics, it will likely be very difficult to cast it in a positive light. If you were fired or let go from your last job, be honest about the reasons why. Lying here could be grounds for immediate dismissal should you get an offer based on a dishonest response and have your employer find out about it later.
Of course, there are ways to honestly represent the reason you were let go while also doing your best to inspire confidence in your ability and commitment to the work. We'll get into more detail on this final category in a future post, so stay tuned.
Get more tips from our Interview Q&A series.
What interview question stumps you every time? Tweet at us or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll do our best to walk you through the perfect format for a killer response!
As the Associate Director of Marketing and Communications at Idealist and a lifelong nonprofit professional, Alexis offers job seekers, game changers, and do gooders actionable tips, career resources, and social-impact advice.