Everything you didn't learn in school that will help you survive the world of work. A place for newbies, for working moms, for seasoned professionals and "free agents" to share strategies, tips and tales from the trenches.

Mar 30, 2011

Ask a Manager: Why did you leave your previous job?

The Finishing School welcomes our guest manager,  "Miranda Bailey," to respond to a recent Ask the Manager question.

Note:  some facts in the letter below have been omitted or altered to obscure the workplace.  The letter is otherwise genuine. 
 Hi there,
Came across your web page and "ask a manager" section particularly interested me.
Here's my query: hope I get some guidance.

An overview to my profile:
I am an MBA graduate.
An HR professional (Based abroad)
I've worked for 5 yrs with mostly start-up organizations. Throughout my career I made sure that I give my best to the organizations (for which I did win loads of accolades as well).
To the best of my knowledge, I've always had positive feedback about my work and personality.

The situation:
I got married in 2008; due to demands at home my work suffered and I was fired (without any prior warning). The markets crashed soon after and unemployment prevailed for most of the year in 2009.  By the time the markets got greener for jobs, I got pregnant and had to continue staying at home.

My child is 6 months old now. I am ready to work now.

I am not clearing any interviews in spite of most interviews having indicated good outcome.
Most difficult questions/situations interviewers present me with are :
•why a junior position if I apply for non senior positions (after being a senior manager) ;
•why did you leave your previous job ?(gets tricky if I tell them the truth and will get messy if they find out that I was fired!).
•Some state I am too qualified to start off again at a junior position.
•Could it be possible that my previous employers are giving a negative feedback. (Is it possible that a company reference checks with my previous employers without my knowledge? )

Kindly help.
Dear Reader,
As we say in the service business, you are only as strong as your last encounter.  It can be difficult  to bounce back from a termination, though you say you are “ready to work.”  Let’s see if we can emphasize this aspect of your candidacy in your next round of interviews.
Let them Ask
In this market, of course, most candidates are more than ready to work, and many are laid off from senior high-paying roles and competing for junior positions.  You have your work cut out for you.  The market also works in your favor in one way: most candidates have a gap between their most recent employment and the present day.  You may have the advantage in some cases of being assumed laid off, rather than terminated, and you are under no obligation to reveal that in an interview.

When the question arises, meet it honestly.  You may even use it as a selling point.

Never Stop Learning
 Like most interview questions, “Why did you leave your last position” is only partly about what you answer.  It is mostly about how you answer.  Your letter reveals some interesting opportunities:  you recognize where you were stumbling professionally, and though your termination came “without prior warning,” you also know that your work suffered.  
Now is your opportunity to do some hard reflecting on how that happened, and how you might have done things differently.  Work on a simple statement that acknowledges the cause, your role in it, and what you learned from it. End your statement with a question that gives the interviewer the chance to say something positive.  
Like this: “A project I was handling missed a key milestone.  I thought I had it under control, so I hadn’t escalated my concerns to management.  Does your company provide the kind of collaboration that would help resolve scheduling conflicts with projects?”  A savvy recruiter or hiring manager may throw it back to you, “So you were terminated?”  And you can say, regretfully, “I learned so much from that experience.  I realize how it important it is to look for obstacles much farther ahead than I had been.  For example….” 
If this is also a situation where you are applying for a role junior to one you held before, or seem more naturally qualified for, you can also add, “I may not have been ready for that level.  In my current job search, I am looking for opportunities to refine my current skills and better prepare myself to return to the senior role.”  Again, a question back keeps the conversation flowing in a feel-good direction.  “Can you tell me about professional training or mentor opportunities in your organization?”
Bad Blood
 You suggest that your previous employer is giving negative feedback, and perhaps they are.  In most industries, a simple verification of employment is all that previous employers will offer, though they may add that you were dismissed.  Chances are,  they are not saying much more than that.  As much as we talk about the “permanent record,” most HR files I have seen, including my own, contain very little information about the employee’s actual work.

I was once surprised to be listed as a reference for an employee I had terminated.  It had been years before, it was for cause, and with warning... and I bore no grudge.  I gave the HR screener who called me all the positive feedback I could about the candidate’s skills and talents.  And I did say, “You should know that I did terminate 'Isabel,' though it was many years ago.  You may want to ask her about time management and meeting performance goals, which had given her difficulty.  I expect she has developed since then and has some strong ideas about how to help others with that challenge.”  

Keep Practicing 
Let’s take a look at those interviews you have had which seemed to be going well, but did not yield a job offer.  Identify 1 or 2 where you felt like you had strong rapport with your interviewer and contact them for feedback.  This takes courage, and humility, and you need to be careful not to put your contact on the defensive, or suggest in any way why they didn’t offer you their job.  You want to network with them as you would any contact.  Learn what they saw as your strengths, and what they suggest as areas for improvement in your credentials and/or your interview.  See our earlier post about networking for guidelines on approaching contacts.  Consider taking a coaching session at your local career office, unemployment center, or networking group.  
Better References
 And continue working, in whatever way you can.  Volunteer work, contract/freelance opportunities, and part-time gigs keep your skills fresh and your energy up.  Most importantly for you, they build new references, who can counter any negative feedback you may still be receiving from your previous employer.

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