How to Explain Why You Left

August 27, 2010 at 11:49 am Leave a comment

The question will inevitably come up — in different forms and at different times in a job search — and you should consider your answer well in advance: Just why did you leave that job? This is especially true when a hiring manager suspects a layoff, buyout or firing but they sometimes ask it in the case of a short-time stint, seemingly lateral move or when you left a prestigious-sounding job or workplace for something else.

Hiring experts give two pieces of advice here: Don’t address the issue yourself  but when they bring it up, give a solid, honest, makes-sense-to-me reason for your exit. Defensiveness will make them question you as a candidate but highlighting this can also hurt your chances of being considered for a position.

Here’s some specific tips for handling the question of why you left a previous job:

*Don’t bring it up — especially in the case of a layoff or firing — early in the process. Your resume and cover letter are no place for explaining the reasons for your previous moves or for why you are looking for a job now. You should be pitching your skills, experience and talents, and in the cover letter indicating your interest in this organization and position. Announcing a layoff — even when it clearly had nothing to do with your performance, such as when a company or division has been sold — may give them pause and won’t get you to the next phase of hiring. Instead, wait until they bring it up in an interview to explain.

*Provide the context. When asked why you left your previous job, you should give a straightforward, brief, businesslike answer — for instance, “My division was reorganized and my position was cut. I was offered another job with less responsibility in the company but I opted to take a buyout instead” — that doesn’t portray you in a bad light. Yet it’s important to provide the context so that they have the whole picture. For instance, if they ask why you left a job covering a good beat on a well-respected newspaper for a position in another city, you can say: “I had long wanted to be an editor, and this gave me an opportunity to break into editing. I also had been with my newspaper for a long time and wanted some experience with another news organization. There were also family reasons for the move.” This way you’re not saying you left a job because of a spouse’s move — though that’s part of the reason — but you are providing the full context for why you moved on.

*Avoid going on the defensive. There is nothing to be gained by playing defense, even if the hiring manager seems to be cross-examining you a bit in going through your resume and the choices you made in steering your career path. Again, answer questions in a straightforward fashion and try to provide the information they need so your moves don’t raise a red flag, but don’t ramble and don’t apologize. You may have made choices that they would not have but they were your choices — own them.

*Don’t blame yourself or others. Unless you have been fired for cause and must give a full explanation for it (as they’ll find out anyway), there is no reason to accept blame for a layoff or buyout. Instead, when asked give the business reasons — such as a reorganization, sale, losses, whatever — for the cuts. Be unemotional in your response. And be careful not to blame your bosses or the management at your previous company (even if they deserve it) for losing your job; this could backfire badly, even if the hiring manager appears sympathetic. No one likes to hear a former boss being blamed — that could lead the hiring manager to wonder what you may say about them in the future if you were to join this organization.

*Some very good news today on which to end the week — Maryann Haggerty, who has been a great contributor to dcworks, will be starting a new job Monday in D.C. as managing director at the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, the bipartisan panel set up to the examine the causes of the financial crisis. It will be a six-month assignment, as the commission faces a deadline for its report, and she says, “it promises to be absolutely fascinating.” Maryann, a long-time Washington Post writer and editor who took a buyout in 2009, has been happily freelancing and traveling since leaving daily journalism. When asked for some advice for others who are looking for their “next chapter,” Maryann responded:  “Let’s see. Useful advice? A situation like this would NOT be for everyone. It would be VERY bad for someone who requires a stable situation and dreads the thought of starting the hunt all over again in six months. Those same factors that allowed me to consider full-time freelancing put me in a place where I could consider this. (Those include a tight grasp on the household budget and a husband with big-company health insurance.) But after a very long time with one employer, I wanted the opportunity to experiment with some different things. It looks like I found one!” Indeed. And good food for thought. Congratulations and best of luck in this position to Maryann!

*Please continue to send along word of those in the dcworks community landing jobs, temporary positions or good freelance or contract work….Success breeds success!

*And with Monday’s blog, dcworks will be moving to a new URL and will have a whole new look and new features…I hope you’ll all like it. It will migrate (not on its own, unfortunately, if only I could wave a magic wand!) to its new URL home over the weekend and I’ll provide information about that here and on Facebook and LinkedIn, so look for the change. (And if you can’t find it, send me an email at, and I’ll send you a link.)

*Now, for some good leads to end this work week:

*The Save Darfur Coalition in D.C. is looking for a senior director of communications:

Senior Director of Communications
Save Darfur Coalition – Washington, DC
outreach and other communications activities and will… and advocacy communications for issues, people/candidates or causes; • Exceptional communication skills…

*Bloomberg News has a big batch of openings in D.C. in its Bloomberg Government (BGOV) operation for writers, editors and managers including this one for a product director:

Product Director – Industry
Bloomberg – Washington, DC
and market data, pricing, trading, news and communications tools to corporations, news organizations… written and oral communication skills to effectively…
From Bloomberg

*PBS in Arlington has several openings, including for a director of executive communications:
Director – Executive Communications
PBS – Arlington, VA
TITLE: Director, Executive Communications DEPARTMENT: Corporate Communications STATUS: Full-time/Active… and other executive communications. ESSENTIAL DUTIES…
From PBS

*The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants in D.C. is looking for a tax communications manager — this might be worth considering for a financial journalist with knowledge of the tax world who is looking to make a career switch:

Tax Communications Manager
American Institute of Certified Public Accountants – Washington, DC
communications plan are met. The Tax Communications… overall tax communications strategy and tax communications plan Coordinate multiple communication team…
From CareerBuilder

*UnitedHealth Group has an opening in D.C. for a senior director of public policy communications:

Senior Director of Public Policy Communications – Washington, D.C.
UnitedHealth Group – Washington, DC
Use strong verbal communications skills to position… actively in the Corporate Communications department meetings and Communications Council Embody and…
From UnitedHealth Group

*Smart Growth America in D.C. has a six-month, full-time opening (which could lead to a permanent job) for a communications fellow, who will report to the group’s chief of staff:
COMMUNICATIONS ASSOCIATE, SMART GROWTH AMERICA   Smart Growth America is seeking an enthusiastic candidate for a wide range of communications work to support a national communications effort on smart growth issues and organize and engage with supporters on and offline. This position requires comprehensive knowledge of website maintenance, HTML, CSS, knowledge of traditional and new media, and is a fantastic opportunity for an individual looking for on the ground experience.   Tasks will range from writing compelling content about our issues, using social networking tools and non-traditional media outlets, engaging online supporters through e-advocacy, working with our advocacy toolkit (Democracy in Action), supporting report releases and stories, and promoting regular blog coverage of smart growth issues.   The Communications Fellow will work in the Washington, D.C. office of Smart Growth America and will report to the Chief of Staff. This is a full-time fellowship for a minimum of six-months. This position may lead to permanent employment at SGA.

A successful applicant will have experience with the following: * Writing about growth, housing, transportation, equity, sustainability or other key issues, and an understanding of how to discuss these issues with the public. * Experience with Customer Relationship Management (CRM) tools like Salesforce or Convio. Experience working with Content Management System (CMS) is a plus too. * Drafting or working with e-advocacy alerts — drafting compelling messages, setting them up and tracking participation. Hands-on experience with Democracy in Action is a significant plus. * Knowledge of new media, social tools and online organizing. Experience with WordPress and working knowledge of HTML and CSS. PhP is a plus, as it’s the language WordPress is written in.

Compensation: The Fellowship comes with a stipend of $1,500 per month. In addition, he or she will receive 6 days of paid sick leave or vacation per six months and will have paid leave on all federal holidays that occur within their tenure at SGA.   How to apply: To be considered for this position, please submit application materials to A complete application will include: 1) resume, 2) cover letter, 3) three references, and 4) short writing sample (not to exceed two pages). Resumes will be accepted until the position is filled. Job is available immediately.

*And to wrap up today’s leads, the National Press Foundation (NPF) in D.C. has an opening for a (paid!) fall intern:

NPF seeks an undergraduate student with an interest in non-profits, journalism, international affairs, and event planning to join NPF for the Fall 2010 Semester. Duties will include implementing professional development programs for U.S. and international journalists, helping with the Annual Awards Dinner, and more. More info is available here.

Happy hunting and have a great, relaxing weekend! (Take at least one day completely off!)



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