It’s a common fact – Companies hire people and companies fire people during periods of economic boom and economic bust. One interview question that will probably come up is, “Why did you leave your last position?” Rather than squirm in your seat while you figure out how to discuss your involuntary separation, think through your answer in advance so you can provide the right response for the situation.

Regardless as to WHY you were involuntarily separated (i.e. fired, let go, terminated, downsized, etc.) from your last employer, answering the question, “Why did you leave your last position?” will likely be uncomfortable at best. A simple rule to follow is to keep it brief, keep it positive, and share something you learned throughout the process. The best thing to do following an involuntary separation is to stay busy by enrolling in a class, networking with business groups, and/or volunteering your time with a local organization while you seek a new job. These strategies provide a platform for learning and skill building. It’s essential to demonstrate personal and professional growth through these experiences and share that during an interview.

Company RIF, downsizing, reorganization, or layoff

The largest overhead expense that impacts most companies’ bottom lines is employee compensation. Reducing human capital is the fastest way a company can cut costs and save money. Whether you use the term layoff, downsizing, or RIF, the result is the same; you lost your job and were involuntarily separated.

Here are a few ways you can respond to the question, “Why did you leave your last job?”

EXAMPLE:

  • RIF the Company decided to close down an entire division, which impacted 15% of its workforce across North America. Unfortunately, I was one of those people. I’ve had time to re-assess my strengths, skills, and interests and I recently enrolled in a class…have been studying independently…took a workshop…(fill in with something you did to learn something new).
  • Downsizing or Reorganization The Company reorganized, shifted some responsibilities to another division, and upgraded their technology to automate other processes. They eliminated about 8% of the workforce. While looking for work, I’ve been volunteering with a local nonprofit and assisting with various organizational needs. (If you can share a story about how your volunteer work has positively impacted the employees, other volunteers, or people the agency services, this is a good place to share it.)
  • Temporary Lay Off A lot of the work I performed was seasonally based. I typically would find other work to do in the off-season, then, go back when things picked up, but I’ve realized that I need to find something more stable.
  • Permanent Lay off Over the last year, the company took a hard look at its organizational structure. The last thing they wanted to do was eliminate jobs, but it was a small company and I was one of 6 people who were let go. One thing I’ve learned through this process is to make myself less expendable and take more responsibility to invest in my career and myself. I recently enrolled in a class…have been studying independently…took a workshop…(fill in with something you did to learn something new)

If you were fired or terminated from your last position, it’s best to talk about the situation positively as a learning experience. If your departure was somewhat amicable due to the position not being a good fit, a lack of communication over job responsibilities, or failure to recognize warning signs during the interview process, it’s best to talk about it from a “sadder but wiser” perspective. When possible, sandwich your response between two positive statements.

A few answers that you can provide:

  • Philosophical difference or bad fit When I was originally hired as the (fill in job title) the description and expectations of the job were very different from the job that I actually ended up doing. It was apparent from the start that there were some communication problems and philosophical differences, and I struggled early on. My supervisor and I realized that it wasn’t the right fit for either one of us, and fortunately it was a cordial departure. Since then I’ve done some volunteer work, clarified my own professional goals and expectations, and worked on improving my communication skills.
  • Bad work environment I’m able to work independently with little supervision, and I work best in an environment when I understand what the expectations are. Even if the routine changes, if you tell me what I need to do differently, I’m happy to oblige. The nature of the work I was doing in my last position didn’t suit my strengths. There was little direction from the supervisor, tasks were not thoroughly explained, and it seemed like the place was in a constant state of flux, so things didn’t go well. What I’ve learned from that experience is to try to ask more questions, clarify the expectations, and try to make sure that I have the information I need in order to do a good job.

One of the primary rules to keep in mind when interviewing following an involuntary separation is to keep things positive. The interview is not a time to share grievances or speak disparagingly against an employer. When it’s time to respond to the “Why did you leave your last job?” question, take a deep breath, be brief, answer the question, and stay positive.