Easing the exit: A guide to articulating your career change in an interview

Feb 13, 2023

4 mins

Easing the exit: A guide to articulating your career change in an interview

What it means to work somewhere for “a long time” has shifted dramatically over the decades. While previous generations held the same job for most—if not all—of their working life, in today’s workforce, just a few years can feel like forever.

Or around four years, to be exact. According to a 2022 summary from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the overall median employee tenure is 4.3 years for men and 3.9 years for women. And it seems to be younger generations skewing those numbers toward a lower tenure: workers aged55 to 64 have a median tenure of 9.8 years, which is more than three times that of workers aged 25 to 34 (2.8 years).

Despite switching careers being more common and normal than ever (thanks to the Great Resignation), many are still often faced with the question, “Why do you want to leave your current job?” during the interview process. Maybe the reason you want to leave is as simple as you’re looking for a new challenge or a change. But what if the actual situation is a bit more personal? If you’re leaving because of a toxic work environment, low salary, or workplace conflict, is honesty the best policy?

Kori Burkholder, a Career Coach for young professionals based in New York City, explains the best approach to answering this question in an interview so that you don’t get stumped and potentially slip up in the moment.

What’s an interviewer really asking when they want to know why you want to leave your current job?

There’s an intention behind why a recruiter or hiring manager would ask this question, and it’s not just to be nosy.

Whatever your reason for leaving—whether it’s a personal situation or professionally inclined—the question aims to assess further if the position is right for you. “What the interviewer wants to determine is what you are leaving behind and understand your career goals to see if the role and company will be a good fit,” says Burkholder.

So before you answer, reframe the question within the current context. Remember that it’s not actually about you and your reasons for leaving; it’s about how those reasons impact the role and company you’re hoping to work for.

How honest should you be when answering why you want to leave your current job?

There’s a fine line between getting real about your personal needs and how your professional life impacts those, especially when you’re trying to sell yourself to a new employer. As Burkholder points out, “Even if your reason for leaving is a personal issue, spin it toward the professional.”

Your personal experience matters, so you don’t want to abandon it entirely, lest you risk going through the same situation again. By keeping it strictly professional, you might not make your expectations regarding things like workplace culture and work-life balance known. Striking the right balance between the two is key.

Burkholder gives the following example: “If the reason you are leaving is that there is a lack of work-life balance, you have no time for friends and family, and it’s impacting your health and well-being, talk about how you appreciate a company culture that values family, balance, and other matching values.” By doing so, you’re setting the tone for your expectationswithout coming across as demanding or exigent.

The best way to answer why you want to leave your job

Your best bet for answering why you want to leave your current job: keep your focus on the future. Prioritize the position you’re interviewing for and the direction you want to go in, not your present situation or things that have happened in the past. Instead of answering this question by talking about your current job, use your experience to explain what you want (like growth, leadership opportunities, team, mentorship, changing careers, learning a new skill, etc.) and how that ties into the prospective role.

Burkholder explains that you can find clever ways of saying how you feel without making it about anyone or anything else. “Suppose you want to leave because of a bad boss who micromanages and has caused you to lose confidence in yourself and your abilities,” she says. “In that case, you could say that you thrive under a ‘coaching’ management style and are looking for a team that values autonomy. Or, if you were overlooked for a promotion, you could say there is a lack of growth opportunities, and you are looking to gain new skills and knowledge in a certain area.” Being able to phrase your reasoning in a diplomatic and non-aggressive form will not only help you answer the question, but the recruiter should be able to read between the lines and will appreciate your way of approaching negative situations—i.e. the fact that you’re not bad-mouthing your current employer, no matter how unpleasant the situation may be.

Ultimately, your answer should be geared toward your next move. “Don’t nitpick about what you don’t like about the job you are trying to leave,” Burkholder states. “Instead, look ahead to the exciting opportunity and choose something specific that lights you up about the new role, company, or team.”

Key takeaways: how to explain why you want to leave your current job in an interview

Rather than getting stumped and red-faced next time an interviewer asks why you’re leaving your job, here’s what Burkholder suggests to provide the answer they want to hear:

  • Avoid talking badly about other people. It’s age-old advice: if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. “Talking badly about your coworkers, team, the company, or boss could reflect badly back on you,” Burkholder confirms. Involving other people in your story could be a strike against you regarding how you’ll get along with your new teammates and fit in with the company culture. Keep others out of it.
  • Focus on what you’re looking for next. Reframe your reason as one that isn’t trying to escape your current situation; you’re looking for your next opportunity. This will reaffirm your interest in the role and show that you’re growth-oriented.
  • Spin what you want to leave behind into a positive. Even if there are sour feelings in your current job that led you to want to find a new one, find creative ways to turn them into lessons and optimism. You don’t have a “bad boss”; you’ve discovered what leadership style works best for you. Instead of feeling burnt out by too many responsibilities, you’ve realized that you value working for a company with a healthy work-life balance.
  • Tie your experience into the new role. Bring it back to the objective. Make a connection between your ambitions, the position you’re interviewing for, and why you feel this is a perfect match. If it’s not, at least you’ve been clear about your expectations, making it easier for everyone involved to determine if the job is right for you.

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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