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Best Practices for Job Seekers

Dear David,

I’ve been looking for a job for over two months now, and I think one of my main problems is answering the question, “Why did you leave your last position?” I resigned, but felt forced to because of a toxic environment following my reporting of sexual harassment by my boss. For the first time in my thirty-four-year career, I was suddenly being written up repeatedly. Still, despite letters of support by other supervisors, the bad behavior by my boss continued. Human resources was no help, so I left. It is difficult to answer these questions in a positive way to potential employers and I certainly don’t want to get into any of the sordid details. Help!

At a Loss

Dear At a Loss,

I’m sorry you’ve had your career derailed in this way, but you are not alone. We get questions from many readers who find themselves in similar situations. I hope your experience and your willingness to share it will help others.

My suggestions will stem from two basic principles:

1. Don’t speak ill of your past employer.
2. Focus on the contributions you will make to your prospective employer.

Homework. Assume that, if your interview goes well, your future employer will want references. And they will expect at least one reference from your latest employer. You mention letters of support from other supervisors. My recommendation is to ask one of these supporters to write a reference letter you can keep on file. Give this person an outline of your strengths and the job experiences that demonstrate those strengths. This letter can substitute for a recommendation from your supervisor.

Make Lemonade Out of Leaving. Even though you didn’t want to leave your last job, it’s likely there are personal and professional advantages for having left. For example, you’ve gained exceptional experience in one industry/organization, and now you have the opportunity to bring your skills to a different industry/organization with new opportunities and challenges. Use this change of scene to reignite your passion for your career, and share this passion in your interview. Explain how your experience in a different industry/organization will bring a new perspective to a new organization.

Don’t Badmouth Your Past Employer. By the time you get to an interview, the people you’re meeting with have already read your resume, and have decided you’re qualified—at least on paper. What they are looking for in the interview is a good fit and any disqualifiers. Your goal should be to show them that you are a strong team player—someone they will enjoy working with. Describing a toxic work environment at your past employer creates a big question mark. It makes them wonder whether you played a role in creating the toxic environment, and whether you would bring that toxicity into their organization. Don’t go there.

Catalog Your Competencies. Consider the skills you bring. It might be helpful to categorize them, so you don’t miss any. Then, once you’ve determined your skills, identify an experience or project that can serve as a proof point for each skill. Remember, employers are buying performance, not potential, so you need to be able to demonstrate how you’ve applied each skill. Below are a few skill buckets to consider:

Task Specific—skills that apply to the daily tasks you do: programming, customer service, financial, legal, etc.

Context Specific—knowledge you have about the industry, business trends, current risks, and opportunities, etc.

Transferable Skills—your talent for writing, analysis, project management, performance improvement, presentation skills, etc.

Personal Skills—your experience with leadership, teamwork, conflict management, motivation, initiative, accountability, etc.

Develop Your Brand. Imagine you are a product that you are marketing to others. What is your brand? Your brand includes who you are, what you do, and how you do it. It should be your unique promise of value—what you are known for. Consider your personal values, your personal strengths, and what makes you an outstanding contributor. PricewaterhouseCoopers has created a detailed workbook that can help you create your personal brand. I recommend it—even to readers who aren’t looking for a job.

Urgency and Patience. You’ve been job-hunting for two months now. I’m sure that seems like forever, but it’s really not. And you’ve already gotten some job interviews. That’s a great sign, because it means you have what employers are looking for. Keep your job search going at an urgent pace. Keep networking, get those applications in, and keep honing your interviewing skills. At the same time, practice patience with yourself, your family, and your prospective employers. The hiring process is slow and deliberate. Find ways to build self and family time into this forced vacation.

Best Wishes,

Develop Your Crucial Skills

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13 thoughts on “Best Practices for Job Seekers”

  1. Karen

    If this response suggested a way to respond to the question (“Why did you leave your last job?”), I missed it.

    1. Andreas

      You are not alone.

  2. Tony

    Is there a way to answer the question “Why did you leave your last job?” in this case without lying and yet not being negative? It doesn’t sound like it to me. I suppose you could try to deflect the question with something like “I want to look for another position that would allow me to focus on xyz (some job attribute), and I wanted to be able to focus on that job search 100%.” – that’s not really a lie, in that it is true, though it isn’t really telling exactly why you are leaving, and it’s creating a false impression that you left because you weren’t able to get job attribute xyz at your last job.

    I think there is a question of privacy here: just because someone asks you a question doesn’t mean that you are required to answer it; and yet, in the job interview situation, the only way to decline the question gracefully is to either skillfully change the subject and answer a different question or lie. Most of us are not as skilled as politicians and so the lying is easier for us than the the deflection.

    I suppose you could consider this kind of lie a “white lie”, in that you are doing it for the greater good, and while almost all of us make white lies from time to time (“does this outfit make me look fat?”) still it’s a slippery slope that makes me uncomfortable.

  3. Teresa Miele

    Most employers have a reference policy that typically is verification of dates of employment and position held. It usually does not allow for other employees – even supervisors- to write letters of recommendation or provide a verbal reference. In addition, many employers do not ask for letters of reference because it is highly unlikely that anything but a positive reference would be given, which means it doesn’t hold much water.

    I would look to colleagues, customers or others outside this job that could provide a reference –and I would absolutely make sure I understood the policy on references –and that this employer followed it.

    I agree with the approach that has been described because it is on the mark.

    Unfortunately, we live in a very litigious society…employers cannot afford to open themselves up to a lawsuit and thus limited information is provided –this doesn’t even get into the other side of negligent hiring!

  4. Kelli Glasser

    All of those suggestions are excellent for any interviewee, but as a business owner who has hired a lot of people, if I asked that question and it wasn’t answered directly, I would have to assume in the absence of information that there is a negative aspect to the candidate. I would suggest to an applicant in this situation saying simply that you enjoyed working there for as long as you did and are grateful for the opportunity there, but in recent times you began to feel it was no longer the right fit for you and you decided it would be best for everyone to move on. It’s a satisfactory direct answer, and many interviewers will correctly read between the lines and appreciate that you didn’t outwardly trash your former employer.

    1. Val

      Thank you, Kelli. I too missed a direct answer by David, although everything he said is indeed important. The question seemed to me not how to steer the interview so that those waters aren’t entered, but what to do once entered – what to do when the prospective employer actually asks that question. Your response illuminates this situation in a helpful way. Much appreciated!

  5. Rebecca

    It was implied but not directly stated. Think of a good plausible excuse for leaving, then lie. Whatever you do DO NOT tell them you left because you were harassed. Say NOTHING negative about the company you left or its employees. Get a good reference letter from someone at the old company so the new company doesn’t go looking and get one from the harrassing person. I have been in a similar circumstance and was advised to do the same thing. It worked. It left a bad taste in my mouth, but I needed the job. It is sad that one has to lie or be preceived as a trouble maker, but it is still true and you just have to deal with it or keep looking for a more enlightened employer.

  6. Sharon

    Thus, the harassment victim is re-victimized in the next job interview. Anyone else have a problem with this besides me?

    1. Tony

      In what way, Sharon, is the harassment victim “re-victimized”? I don’t understand your comment.

      1. Sharon

        Because the victim of the harassment can’t say anything about it to a potential new employer because they will assume that the victim was partly responsible for being victimized.

  7. Suzanne

    Thanks David for your great response and information.

  8. Teresa Miele

    I agree with Kelli’s more specific way of how to handle in the interview. The “tweak” I would give is saying AND instead of BUT. I would also stay from saying it was best for “everyone” to move on. This gives the impression that there was a problem.
    It is honest/truthful that you are looking for a new opportunity that allows you to use your skills and knowledge …perhaps you are looking for more of a challenge or to move “up” in your career….interest in a new industry….
    I’m an HR professional and always appreciate it when interviewees know what they are looking for in their next job–what are you bringing to our company. If you trash your previous employer or give the impression that there are problems….it gives me the impression we would be hiring a problem.

  9. How to Explain Why You Are Changing Jobs

    […] This article from has more good tips on dealing with questions over leaving a past job. […]

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