Not every interviewee is free to give a straight and honest answer to this question. Maybe you fell out with a manager or workmates and could not bear another moment in their company? Perhaps you never mustered enough motivation to put in a good day’s work and your reputation within the organisation suffered as a result? You’d had a written warning about abuse of the firm’s Internet facilities and thought you better leave before you were thrown out, or perhaps you felt that the job you left was a chapter of your career that needed to be scribbled to a rapid close? None of these reasons for leaving is going to impress an interviewer who is looking for commitment or competence in their own workforce.
So, let’s break the problem down into two parts. In the first scenario, you’re looking for a role within the new company that is very similar to the one you hope to leave behind. In fact, the company you are interviewing for is a serious competitor and you will be up against your old colleagues if they offer you a position. This is exactly how you want it to turn out. You want to show those suckers that there’s more to you than they ever imagined. However, the interviewer will be a little mystified about why you’re even considering a move, there is so little difference between the jobs: maybe you’re just not a team player, you have no loyalty and you’re motivated by money to the exclusion of everything else? So, what do you say?
One tactic relies on a little research about the company you want to move to. You need to discern the differences in approach, technology or target market and claim that these minor distinguishing features are in fact areas in which you would like to specialise. You had touched upon these areas in your old firm, but your bosses had no plans to fund the development of interactive digital television programmes, nuclear fusion, Middle Eastern cuisine, skateboards for ambidextrous teenagers (or whatever…).
Your initial experience and hopefully impressive knowledge of this specialisation (which this firm happens to place at the heart of their business), has convinced you that this is your true calling – now you must convince the interviewer. You’ve always wanted to work on self-charging nocturnal lawnmowers but will never have the opportunity to do so unless you’re offered a job at this firm. Furthermore, you’ve had a few ideas of your own about how to build and even market them. The question of why you want to leave the old firm behind has been answered, with some style and panache.
Another approach is to come across like a superstar, somebody this employer could not afford to be without. You have to puff out your chest and tell a story about how you held the department together and were indeed its powerhouse.
Describe how you finished all the projects they could throw at you; how, having done this, you moved each project into its production phase and then proceeded to train everyone else how to run the process in your absence. Tell your interviewer that once everything was running smoothly, you produced documentation of such detail and clarity that it is still used as a template in every other department. Within a year, you had fixed everything that needed fixing, launched a range of new product lines and rallied the company around you. Now you need fresh challenges: “and that, Mr Interviewer, is why I am moving on”. Leave them with the impression that you’re not going to slot into the company like any other cog; no, you’re going to crank the whole business up to a new level. Having won the job, whether or not you deliver on your promises is another matter entirely…
But how do you handle situations where you hope to work for an employer that operates in a completely different sector? This is the second scenario. This time it’s not going to be difficult to find areas where there are major differences between the company you want to leave and the company you want to join. What your interviewer wants to know is “can you bridge the gap?”
Yet again, a little time spent researching what your target company does should get you halfway to winning their confidence. Insist that it has always been your true calling to work as a customer services manager and that your time on a North Sea oil rig was a blip in your career. In fact, while you were being lashed by Force 10 gales and icy, mountainous seas you actually took a customer service correspondence course (delivered each month by helicopter) and ended up dealing with most of the calls and enquiries that came through to that particular sector of the oil field. Sure, on the face of it, the jobs could not be more different but your natural talent for customer service shone through even in the most unlikely of settings.
Now, if you have a good grasp of what your new career will entail and can demonstrate some enthusiasm about the prospect, the question of experience is all that stands between you and that job.
This is where the second part of your answer is required: as you’re hoping to switch from one career to another you must convince the interviewer that you have a bunch of transferable skills that would be useful in any job. In addition (or perhaps in place of having these skills if the change is total), portray yourself as a self-starter, a go-getter, a person whose prime purpose in life is to do the best for the company, yourself, your friends and family.
Don’t forget to provide evidence that this is actually the case by presenting real (or perhaps only partly fictional) examples of what you have done in the past to go the extra mile. The story is that you’re an absolute force of nature and have something to bring to ANY job in ANY field. If they give you a chance you will give them your best.
So, in every case, it’s your duty to turn the question away from the details of why you had to leave a shitty job. It’s not about running away and leaving a difficult situation behind; it’s a case of it being absolutely necessary that they offer you this job.
You really do not have to disclose anything about your old job, especially if the story of your time there raises more questions than it answers. Every utterance that comes from your mouth needs to give the impression that you want to get into the new job rather than out of the old one. If you can back this up with convincing body language and a likeable personality, you’re in.