Archive for September, 2012

The Many Reasons for Leaving

September 24, 2012

Think back to the career moves you’ve made.  What prompted you to seek a job change?  No doubt, there was a specific reason behind each of these circumstances.  Ultimately, something must have changed that affected you to the point of making that bold decision to move on.  Some reasons for leaving are glaring and potential fodder for a Dilbert strip.  Yet, there are many other reasons for leaving an employer that are more nuanced, personal, convoluted, or just downright messy.

Regardless of the situation, it’s vitally important to get the story straight and the messaging appropriate for prime time.  I’ve seen candidates get disqualified in the interview stage simply because they couldn’t effectively articulate their rationale for leaving (or wanting to leave).  This is not a trick question in the interview.  Candidates should expect to be quizzed on their reasons for leaving as it can shed light on both their thought process and decision-making skills.

Let’s explore some of the different types of reasons.  There are plenty of “softball” reasons for leaving –situations that shouldn’t stir up any controversy or concern.  Examples include:

  • The company is consolidating its offices and my position is being relocated elsewhere.  Although I was offered the chance to move, my family is local and I prefer to live in this part of the country.
  • The company was acquired strictly for its IP and as such, 95% of the employees were laid off.
  • As a cost-cutting measure, the company decided to outsource our department’s responsibilities, resulting in massive layoffs.
  • The company changed its sales model to a pure channel play.  They are replacing their senior level direct sales staff with channel relationship reps.
  • After being acquired, the agile, small-company feel went away.  I want to get back to an exciting, innovative, early-stage environment.

“Short fuse” reasons for leaving are plausible, but could evoke questions in the mind of the interviewer.  They may wonder why you’re not willing to stay and work out the problems instead of fleeing at the first sign of trouble.  Here are some real world examples I’ve heard:

  • The commission plan turned out to be different than what was explained to me during the interview process.
  • I’ve had 3 different managers during the 2 years I’ve been there.
  • Product delays are putting me in a compromised position with our customers.
  • The company is cutting costs in a number of areas and is making me concerned about its financial viability.
  • The company received some bad press that could tarnish its standing in the industry.

In an interview setting, these short fuse issues could be land mines if not handled well.  It’s easy to see how a hiring manager could hear one of these reasons and think, “So what!  Why are you unwilling to suck it up and stick it out?”  In fact, as a candidate, you might want to pretend that a hiring manager is actually saying this to you so that it prompts you to provide more color to the picture.  In particular, hiring managers need to hear from you what measures you took to try and work with the situation.  They need additional context to understand why the situation is causing irreparable harm to you and your career.

I’ve seen a number of what we can call “camouflage” or euphemistic reasons for leaving.  These are reasons that appear safe on the surface and can be legitimate, but seem to be hiding the real underlying cause.  Experienced hiring managers will think twice about these reasons and unless you’re able to make a compelling case, will jump to conclusions and view them as red flags.  I’ll put in parenthesis what a hiring manager is apt to think when hearing these reasons.

  • I hit a ceiling and don’t see any career advancement opportunities on the horizon. (This candidate has used up all of his goodwill chips and has burned bridges.  Either that or his skill set is limited and perhaps he’s not coachable, making him impossible to promote.)
  • I’ve been there 5 years and feel that it’s time to take on a new challenge.  (This candidate is either burned out or has ruffled too many feathers and worn out his welcome.)
  • We’ve had changes to our management team and I’m concerned about the direction they’re taking.  (This candidate is not valued by the new management team.)
  • I was doing fine in the role, but was recruited into a promising opportunity with another company.  (This candidate has no sense of commitment, will hop without reservation and is likely to do it again.)
  • My manager and I didn’t see eye to eye on several important issues and instead of staying and putting up with a futile situation, I decided to part ways.  (This candidate was fired.)

To help bolster the legitimacy of these reasons, try adding additional perspective.  For example, if you left because you hit a ceiling and found no career advancement paths, you can add that three other people on your team followed suit and left for the same reason.  Additionally, the role you desired was being held by someone who’s been with the company for 7 years and wasn’t going anywhere.

Being laid off can be construed as a camouflage reason, masking getting fired.  Yet, given the state of the job market over the last 4+ years, layoffs have become far more accepted.  When explaining a layoff, it’s critically important to put it in context.  For example, I’ve had a number of candidates tell me about their recent layoff, but didn’t tell me (until I coaxed it out of them) that they had survived 3 prior rounds of layoffs.  In other cases, it may have been the first layoff, but it affected 50% of the entire employee base or 100% of the team.  Also, to ensure that the layoff is not perceived as performance based, make sure to emphasize the most recent accomplishments as well as the existence of a strong reference (preferably by a manager or executive).

Finally, there are the myriad of personal reasons for leaving a company.  These are all understandable, provided they align with the amount of time taken off.  For example, taking care of an elderly parent can be a full time job in and of itself.  Walking an interviewer through the timeline, from leaving your job to manage all facets of your parent’s needs, to overseeing home health care and hospice and finally coping with death and grieving, is purely optional.  Yet this is helpful for the interviewer to understand the full scope of responsibility and burden and will better explain the 2-year absence from the workforce.  Yes, personal reasons are indeed personal and private, but do warrant a detailed explanation to eliminate any sense of doubt.

Discussing reasons for leaving companies is a standard part of the interview process.  Provided that the reasons are stated clearly and confidently and bolstered with additional context as needed, they shouldn’t cause any stumbling blocks.  Reasons need to be legitimate reasons and not excuses that hide the truth.  Life happens and situations change.  Most everyone understands that.  No doubt, you have a great career story to tell.  Be ready to tell all of it – not just the “what” but also the “why.”


Action items:

1.  Most interviewers who run through your career history will ask at least 3 questions pertaining to each position you’ve held:  Why did you take the job?  What were your top 3 accomplishments in the role?  Why did you leave?  Be prepared to answer these without hesitation.

2.  For each career move you’ve made, along with the current one you want to make, list out the reasons for your moving on and with an objective eye, label each one as a softball, short fuse, camouflage, or personal.  With a trusted resource, review your reasons and seek critical feedback on both the messaging and perceived plausibility of each one.

3.  It is not necessary to include the reasons for leaving in your resume.  In fact, it can call more attention to it than you had intended while detracting from your accomplishments while in each position.