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Left a job when things went bad? Here's how to explain it

Left a job when things went bad? Here's how to explain it

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Have you ever had a bad experience leaving a job?

Sometimes, leaving a job can happen in a really negative way – you might have been fired, or felt so frustrated you quit on the spot.

It’s not always easy to talk about, and if things get messy you might feel you want to just leave it all behind.

But what happens next? If you’re looking for a new role, how can you handle any tricky questions or potential consequences that come from leaving the old one?

Here’s some advice to help you.

Leaving a job can be difficult

If you’ve found yourself leaving a job in less-than-ideal circumstances, you’re not alone.

Almost a third of people (31%) have left a job without any back-up plan, research for SEEK has found, while 14% of people say they’ve been fired from a job.

It’s not uncommon to have quit in a hurry – almost 1 in 5 people say they have spontaneously quit before, because they felt too angry or frustrated. Interestingly, 62% of these people believe it resulted in a better outcome for them.

Should you include the job on your resume?

Around 3 in 5 people who’ve been fired or quit in frustration say they wouldn’t include that job in their resume, nor would they mention it at a job interview.

This might seem like the best route with a job that ended in a difficult situation. But if you were in the role for some time, you’re probably weighing up whether you are willing to ‘lose’ the skills and experience you gained in that role by being unable to talk about them.

It’s best to include the job on your resume, both our career experts agree.

“Unexplained gaps on resumes are never looked upon favourably, and you do not need to include your specific reason for leaving on your resume,” says Graham Wynn, founder and director of Superior People Recruitment.

Leah Lambart, career and interview coach at Relaunch Me, agrees that it’s better to be upfront about a role than worrying that you’ll be caught out – even if you made a mistake.

“I would always encourage people to be upfront and honest about previous work experience that possibly ended badly,” she says.

Should you talk about it to potential new employers?

If you’re in an interview, openness and honesty are still important – but don’t let what went wrong with your last role take over the whole conversation.

Employers will typically ask ‘why did you leave your last job? and Lambart says your answer doesn’t have to focus on explaining the circumstances you left in. Instead, she recommends a statement about the role you’re going for, for example:

“In my most recent role I’ve developed really useful skills in customer service, communication and relationship building. However, I’m now looking to move into a more technical role with less customer interaction. This role really excites me as I feel that it can better utilise my natural strengths in research, planning and analysis."

You might be asked specifically about the circumstances that led to you leaving. Be careful not to be too negative towards your employer, Wynn says, recommending you take emotion out of the response and simply state the situation that arose.

Lambart agrees. “I would always recommend you avoid bad-mouthing the company or your previous manager. Instead try and make it more about you.” Her top two examples in this situation are:

“I thrive when working in a team that’s collaborative and harmonious, and I’m happier in a role where the team shares information and supports each other. Unfortunately, I didn’t feel that my previous company could fulfil this need, and as a result I felt it was time to move on and look for a work environment that would suit me better.”

And:

“I work best in a task-focused environment where employees are driven to meet goals, have high standards and where people are held accountable. I didn’t feel that my previous environment was like this and it didn’t get the best out of me. I understand that some of the core values of your organisation are ‘Customer Excellence’ and ’Accountability’. These values really resonate with me and make me excited about joining your organisation.”

If you were in the role you left for a substantial period, it’s actually a positive sign for employers regardless of what led to your swift departure, Wynn points out. “It indicates your performance overall would likely have been satisfactory, and something must have happened or changed to make you resign or lose your job,” he says.

How you can highlight the positives

The key to turning a potential red flag into a positive in your interview is to focus on how you have grown from the experience professionally.

Wynn says this could also be an opportunity to show that you see how the situation could have been avoided or improved – whether that’s through additional training, or perhaps a better process for resolving conflict.

“Employers are much more understanding of people leaving workplaces if the job is not right for them than they were 20 years ago,” Wynn says. “To lie would be worse, as the real reasons for your leaving could be discovered through reference checking.”

Lambart says it’s important to show that you’ve reflected on the experience, learned from it and taken specific actions to prevent it from arising again.

“I had a client who had been let go for poor performance after completing six months in his role. When we delved into what had occurred, the problem really wasn’t any fault of his, but most likely a poor recruitment decision – he had been recruited into a role that required extensive financial modelling skills that he didn’t have.

“At the time of interviewing, the hiring manager was aware of this gap and was prepared to train and mentor him to develop these skills further. However, two weeks after he commenced in the role the hiring manager left and was replaced by a new manager who had a very ‘hands-off’ management style,” she says.

Lambart says this meant her client was left to figure things out on his own and was completely out of his depth, leading to poor performance and eventually being dismissed.

“Instead of focusing on his poor performance, he focused on his learnings from this experience and the actions that he had taken to overcome such a problem in the future, including completing some courses and gaining the necessary experience rather than feeling out of his depth again,” she said.

Being honest – but brief – is often best

Whether it’s in your application or an interview, it’s important not to put too much focus on a job that you had a bad experience leaving. Focus on other, more positive roles you’ve had, and what you’re aiming for in the new role. And if an employer does ask more questions about why you left, simply and honestly explain the circumstances that were less than ideal, without going into lots of detail or over-explaining or justifying the situation.

This approach can be useful even in situations where you made a mistake or could have handled things better. Being able to recognise an issue and come up with possible solutions is a soft skill that employers value, so showing that you’ve learned from the experience can be worthwhile.

By practicing this approach and how you’ll answer potential questions, you can build up your confidence and be better on track to landing your next role.

Source: Independent research conducted by Nature of behalf of SEEK, interviewing 4800 Australians annually. Published November 2021.

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