Gone are the days when you’d start your career as an eager young entry-level employee at a company, then flash-forward to your retirement party at the same company, after rising through the ranks (and the various hairstyle and wardrobe changes). It used to be fairly common to commit to a company for the duration of your career, leaving a job only for life changes or unexpected events (getting fired or laid off). These days, the average worker holds ten different jobs before turning 40 years old. Ten! That’s a lot of jobs, and a lot of transition.
Now, you’re not obligated to have that many different jobs, and if you are willing and able to move from intern to manager to CEO at Widget Corp, go for it! For most of us, it’s not really an option. Economic circumstances change, or there’s not enough room for growth. You meet that awesome someone, who just happens to be moving across the country for his or her own job, and wants you to come with.
Everyone’s career path is a little different (and thank goodness for that—we can’t all be web designers or interpretive dance choreographers), so the reasons for leaving are as varied as we are. Let’s look at some of the most common, valid reasons for leaving your current job, and how to make the transition from one to the next.
1. Leaving a job because you hate your job/boss/company.
Sometimes relationships just don’t work out. It’s not necessarily anyone’s fault (okay, we all secretly know it’s their fault), but sometimes a job just isn’t a good fit for you. If you find that your work days are more defined by conflict and unhappiness than by productivity, then yeah, it’s time to start putting out feelers for a new opportunity.
How to deal with this: Your next employer wants to know why you left, and also that you’re a reliable bet. If you go into an interview talking smack about your previous place of employment, the interviewer will think, “hmm, is that how he’s going to talk about us in a year?” So when you’re asked why you left, emphasize that it wasn’t a good fit. Be specific, but gracious:
“I enjoyed many aspects of my job, and I learned a lot of great leadership skills there, but ultimately I see myself as a manager, and there just wasn’t enough room for growth there.”
2.Leaving a job because you want better work-life balance.
If you’re working 80 hours a week, but want to carve out more time for your family and fly-fishing hobby, it may be time to start looking elsewhere. If you talk to your boss and there aren’t ways to make your position flexible enough for your priorities (work-from-home arrangements, flex time off, different work hours), then you’re just going to get more and more frustrated in your current role.
How to deal with this: This can be a tricky area in a job interview—potential employers aren’t allowed to ask you about family status, health problems, or many personal issues. If you’re looking for a more flexible job because you and your partner want to have a baby soon, you don’t have to be explicit about the reasons why you might not want to be on call days, nights, and weekends anymore. You can just leave it as a general personal decision:
“I loved my job as the Parks Director, but in the next phase of my career I want to find a position where I can grow while also having a more healthy work-life balance. This company appeals to me because I know you’re committed to helping employees find that balance.”
3. Leaving a job because you never planned to be in it forever.
You take a job because you’re looking for something in the interim, or to pay the bills while you finish school to pursue your dream career as a circus clown. Whatever the case may be, it’s possible you never intended this job to be your career-defining role. If that’s the case, there’s an expiration date looming, whether you’ve set a specific timeline or not. If that end date is approaching, then it’s time to get out gracefully.
How to deal with this: You don’t want to look like someone who bolts when things get tough, or when a shiny new opportunity comes along. Make sure you emphasize your long-term goals, without saying (in so many words) that you weren’t interested in the job long-term:
“I saw my last position as a great growth area, where I could improve my skills and get experience, but now it’s time to move on to my longer term goals, like [X].”
4. Leaving a job because you don’t make enough money.
This is a perennial favorite among people who leave jobs for other opportunities. Money is one of the most basic facts of our lives, and if you aren’t making enough at a certain level, or are clearly being paid beneath what you’re worth, it’s not likely that this is an issue that will just resolve itself. If you’ve already done your research to figure out what your job is worth for someone at your skill level and level of experience, have tried to parlay that into a raise, and have been underwhelmed by your company’s response—it’s valid to use that as your excuse for leaving.
How to deal with this: Money issues require every bit of diplomacy at your disposal. To your soon-to-be-former boss/company, it’s important not to be bratty about the reason you’re leaving. If you’ve been asked in an interview for a new job about why you left your last one, bringing up money can be a minefield. It could put you at a disadvantage for later negotiations, or could price you right out of the job offer if they think you’re expecting six figures and a Ferrari when they’re offering five figures and a discounted Zipcar membership. Be firm about your commitment to moving up in the world, but non-specific about the financial aspect of it:
“At this point in my career, I’m looking for the kind of growth that Former Co. couldn’t offer in my previous role.” Or if you’re talking to Former Co., be honest: “Based on my role in the company and my achievements here, I was hoping my compensation could be adjusted accordingly. Since we’ve discussed this and those resources aren’t available, it’s time for me to pursue other opportunities. I really appreciate my time here, but it’s time for me to move on.”
5. Leaving a job because the decision was made for you.
Being ushered out the door is a pretty ironclad reason to leave your job. It might not even have gotten to that point yet, but you can read the writing on the wall. If you’re being elbowed out of your job for whatever reason, the spin you put on it is especially important as you look for your next job.
How to deal with this: If you’re dreading the “why did you leave?” question in an upcoming job interview, start working the spin. Don’t lie, especially if you were fired for a reason that will come up in a background check, or if the interviewer happens to be college roommates with your old boss (it’s a small world after all, trust me on this). Frame it as a learning experience, and emphasize that you’ve taken what you could from the situation, and are actively addressing it as part of your future:
“My last position wasn’t a good fit, and I learned hard lessons about how to approach situations. I made some mistakes in judgment that I strive to overcome every day, and I know that my experience and skills are the stronger for my ongoing efforts.”
Whatever your reason is for leaving your current job, it’s so important to make sure that your exit is a classy one. Always keep the tone gracious, no matter how ticked off you may be, or how many grudges you’re holding about your workload, your treatment, your boss, the terrible coffee in the break room. Be as honest as you can about your reasons for leaving (without making yourself look bad, or letting a snide or angry tone get the best of you), because you likely have genuine feedback that the company can use in recruiting your replacement, or making personnel decisions in the future.
Plus, as I mentioned, most industries are very small worlds—you never know who might hear about your exit, or who might know someone who knows someone who used to work with you. It’s in your best interest to make sure that your reasons for leaving are clear, backed up with specific information, and let go as water under the bridge as you get ready for your new job offer, or your job search. No bridge is more useful when it’s burned, so it’s important for your reputation (and your own sanity) to keep everything clear and professional.
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