Jacob Kaplan-Moss

“Why Did You Leave Your Last Job?”

This is going to be a different kind of article from my previous writing about interviewing. I like trying to give clear, specific guidance, but today I don’t have it.

Instead, I have an interview practice I’ve been thinking about and can’t decide if it’s a good practice or one that should be scrapped: asking why a candidate left their last job. I see some good reasons to ask this question; I also see some strong arguments why it’s problematic.

If you asked me why I left my job at Heroku, are some ways I might answer that question:

  • “I’ve always wanted to work in public service. I had the opportunity to join 18F, so I took it.”
  • “There was a re-org, and afterward there wasn’t a good fit for me, so I left.”
  • “I was hired there to build a security organization. I succeeded, but having built the team I discovered I wasn’t as good at running the team as I was at building it, so it made sense to move on.”
  • “I got caught in a power struggle between my boss and his boss, made some poor decisions about navigating that political struggle, and had to leave.”
  • “I was fired.”

All of these answers are true. Each of them also lies by omission. Taken all together, they still don’t tell the full story.

Usually, if I’m asked this question in a job interview, I’ll go with the first version. It’s true enough – I started interviewing at 18F months before the other stuff happened, and had a job offer in hand by the time I was kinda-sorta-not-really fired. But in giving that answer, I always feel somewhat dishonest.

Despite my own discomfort being asked the question, I’ve continued to ask it of candidates. There are some good reasons; among them:

  • I want to understand what would motivate this person to leave a job. E.g., if they tell me a reason that’s likely to be replicated at the role I’m interviewing for, that’s a sign they wouldn’t be happy here.
  • If someone’s moved jobs a lot – like, 3-4 times in as many years – I’ll want to understand why. That’s not always a red flag, but sometimes it indicates someone who can’t get along with anyone, and that’s a problem.
  • If someone has left their job under difficult circumstances, I want to give them a chance to frame that for me before I check references. If I don’t ask, and then later find out they were fired, it could be bad for them that I’m hearing someone else’s version first.

But, there are some real problems with the question, too.

As I wrote above, if someone has left a job under less-than-ideal circumstances, those stories can be difficult and complex to tell. Versions of that story can be dangerous to give in a job interview: I’m never going to summarize leaving Heroku as “I was fired”, despite that summary being no more or less accurate than some of the others.

By asking this question, are we putting candidates in a situation where we’re effectively forcing them to lie? Job interviews should be designed to elicit candor; if a part of an interview that invites people to lie seems bad.

This question also seems like it could be even more problematic for women, people of color, and other groups underrepresented in tech. These people face loneliness, workplaces that can range from unwelcoming to hostile to abusive, and outright harassment1. For example, one study found that 26% of women said they’d been sexually harassed at work. Another study put the number at 66%.

If you were one of those women: would you feel comfortable telling an interviewer, who you barely know, that you left your job because you were sexually harassed?

I certainly wouldn’t.

So it seems like this question especially puts anyone who’s experienced a toxic workplace in a position where they might need to lie about it.

What do you think?

I’m torn: I see a bunch of reasons why this question is problematic, but I also see why it’s information that I might need to know. And, giving candidates the opportunity to frame their career moves, first, before I check references seems fairer than the alternatives.

But what do you think? Hiring managers: do you ask this question? Why or why not? Let me know - email jacob at this domain, or @jacobian on Twitter.

  1. This should be obvious to anyone who’s been working in tech and paying attention, but if you need sources to believe me start with Sue Gardner’s Why women leave tech: what the research says↩︎