How to Explain Why You’re Looking for Another Job, with Susan Peppercorn

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Find Your Dream Job, Episode 224:

How to Explain Why You’re Looking for Another Job, with Susan Peppercorn

Airdate: January 1, 2020

Mac Prichard:

This is Find Your Dream Job, the podcast that helps you get hired, have the career you want, and make a difference in life.

I’m your host, Mac Prichard. I’m also the founder of Mac’s List. It’s a job board in the Pacific Northwest that helps you find a fulfilling career.

Every Wednesday, I talk to a different expert about the tools you need to find the work you want.

Almost every hiring manager you meet will ask why you’re looking for work. And what you say can make or sink your application.

Here to talk about how to explain why you’re looking for another job is Susan Peppercorn.

She’s the author of the book, “Ditch Your Inner Critic At Work: Evidence-Based Strategies To Thrive In Your Career.” Susan is also a contributor to the Harvard Business Review.

She joins us today from Boston, Massachusetts.

Susan, here’s where I’d like to start, why do employers ask this question at all?

Susan Peppercorn:

Well, they really are curious. They want to know, honestly, why you are looking, and they want to know what your interest is in their particular company. They also want to know if there is some reason for concern that they might uncover in asking that question.

Mac Prichard:

Let’s talk more about that. What kinds of concerns might an employer have when asking this question?

Susan Peppercorn:

Well, they want to know if you were dismissed for poor performance, for example, and they want to uncover that during the early stages of an interview process. They want to know if you were laid off, and if you were, for what reasons? Because companies or organizations want to hire top performers, so if you were dismissed for a job, then it’s important to figure out how to answer that question honestly, but without raising the concerns to such a high level that the employer stops the interview right then and there.

Mac Prichard:

Does that happen, Susan? I mean, is your answer to this question that important, that if you don’t do it right, you can just bring the process to a close?

Susan Peppercorn:

Absolutely. I would say to you, Mac, and to anyone listening, that what’s most important to answering this question is to be positive. One of the traps that people can fall into when answering this question is to be negative about their current employer or their previous employer. So, if someone is still employed but they’re looking, and they say, “You know, well, I just hate my boss and that’s the reason I’m looking. I just have to get out of there.” And they speak negatively, that is going to really raise a question in the mind of the interviewer.

Mac Prichard:

Why is that, Susan? Why does a negative response raise a question?

Susan Peppercorn:

It raises a question because it makes the interviewer wonder whether this is a “point off the curve” situation or if the individual is just negative about most things. And no one wants to hire or work around someone who just happens to look at the world in a negative way.

Mac Prichard:

Are there degrees of negativity here? For example, the statement you shared, you know, “I hate my boss.” That’s a very strong statement but perhaps someone might say something that was unflattering about a previous company or manager.

Is any negative comment off the table?

Susan Peppercorn:

You’re asking a very good question, and I would say that it’s important to answer factually, so let me give an example. Let’s say you’ve worked for a company for 5 years, and in that 5 years, there have been a lot of management changes, and you’ve had 4 managers in the last 5 years. So, if somebody says, “Why are you looking?’ You might say, “Well, there have been a lot of management changes in my company and I’ve worked for 4 people in the last 5 years, and it’s really difficult to establish myself and establish a reputation when the person you’re working for changes every year.” So, that’s a truthful statement.

It’s not saying anything negative about an individual, but it is letting the interviewer know that something is not right at the company where you currently are working. Because with that many management changes, clearly, something is amiss when there’s that much churn so, you know, you might…

Mac Prichard:

The negative way of saying that might be…I mean, that’s a very positive way of describing the situation. If you were with someone who spoke about that same experience negatively, what might they say, Susan?

Susan Peppercorn:

They might say something like, “Well, the company that I work for is just a mess. You know, people keep leaving all the time, and I’ve had 4 managers in 5 years, and that’s just an example of how poorly managed my company is.” So, that would be a negative way of saying.

Mac Prichard:

Okay, so look for a positive way of describing what might be a bad situation but, again, can even the hint of negativity sink your application?

Susan Peppercorn:

I think that there are situations that people understand can be negative, and can be an authentic and genuine reason why someone would look elsewhere. So, to give you an example, someone might say, “Well, I’m looking because I have achieved…I’m very proud of the things that I have accomplished at my company but there is no room for me to grow.” So, that may sound a little bit negative but it may be a truthful statement, that you’ve reached the limit of as far as you can go in your particular company.

You know, you might say, “My company is very small and really, there’s no room for me to progress beyond where I am.” Or, “I’ve learned everything that I can from my current manager and I’m seeking an opportunity where I can learn and acquire new skills.”

I think that there are certain styles of managers that people understand are difficult to work for, and in that situation, I think it is okay, again, not to bash the individual but to say, for example, “My manager doesn’t give me any feedback and I’ve been with the company 3 years. I have asked for feedback. I have asked for a performance review. I have asked repeatedly to have meetings with my manager, and they’re very busy and they don’t have time.”

So, I think that’s a situation that people will understand, where if you’re the kind of person that is seeking a relationship with a manager, where you want to learn and grow, and that person, for whatever reason, cannot devote the time to be meeting with you and mentoring you, then it’s okay just to state the facts.

Do you know what I’m saying?

Mac Prichard:

I do, and we’ve been talking about people who are ready for a change, perhaps because they’re frustrated with their current situation and the importance of talking about that, the reason for a change, in a positive way.

I know from our earlier conversation, that you also see people become defensive when talking about why they’re leaving. Talk more about that, Susan, and why people should avoid defensiveness when talking about why they want to make a change.

Susan Peppercorn:

There are people that I work with who have been laid off from their jobs, and 90% of the time or hire, it has nothing to do with their performance. However, in the early stages of when someone has lost a job, they have a lot of strong emotions around that. Typically, anger, disappointment, and until they get through those feelings, they really should not be interviewing. Because those feelings can really get in the way and when you’re interviewing, and if your lay-off has been a result of a reorganization or a downsizing, which is very common, it happens all the time, it’s important to explain it that way.

That, “The company that I was with went through a reorganization, and my position was eliminated.” But in the early stages of that, you may feel very angry, and you don’t want that anger to come through, so you don’t want to say, “I don’t know why I was the one that was chosen. Why did they choose me? I was a top performer.”

And you know, we’re all human. We all have feelings, and if we’ve been in a job that we loved and we’re grieving over the loss of that job, those emotions might come through and it’s important to process them before putting yourself out there in the job market, and potentially saying something that you might regret later on.

Mac Prichard:

What is your best advice, Susan, about how to process those emotions and how long, typically, does it take? Because you’re right, you clearly don’t want to talk these things through with a hiring manager when you’re up for a job? What do you recommend people do instead?

Susan Peppercorn:

It’s a great question that you’re asking. I would say, on average, it takes a month or two, and the best way to process those feelings is to, 1, join a networking group where other people are in transition and you can process those feelings together.

Most cities have networking groups that meet on a regular basis. To process them with close friends who won’t mind if you get emotional and you express how you really feel about what happened to you. You might, or may not do it with family members. Family members may be very worried and anxious, so you have to use your judgment about that. But just do other things, like make sure that you’re taking care of yourself, get enough sleep, go to the gym, and just work through those feelings.

If you’re in a faith-based community, talk to a pastor, a minister, a therapist, anyone that you can rely on to give you some good feedback and help bolster you during that time of need.

Mac Prichard:

Great, practical tips, Susan.

I want to take a break and when we return, I want to talk about other situations that you mentioned at the start of the interview; when people have left a job, both, you mentioned a moment ago, being laid off, and I also want to talk about dismissal. And finally, I want to touch on what might seem like an obvious point, but why do people have to have these explanations ready before they walk into the interview room?

Stay with us. When we come back, Susan Peppercorn will continue to share her advice on how to explain why you’re looking for another job.

I recently spoke with a hiring manager who received about 75 applications for a job.

She needed to choose 10 people for interviews. And she started by eliminating candidates, about 25 in all, who turned in resumes without cover letters.

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Now, let’s get back to the show.

We’re back in the Mac’s List studio. I’m talking with Susan Peppercorn.

She’s the author of “Ditch Your Inner Critic At Work: Evidence-Based Strategies To Thrive In Your Career.

Now, Susan, before the break we were talking about how to explain why you’re looking for another job.

I just want to pause for a moment and ask you, why is it important to have this explanation ready before you walk into that interview or send that first application with a resume and cover letter?

Susan Peppercorn:

You know, an interview is a stressful situation under the best of circumstances. And I, myself, can remember being in an interview and being asked some common interview questions that I did not feel prepared to answer because no one had ever told me that I needed to prepare and have answers to them. And that only made my anxiety, in the moment, that much worse. So, being asked the question of why you’re looking for a new job is a very common interview question.

Having the answer prepared upfront, not that you’re going to read a script or memorize a script, that’s not the goal. It’s important to build your confidence, number 1. If you prepare your answer and you know your talking points, you will be more confident and you will not be caught off guard. You’ll know what the major points are that you want to say, and you’ll say them with confidence, and that’s the reason to prepare upfront.

Mac Prichard:

Okay, and I know there are 3 common situations where people are looking: they’ve been laid off, they’ve been fired, or they’re ready for a change.

Before we walk through each of those situations, are there, when people are thinking about preparing this answer, is there a common structure that applies to all 3 situations, Susan?

Susan Peppercorn:

Generally speaking, yes. So, let’s take a situation where a person’s position has been eliminated because the company has gone through a downsizing of some sort. So, that could be that 2 companies merged and there were duplicative positions, and some positions were eliminated, or it could be a downsizing due to financial performance on the part of a company that did not meet, invest, their expectations, let’s say. Those are 2 very common scenarios.

Mac Prichard:

Okay, you’re being laid off through no fault of your own because of the financial performance of the company or the organization.

Susan Peppercorn:

Right, so the structure to think about is, number one, what’s happening in your industry? And, for example, I do a lot of work in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries. Those are very big in the Boston area, so there’s a lot of change going on in that industry. Companies are merging; if they have a drug in development that, for some reason, does not do well, the company may downsize, the company may be acquired. So, a person can start out by saying, “Well, as you know, in the pharmaceutical industry, there’s a lot of change going on all the time.” And if they’re interviewing in that industry, the person that they’re talking to will know that, they will acknowledge that.

Mac Prichard:

You’re talking about the field, not about the performance of your manager or the company.

Susan Peppercorn:

Correct. So, you start with the industry and then you move to make it more specific. So, you start generally speaking and then you make it more specific. So, then you start with that general statement, then you say, “Well, as you know, there’s a lot of consolidation going on. My company XYZ was impacted by this consolidation and was just purchased by another company. As a result of that, my position, along with 10 others, was eliminated.”

And if you noticed, I mentioned, not only was, ”my position,” eliminated but in this particular case, there were other positions eliminated as well. And if you know that other positions were eliminated, add that because then it’s clear that you were not being singled out.

Mac Prichard:

Right, an employer might be concerned that perhaps you’re a problem employee and that the reorg gave the manager a chance to eliminate a position and move somebody on.

Susan Peppercorn:

Exactly right.

Mac Prichard:

Alright, well, that’s what to say when you’re laid off. Let’s talk about that other situation, when you’re fired, and this is never pleasant.

Susan Peppercorn:

When you’re fired, if you’re fired for, what’s called in the industry, cause, lack of performance, that’s a very tricky one to handle, and the best way to handle that is to own up to it and really focus on what you learned from the situation.

Let’s say that you were told that you were let go because of not getting along with a coworker, I’m just using that as an example. So, right away that is going to raise a concern in the mind of the interviewer. “Oh, are you the kind of person that can’t get along with someone?”

And the way in which you need to follow up immediately in your explanation is to say, “You know, what I learned from this experience is, that although I disagreed with my coworker, we were working together on an important project. Whether we agreed or not, it’s also very important to make sure that you communicate well with your coworker and to do everything possible to improve those communications, wherever possible.”

That’s probably not the best example. Another example might be that your manager wanted you to do more presentations, and you’re introverted, so you didn’t raise your hand to do enough public speaking. You didn’t speak out enough in staff meetings or you didn’t volunteer enough at industry presentations. So, if you use that as an example, you might say, “I realize from this experience that I have an introverted personality and it is hard for me to get up in front of people and do presentations. But what I decided to do is I joined Toast Masters to learn how to develop my presentation skills. And as a matter of fact, at last month’s Toast Masters meeting, I won an award for the best presentation.” So, if you’ve made a mistake, you want to own up to it and let the employer know what you have done or what you are doing to improve yourself.

That’s absolutely critical, if you have been dismissed because you did not meet expectations.

Mac Prichard:

I’m glad you made that point about taking ownership of a mistake and laying out a path for addressing the issue, whatever it may be, and I think also when people go through that experience, it may lead them to apply for a different job or look for a different role that’s more in line with their interests and skills.

Is it a smart thing to talk about that as well, if that’s the case?

Susan Peppercorn:

Yes, that’s a very, very good point.

Mac Prichard:

Okay, well, we’ve talked about people who have been laid off and people who have been fired for cause. Now, many people are moving on, ready to leave because they’re ready for change or they want a new role or responsibilities. And we touched on this in the start of the interview, but anything else you want to add about the explanation that folks in that situation should provide when talking about why they’re leaving their current job?

Susan Peppercorn:

Yes, I think it’s important to say what skills and what experiences you’re looking for. Companies are very interested in people who are motivated by investment in themselves and their teams. And if you can explain what skills you have developed and what skills you’re looking to develop, and why the company you’re interviewing with is of interest to you, and how you see the fit in terms of what you can learn there and how that will enable you to contribute to that organization, that is an extremely important thing to bring up during an interview.

Mac Prichard:

Finally, Susan, I’m curious, do you find in your work with employers and job seekers that hiring managers actually check out these stories when checking references, for example?

Susan Peppercorn:

Definitely. They will ask…employers want to speak to references. Reference letters don’t cut it, so they will typically call 3 references, and they may ask a question to validate what the job seeker has actually said during an interview. They might say, “Susan told me that one of the reasons she’s interested in working for our company is because she wants to develop her skills in analytics. Had she ever expressed that to you?” So, absolutely they might ask that.

Mac Prichard:

Do you recommend, particularly for people who might have been laid off, that they check in with past supervisors to make sure that their stories are consistent?

Susan Peppercorn:

Oh, absolutely. You never want to have a…you never want someone that you’ve offered as a reference to be surprised, So, in advance of their being contacted by an employer, number one, you always want to ask their permission. Two, share the job description and the name of the person who is likely to contact them, and also what talking points you’d like them to emphasize.

Mac Prichard:

Well, terrific advice.

Now, Susan, tell us, what’s next for you?

Susan Peppercorn:

Well, I’m a continuous learner. So, I just came back from a conference on how to get your ideas out into the world with a wonderful teacher. And I was very inspired by some of the speakers that I heard there. So, I’m going to be following up on doing some immediate training for doing some videos for my own website and for speaking engagements. So, that’s probably what’s closest on the horizon, and also preparing some submissions for a TedX talk.

Mac Prichard:

Terrific.

Well, I know people can learn more about you and the work of your company, as well as the resources you provide, by visiting positiveworkplacepartners.com.

Now, Susan, you’ve shared so many great ideas with us and practical examples. What’s the one thing you want a listener to remember about how to explain why you’re looking for another job?

Susan Peppercorn:

The one thing that I want listeners to take away from this conversation is don’t be defensive. You have a lot to offer. Focus on what you have to offer and don’t be defensive in explaining your answer.

Mac Prichard:

I think Susan offered some excellent advice there about how to talk about why you’re leaving your current job, or why you left your last position. But you also have to provide an explanation for why you want the job you’re applying for. You’ve got to write a great cover letter.

If you’re struggling with writing a cover letter, we’ve got a free guide that can help, Simple Rules for a Winning Cover Letter.

You can get your free copy today.

Go to macslist.org/coverletter.

On our next episode, our guest will be Dan Cumberland. He’s the host of The Meaning Movement Podcast.

He says the secret to career success is not to play it safe but to take risks. Dan and I will talk about why you need to fail in your own career.

I hope you’ll join us.

Until then, thanks for letting us help you find your dream job.

What do you say when a hiring manager asks you why you’re looking for a new job? If this question makes you feel defensive, Find Your Dream Job guest Susan Peppercorn says you need to find a way to put a positive spin on your answer, even if the truth is that you were fired or laid off. Hiring managers understand difficult situations, so don’t be afraid to be honest, while not spewing negativity toward a former employer. Susan advises focusing on what you bring to the table and why you’re interested in working with that company.

About Our Guest:

Susan Peppercorn is a coach, writer, and speaker. She’s passionate about helping people move from surviving to thriving in their careers. Susan is the author of the bestselling “Ditch Your Inner Critic At Work: Evidence-Based Strategies To Thrive In Your Career.

Resources in This Episode: