What to say to potential employers about choosing to leave your last job

By Lily Garcia
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, January 21, 2010; 12:00 AM

Hi, Lily. Recently, I voluntarily left my job after a year. I'm not expecting to land a new gig any time soon, but I'm worried about what to say about leaving when new opportunities do come up. Does it make me look irresponsible to leave given the current economic environment, or does it show that I'm able to deal with risk and take responsibility for my decisions? I don't want to lie and give the impression that I was laid off (which would seem logical and applicable given the times), but I don't want to seem flighty or like a job hopper.

For what it's worth, I will not be looking for a new job doing the exact same thing I was doing before. And the reason I left had to do with incompatible work styles with my manager and with a long-running hiring/move freeze within the organization. Thanks.

Many people will envy you having the luxury of being able to leave a job in this economy without having anything in the works. If you have the financial resources to responsibly assume the risk of long-term unemployment, however, I say more power to you.

It sounds to me like you have a valid set of reasons for having left your last position: a perfect storm of dissatisfaction with your job, your manager and your organization. It will not help your case, however, for you to state plainly to an interviewer that you decided to leave without another offer in hand because, heck, you can afford it, and life's too short to be unhappy at work. That is exactly the sort of explanation that will leave you open to judgment as a flighty job-hopper.

You need to find a way to explain your departure in positive and constructive terms. Rather than dwelling upon the negative aspects of your last employer, focus on developing a clear profile of what you are seeking in your next job and your career. The more palatable story is that your last job suited you fine, but you became convinced that, with a bit of time and perseverance, you could find a better fit that would allow you to more fully apply your skills and talents. Because you are frugal (i.e. responsible) and had been able to save up a bit of money, you decided to take a calculated risk. By devoting yourself full-time to the search for your next job, you are able to approach the process less hurriedly, gather more information and make better decisions about your future. Then explain why you think that you and the employer you are speaking with would make such a good match.

It would also help if you came prepared with a satisfying description of what you have been doing with your life in the interim. Don't think of yourself as unemployed, but rather self-employed with the singular objective of finding a more permanent assignment. If your job search process is as organized and methodical as it should be, then it can serve as a valuable case study regarding how you manage projects generally. Hopefully, you have remained connected with your professional network, including membership and volunteer organizations. Share the details of these activities with your interviewer. It will help to demonstrate that you are going through a carefully planned and executed transitional phase in your career rather than just taking a vacation.

I am not suggesting that yours is the only legitimate reason to take a voluntary hiatus from work. I have known successful professionals who have taken time off to write books, complete home renovation projects, spend time with family and even sail around the world. They have each found their own way back into the workforce through past employers, professional contacts and hiring managers who were inspired and intrigued by these bold life choices.

In a job climate such as ours, however, it is less likely that you will find sympathy and support for the decision to leave a job without any clear professional aim. If you concentrate on explaining your voluntary departure as an entirely sensible, albeit gutsy, choice, you may not only be able to avert the job-hopper label, but actually distinguish yourself as an enterprising and interesting applicant.

Lily Garcia has offered employment law and human resources advice to companies of all sizes for more than 10 years. To submit a question, e-mail HRadvice@washingtonpost.com. We reserve the right to edit submitted questions for length and clarity and cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered.

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