I’ve been looking for a job for over two months now, and I think one of my main problems is answering the question, “Why did you leave your last position?” I resigned, but felt forced to because of a toxic environment following my reporting of sexual harassment by my boss. For the first time in my thirty-four-year career, I was suddenly being written up repeatedly. Still, despite letters of support by other supervisors, the bad behavior by my boss continued. Human resources was no help, so I left. It is difficult to answer these questions in a positive way to potential employers and I certainly don’t want to get into any of the sordid details. Help!
At a Loss
Dear At a Loss,
I’m sorry you’ve had your career derailed in this way, but you are not alone. We get questions from many readers who find themselves in similar situations. I hope your experience and your willingness to share it will help others.
My suggestions will stem from two basic principles:
1. Don’t speak ill of your past employer.
2. Focus on the contributions you will make to your prospective employer.
Homework. Assume that, if your interview goes well, your future employer will want references. And they will expect at least one reference from your latest employer. You mention letters of support from other supervisors. My recommendation is to ask one of these supporters to write a reference letter you can keep on file. Give this person an outline of your strengths and the job experiences that demonstrate those strengths. This letter can substitute for a recommendation from your supervisor.
Make Lemonade Out of Leaving. Even though you didn’t want to leave your last job, it’s likely there are personal and professional advantages for having left. For example, you’ve gained exceptional experience in one industry/organization, and now you have the opportunity to bring your skills to a different industry/organization with new opportunities and challenges. Use this change of scene to reignite your passion for your career, and share this passion in your interview. Explain how your experience in a different industry/organization will bring a new perspective to a new organization.
Don’t Badmouth Your Past Employer. By the time you get to an interview, the people you’re meeting with have already read your resume, and have decided you’re qualified—at least on paper. What they are looking for in the interview is a good fit and any disqualifiers. Your goal should be to show them that you are a strong team player—someone they will enjoy working with. Describing a toxic work environment at your past employer creates a big question mark. It makes them wonder whether you played a role in creating the toxic environment, and whether you would bring that toxicity into their organization. Don’t go there.
Catalog Your Competencies. Consider the skills you bring. It might be helpful to categorize them, so you don’t miss any. Then, once you’ve determined your skills, identify an experience or project that can serve as a proof point for each skill. Remember, employers are buying performance, not potential, so you need to be able to demonstrate how you’ve applied each skill. Below are a few skill buckets to consider:
Task Specific—skills that apply to the daily tasks you do: programming, customer service, financial, legal, etc.
Context Specific—knowledge you have about the industry, business trends, current risks, and opportunities, etc.
Transferable Skills—your talent for writing, analysis, project management, performance improvement, presentation skills, etc.
Personal Skills—your experience with leadership, teamwork, conflict management, motivation, initiative, accountability, etc.
Develop Your Brand. Imagine you are a product that you are marketing to others. What is your brand? Your brand includes who you are, what you do, and how you do it. It should be your unique promise of value—what you are known for. Consider your personal values, your personal strengths, and what makes you an outstanding contributor. PricewaterhouseCoopers has created a detailed workbook that can help you create your personal brand. I recommend it—even to readers who aren’t looking for a job.
Urgency and Patience. You’ve been job-hunting for two months now. I’m sure that seems like forever, but it’s really not. And you’ve already gotten some job interviews. That’s a great sign, because it means you have what employers are looking for. Keep your job search going at an urgent pace. Keep networking, get those applications in, and keep honing your interviewing skills. At the same time, practice patience with yourself, your family, and your prospective employers. The hiring process is slow and deliberate. Find ways to build self and family time into this forced vacation.