So, why did you leave that job?

Story by Gemma Beasley / September 15, 2023

How to Explain Leaving Your Job Without Setting Off Red Flags

As you enter the building lobby, the nervous energy builds. You sign the visitor’s register and breathe through it. You know you can do this. 

The interview starts off great as you talk about managing large commercial builds from start to finish. You have plenty of impressive projects under your belt. You’re getting all the right signals. Encouraging nods. Affirmative noises. It seems like you’ve got this job in the bag!

Then, just as you’re starting to relax, the hiring manager leans in, and asks: “I see you were a Senior Project Manager at your last firm. Why did you leave?”

Your stomach drops. Should you explain how the toxic company culture drove you away? Or how the CEO’s reckless growth plans jeopardized quality? 

You can’t totally dodge the question. But one wrong word could tank your chances if you come across as dishonest or bitter. How do you tactfully explain a difficult job departure when put on the spot? Should you mutter something about “seeking new challenges” and hope they leave it at that?

Here’s the thing. Interviewers can usually tell when you’re holding something back. And giving vague, clichéd answers often does more harm than good. 

So what’s the solution? How can you explain a difficult job departure in a way that satisfies the interviewer and doesn’t sabotage your chances? 

Here’s how to handle the dreaded question with grace, by following these 5 expert tips…

  1. Focus on the positives

It’s rare to leave a job you love, but you should try to frame even negative situations in a constructive light. Instead of saying: “My previous role turned out to be a poor culture fit. The company valued quick, hasty work rather than quality craftsmanship. My boss always pushed us to cut corners to save money and time, while I refused to compromise on safety and integrity.”

Try this: “In my last role, I learned the importance of cultural alignment. While I enjoyed managing complex commercial projects, I found that I was being asked to sacrifice quality standards for speed. To me, ensuring worker safety and delivering enduring buildings is of critical importance – but they tended to prioritize quicker turnarounds. In my next position, I am seeking an organization that is fully aligned on making quality and integrity top priorities.”

The second response avoids trash talking the boss or company. Instead it focuses on a misalignment in values while emphasizing the type of culture you’re looking for next. This frames the situation constructively and keeps things positive. The interviewer gets context without badmouthing.

  1. Emphasize opportunities 

Rather than harping on what you disliked about your old job, focus the conversation on what you hope to gain in a new one. 

Instead of saying: “There was zero room for advancement at my small company. I asked repeatedly about getting promoted to Senior Project Manager but kept getting denied with no explanation. It was so frustrating having my career stunted there with no path forward.”

Try this: “In my last role, I recognized that the small company size limited growth opportunities within the organization. After managing the same type of projects for years, I felt ready to take on more complex builds and high-level responsibilities. I’m excited to join a larger firm like yours where there is room to take on larger projects and a clear advancement path to Senior Management. I’m especially interested in your rotational development program and ongoing management training opportunities.”

This focuses on the positive growth opportunities you’re looking for in your next role, rather than dwelling on the limitations and frustrations of the past.

  1. Share concrete examples

Vague gripes are too subjective to carry real weight, so it’s important to offer concrete illustrations that avoid personal attacks. 

Instead of saying: “The company had no interest in developing employees or caring about our careers,” you can use a concrete example, such as: “Over 3 years at the company, I never received approval for external training, despite making a clear business case as to how it would have improved my skills and performance. I’m looking for an employer like yours that actively invests in employee growth through formal training programs and career development initiatives.”

The concrete example calls out the specific lack of training and development investment, without generalizing about the company not caring. This gives the interviewer useful context on why you were dissatisfied and left to pursue growth opportunities elsewhere. The vague gripe risks sounding like unsubstantiated complaints from a disgruntled employee.

  1. Take responsibility 

Don’t pin everything on your past employer. Interviewers want to see that you take ownership of your career choices. Try framing it as a learning experience: 

Instead of saying: “I left my last job because there was just no opportunity for advancement. They didn’t seem to care at all about developing employees or promoting from within,” you can say: “In hindsight, I realize I should have asked more questions about advancement opportunities and training programs at the interview. Moving forward, I know to prioritize joining a company where leadership is actively invested in employee development, like you are here.”

The second response takes ownership instead of purely blaming the employer. By stating that you could have done more research on the company’s advancement policies and expressing regret for not prioritizing it sooner, you pivot to share what you have learned and how you’ll apply it to assess potential new employers. This demonstrates maturity, self-reflection, and accountability for your career choices.

  1. Be mindful of tone

More important than what you say is how you say it. Keep a neutral, professional tone when discussing difficult topics. You can be honest without being bitter or confrontational.

Instead of saying: “My previous manager was incompetent and had no business being in charge. She would take credit for my work and blame me for her mistakes.” You can say: “My prior manager and I didn’t see eye-to-eye on some aspects of leadership and work style. I tend to thrive in autonomous roles with collaborative, empowering management. While I gained valuable experience, I realized the situation was no longer a good fit for me professionally. Moving forward, I’m looking for an open, communicative culture with growth-oriented leaders.”

The second response maintains a calm, neutral tone using descriptive language rather than venting emotions. It provides respectful context about the management mismatch without calling names or sounding resentful. This comes across as far more mature and shows that you’re focused on finding the right fit.

The bottom line

Interviewers don’t expect you to gush about the employer that you’re leaving. They just want to understand the situation so they can assess whether you’re a good match.

So take a breath. With a calm, thoughtful approach, you can tactfully discuss even the messiest of departures. The right way of framing past difficulties shows self-awareness, maturity, and that you’re focused on the future. And that’s what interviewers really want to see.

Need more job search tips? Or making your next move within construction? Connect with our team to learn how Hudson Cooper Search can help.


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