Job Interviews: Answering Why You Left Your Last Job When You Were Laid Off

WorkCoachCafeWe have several posts about answering the “Why did you leave your last job” question in a variety of situations (fired, left quickly, or something else – see the list at the bottom of this post).  In this post, we’ll address the circumstance of answering why you left your last job when you were laid off.

This can be a scary question for a job seeker.  However, if you answer smoothly in a matter-of-fact tone, with assurance, most interviewers move on to their next question.  

Please note: Being laid off is very different from being fired. 

An employer usually fires someone for a reason (“for cause”), whether real or imaginary on the part of the employer.  A “layoff” is typically a move by management to cut costs by reducing the number of employees.  Someone who is laid off qualifies, in the USA, for unemployment compensation.  Someone who has been fired typically does not qualify.  ”Down-sizing” is another term for a layoff.

If you were involved in a very large and very public layoff or business closing (like Enron or Lehman Brothers in the past), you may not need to answer this question.  The interviewer may already know why you are job hunting.  If you were laid off by a smaller employer or in a less public situation, you will probably need to explain what happened.

Layoffs Are Common

Layoffs happen all the time, in good times and bad.  Most people in business management are familiar with it and the process.  Particularly in this economy, many organizations have needed to let employees go.  Even large technology companies like Google and Hewlett Packard have had layoffs, and so have many other companies ranging from gigantic Citibank to American Airlines, Pepsi Cola, and JC Penny.

How to Answer Why You Left Your Last Job

Don’t feel like you need to apologize or explain, and don’t be defensive or feel you that you were not a good performer in your job.  Layoffs happen all the time, and VERY SELDOM are employers careful to retain their best employees and let go of poor performers.  

Usually layoffs happen too quickly for the employer to transfer their top employees to “safe” groups or safer jobs.  So, don’t feel you were laid off because of poor performance, and be sure that poor-me feeling, if you have it, doesn’t come across in an interview.

When this question comes up, as it often does, stick to the facts.  Be brief.  Be unemotional.  Be prepared!

What to say when asked?

K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple Sweetheart!)  Resist the impulse to tell the “inside story” about what went wrong at your former employer, no matter how juicy and interesting a story you think it is.  The more you talk, the greater the chance you will say something that will not make a good impression on the interviewer, or you will sound angry or obsessed with what happened.  Not good!

The interviewer is really interested only in discovering if you are qualified for this new job.  They don’t want too much detail (and you don’t want to share too much information), and they have several other questions to ask.  So don’t turn this into a monologue about how terrible management was, that crazy competitor who cut prices, etc.

1.  Answer the question with a simple, factual statement.

Think about how to best present this information, and practice saying it out loud a few times.  You want it to roll off your tongue, and clearly and concisely answer the question. 

For example, possible answers, depending on the situation:

  • Demand for the product (or service) our group/department/division provided/sold dropped, and management decided to close our group to reduce costs.
  • The company determined that they could save money by moving the jobs in our group to another location. 
  • To reduce costs, the company decided to hire an outside organization do the work our group did.  They out-sourced our jobs.
  • My original employer was acquired by [former employer], and the acquiring company moved our group’s operations elsewhere to reduce their costs.

Notice how short those answers are!  If a follow-up question about the layoff is asked, again, be brief and factual.  Not angry.

Assuming you were not the only person laid off, be sure to include a reference that makes that point clearly – like using the term “our jobs” rather than “my job” and “our group” rather than “I” when you answer this question.

2.  Ask a question.

You’ve put out the truth about what happened, and now it’s time to move on to the next topic.  You should have some questions you want to ask, too, and asking one of your questions immediately after you have answered this question is a good idea.

Remember…

The layoff was not your fault, and being laid off doesn’t mean you are or were a poor performer (see the Job-Hunt.org articles on Layoff Survival and Job Loss Recovery for more help dealing with the issue).  It’s more a matter of bad luck – wrong place; wrong time.  In your next job, keep your antenna up for signs of another layoff, and keep your LinkedIn Profile up-to-date and ready to support you in a job search. 

More About Answering Why You Left Your Last Job

How to Answer Why You Left When You Actually Quit

Reason for Leaving Your Job After 15 Years

Explaining Why You Left Your Last Job Too Soon

How Do I Talk About Being Fired When I Interview?

The Interviewer Asked Me Why I Left My Last Job and I Said Too Much!

Layoff Survival Guide (Job-Hunt.org)

Job Loss Recovery (Job-Hunt.org)

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About the author…

Online job search expert Susan P. Joyce has been  observing the online job search world and teaching online job search skills since 1995. Susan is a two-time layoff “graduate” who has worked in human resources at Harvard University and in a compensation consulting firm. In 2011, NETability purchased WorkCoachCafe.com, which Susan has been editor and publisher of WorkCoach since then.  Susan also edits and publishes Job-Hunt.org.  Follow Susan on Twitter at @jobhuntorg and on .

 

Comments

  1. Spot on Susan. Regardliess of why you were laid off, never go into the reasons beyond a “reorganization”, “downsizing” or “position eliminated.’

    When a candidate tried to tell me the special circumstances of their layoff, usually leading to a story, I would always disqualify them as there are 2 sides to every story and I just didn’t have the time to find out the other side.

  2. So now you’ve specifically answered for being fired or laid off, but not if you’ve quit because your boss was a tyranical jerk. Which was my case and has had me struggling to explain why its the only time I’ve quit in my life. Yes the generic KISS works, but the need to explain that you are trustworthy but getting yelled at for something it wasn’t your job to take care of, by three people, just made you snap.

    • Susan P. Joyce says:

      Hi Angela,

      I would not mention that the treatment “made you snap,” and I probably wouldn’t mention that being treated disrespectfully by management is not acceptable to you. But, I would certainly ask questions about how people are managed and how feedback is given to employees (frequency and timing of reviews, etc.). Emphasize the positive, and keep your antenna up to do your best to avoid that kind of situation in the future.

      Here are two posts specifically about how to address quitting in a job interview:
      1. Reason for Quitting Your Job After 15 years – the advice applies even for much shorter terms.
      2. Reason for Quitting Your Job Too Soon – advice for someone who quit after 7 months.

      Good luck with your job search!
      Susan

  3. I was just laid off due to several positions being terminated. It’s especially hard because I’m a mother who’s children went to school with me where I taught. Now I have to find a new school for all 3 of us. The whole thing is pretty disheartening. It’s hard not to want to give up on my profession. Thank you for your article. If I get an interview, I will try my best to KISS!

  4. Hello Susan:

    My situation is quite different, and I have not found an article or “advice” on how to address it. I was an employee who had a FMLA (Family Medical Leave Act) form signed and on file with my employer, and I was my Father’s Health Care Proxy. I requested the use of vacation days in order to care for my parent who was scheduled to undergo major surgery. The vacation request was granted. My parent’s hospital stay was extend by two additional days due to complications from the surgery, and while he recovered, the hospital was in the process of contacting rehabilitation facilities near his home for follow up care. I informed my employer via telephone and email of the setbacks my parent was going through, and even contacted my union representative (via phone and email as well). When I returned to work, my employer and the departmental HR manager asked to meet with me and inquired about my whereabouts. When I noted the dates and times that I contacted them, I was met with puzzled looks and informed that my messages did not have to be read. I was dumbfounded and stated that my Father was my first priority. By the time I returned to my cubicle, I noted an email from my supervisor indicating that she had accepted my resignation. Surprised, I went to her office, and she nor the HR manager were in their offices. I immediately went the the main HR Department and was informed by a manager that I should contact my union immediately. I did so and the union representative bluntly stated to me that she would bet that my supervisor and HR Manager would say completely opposite of what I had just informed her of. The union rep told me to go back to my cubicle and wait until she phoned me, and not to talk to anyone. She did contact me a few minutes later and stated that I should leave the university’s items at my desk, and leave the building by 5pm and not say anything to anyone. She would contact me the next day. I was in shock and could not believe what was happening. The following morning I was at the rehabilitation center sitting in on my Father’s first session (he was in the early stages of Dementia), and I received a telephone call from my union rep. She was very blunt with me and kept repeating that if she got me my job back, I would have to find someone to care for my Father. If, if if, is all she kept saying. To which I replied why she would think that I would my job. She then mentioned that “it was two against one.” It was not until much later that I understood the cold shoulder that I was receiving. I never understood the union/management dynamics very well. I was left to fend for myself because I had gone to “management” when I received the email from my supervisor . In the union rep’s mind, I should have contacted them first. My thought process was “just go to HR and see if something can be done.” I was not thinking about union vs. management. When the union rep questioned if my Father was really ill, and wanted to see his medical records, I obliged and obtained a copy of his medical records, and sent them to her, along with the name of the rehab facility that he was in at the time. During this time, I made inquiries to several employment lawyers, but they wanted $$$ just to look at the severance letter, and I did have the funds. But I was so naive at the time, thinking that my supervisor and the HR manager would realize that they were making a mistake, and the union rep would help me. But as soon as I signed the severance agreement, I got no further assistance from the union. My health coverage was cancelled in less than 3 weeks time, and to make matters worse, even though the union rep said that the “university would not stand in my way of obtaining unemployment”, it took 3.5 months for me to collect unemployment. I had to contact my state’s labor department, and a representative on my behalf contacted someone in UI, who then contacted me. I was informed that the claim took so long to process because they could not reach anyone at the university regarding my claim. I was told that no one was picking up the telephone.

    This happened in 2009, and now it is 2013, and my Father passed in mid July. I have applied to/filled in numerous online job applications since then, and have only had one interview so far (a telephone interview). I was/am so nervous about what to say when I am asked why I am looking for employment now. (That was one of the phone interviewer’s questions to me). I did not know how to answer other than to state that I was employed up until mid 2009 and was then let go. And yes, I did go into the story about the email that I supervisor sent to me.

    How do I speak about my former position? If asked. My resume reads that I was in Admin for 8 3/4 years, then I immediately became a caregiver for 4.5 years.

    I know that I did not resign my position. There is no email from me to my boss stating so. On job applications, I have to use the supervisor’s name since she was the person who signed my time sheet. But luckily, I have been able to secure references from other supervisors that I have worked with in the past at the university.

    I know that there is a silver lining to everything. The positives that I take away are being able to see my dad through his illness. There were good times, bad times, scarey times, and very loving times. It made me think about the way in which human beings treat each other. While my job dissolved into thin air right in front of my eyes, I vowed that I would never treat anyone the way that I was treated. I could not. I also thought about and prayed on the power of forgiveness and though I will never understand why my supervisor did what she did, I forgave her, and the departmental hr manager.

    Susan, in your March 18, 2013 article you state that someone who is laid off receives UI compensation. Since I did receive such compensation, should I use the term laid off if the question about my previous job arises?

    Thank you for any words of wisdom that you can give me.

    • Susan P. Joyce says:

      Hi Theresa,

      What an unfortunate and painful experience for you, making your father’s illness even more distressing. How wonderful that you can find the silver lining!

      I don’t think I would claim to be “laid off” simply because you received unemployment compensation. That’s a bit of a stretch, and probably not what your former manager will say, if asked.

      When you are asked in an interview, simply state that you are looking for employment now because you left the university to care for your father. Your father has recently passed away, and now you need to earn a living.

      Simple and honest.

      Don’t over-share what happened in the past! I doubt that follow-on questions will be asked often, but if they are asked, you could say that the situation required you to resign to take care of your father. That has the added benefit of probably being what your former manager will say as well, if asked. Which is good.

      OR, if you aren’t comfortable with the “resignation” statement, you could say that there was a misunderstanding about the seriousness of your father’s condition which resulted in termination of your employment.

      But, saying you resigned is a better answer than that you were terminated, and probably has the added benefit of being more in sync with what the university’s official records show.

      Good luck with your job search!
      Susan

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