Ask an Expert: How Do I Answer 'Why Did You Leave Your Last Job?'

Why Did You Leave Your Last JobJob seekers are commonly asked, "Why did you leave your last job?" or "Why are you leaving your current position?" And most job seekers aren't sure how to answer these questions. Is there a right or wrong answer? Is honesty always the best policy?

Job interviews are a delicate balance of preparation and spontaneity. You should always arrive at an interview knowing how you want to present yourself and ready to answer the usual questions, which usually require you to name your biggest weakness or where you want to be in 10 years. Yet, you don't want to come across as nervous and stiff by delivering a memorized speech, either.

So how do you prepare for and answer the question, "Why did you leave your last job?" Sometimes the truth is complicated and doesn't paint you in a flattering light, but lying to hiring managers is rarely good and often detrimental. It's a question that's sure to come up, and how you answer it can make or break your chances of being hired. But how you craft your answer also depends on the circumstances surrounding your departure from the last job.

"I wanted more money/a promotion/more responsibilities"

Most workers eventually reach a point in their career when they realize they've hit a plateau in their current position. They're not in danger of losing their jobs, but the odds of being promoted, getting a substantial raise or learning new skills are slim to none. Rather than complain about your past situation, reposition the details to show your ambition.

Example: "I had an excellent experience at Acme Bros., and I am grateful that I was able to meet so many intelligent and creative individuals who taught me so much. However, after two years in my position, I knew I wanted to broaden my skills and take on new responsibilities. Unfortunately, the structure of our department didn't allow for the career path I wanted to pursue, which is why I decided to look for a new opportunity."

"I was fired (not laid off)"

Sometimes you don't leave a job voluntarily, and the separation isn't always on good terms. If you were fired from your last job, don't lie and don't focus on the negative. Whether or not you want to divulge everything is up to you, but your emphasis should be on what you accomplished while working at your last job and what you learned.

If you were fired for breaking company policy, your answer should focus on what you learned.

Example: "Unfortunately, I made a mistake that went against company policy. It was my fault, and I accept full responsibility for it. Although I wish it had never happened, I've come away from the situation certain that I will always use better judgment in the future."

If you were fired because you and your boss hated each other, concentrate on the good.

Example: "My former manager and I were both passionate about the business, and our main goal was always to do what was best for the company. We didn't always see eye to eye on issues, and ultimately he thought it was best to part ways. He valued my contribution to the company and I learned so much from him, but I'm ready to use that knowledge in a new position."

"I was laid off (not fired)"

At other times, involuntary termination isn't anyone's fault. If the company can't afford to keep you on the payroll or it shuts dow, you couldn't have prevented your termination. Rather than focus on being laid off or show any bitterness about your unemployment, emphasize what you learned and where you want to go.

Example: "Due to financial issues, Boulder Industries was forced to lay off 100 employees last year, and unfortunately, I was one of them. But I am grateful for all that I learned during my time there. When I took the job, I didn't know much about HTML, but now I'm proficient at it and am eager to build upon these skills in my next position. Plus, I now realize that I can overcome any difficulties that come my way as a result."

What to avoid

Leaving a company isn't always a pleasant experience, and it's not always easy to explain. These examples can give you an idea of how to frame your responses, but they're not one-size-fits all templates, either. Each person's situation differs, so your best guide is to follow your instincts and keep the following tips in mind:

1. Never badmouth your former boss or employer.

The way you talk about your last boss is how this hiring manager assumes you'll talk about him or her. Focus on the positive and don't lay blame.

2. Don't lie

You can easily get caught in a lie if your future employer calls your last boss to verify your employment history. That could result in you not getting the job. Don't try to cover up a bad experience with a series of lies.

3. Use your best judgment

Although you shouldn't lie, you shouldn't divulge negative information without being directly asked. Feel free to say that you and your former boss had differing viewpoints rather than admitting the two of you got into a fistfight during a meeting. Armed with the above-mentioned advice, you should now be an expert at answering the question, "Why did you leave your last job?"

Now they want to hear from YOU. E-mail your question about finding a job, dealing with unemployment, improving your work world, or anything else that comes to mind.

Our experts will pick a question each week to answer from their perspectives.

Next:More Questions Like, "Why Did You Leave Your Last Job?"

Related Stories from CNN Money
Read Full Story