Quitters never win - or can they?
September 29, 2021 8:26 AM   Subscribe

I’m very, very likely going to quit my job soon, without a backup plan. How do I explain this down the line to a potential future employer?

I'm hoping some more diplomatic, job interview-savvy folks can weigh in here:

Let’s hypothetically assume that I will soon join the growing ranks of the Great Resignation, without a new offer in hand before leaving my current job (see below for reasons why, if that matters).

Let’s also assume that, eventually, I will be in a job interview someday, and I’m asked the dreaded question, “Why did you leave your last job?”

I don’t think being completely honest here will help me; in this case, it’s because I’ve been rudderless and set up to fail over the past year. I’m regularly pulling 12 hour days, doing the work of several people, and my company is actively ignoring the problem (it all stems from a mass exodus of people earlier in the year, and no one has been hired to take their place).

Oh, and it turns out that I won’t be getting a raise or promotion for my trouble, so...I’m done. I need my life back.

In any event, how in the hell do I frame this to someone who’d hire me? Thanks very much in advance.
posted by otenba to Work & Money (26 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Do you have the option to put your foot down about your hours and responsibilities? Can you refuse to work longer hours than a normal workweek, consequences be damned?

Why not slack a bit? Don't enable your employer to take advantage of you. They may fire you, but then you can collect unemployment.
posted by vitout at 8:32 AM on September 29, 2021 [29 favorites]

I think the best way to frame leaving any old job is by talking about what you are looking for in the next one. Instead of "I was set up to fail, overworked, problems were ignored" to "I left because I'm looking for a role with a supportive team, work-life balance, opportunities for growth, and engaged and active leadership and my research leads me to believe your company XXX can offer those things." Just turn around what you disliked into what you want moving forward. It's not negative, it's honest, and it shows you think highly of the company you are interviewing if you think they offer what you want.
posted by greta simone at 8:34 AM on September 29, 2021 [83 favorites]

Leave out this part: it’s because I’ve been rudderless and set up to fail over the past year.

Also try to sound more generous towards your current employer - you can say what you're saying but tone it down a little to "I was regularly pulling 12 hour days due to staffing shortages, and the company didn't have any path towards changing that in the foreseeable future - I knew that wasn't sustainable for me, so I decided to take some time off before starting a job search." Frame it as an incompatibility.

But yeah, what would happen if you started working 8-hour days instead of 12-hour days? What would happen if you only did one person's worth of work? (I'm not saying that enforcing this boundary would be fun or easy but at least you'd have four extra hours a day.)
posted by mskyle at 8:35 AM on September 29, 2021 [17 favorites]

What greta simone said, or "I left to deal with a family crisis that has since resolved." You can then follow that with "I'm now looking for an opportunity (what greta simone said.)"
posted by DarlingBri at 8:38 AM on September 29, 2021 [4 favorites]

One perspective (of many, I'm sure): I was on the hiring committee in an interview earlier this week where someone asked the candidate why they were leaving their current job after just about a year. The candidate's answer was simply "There's a lot of turnover [in that role, company, industry]. I'm burned out." I interpreted that as "it's a shit job." Makes sense -- no concern from me about that.

If we were hiring for that same role or in the same industry, it might give me pause, I suppose. Even then, if I got any sense that their current employer in particular was the issue, I wouldn't be worried.

On the other hand, I have had a candidate go on and on about how terrible the place they were coming from was, and it was the same role in the same industry. It reached a point where it might be saying more about them than about their employer. I was concerned they would feel the same about us.

So my advice, from my perspective, is that you can be honest about the negative aspects of your current job, but don't spend much time on it.
posted by whatnotever at 8:38 AM on September 29, 2021 [6 favorites]

Understandably, you don't yet have the whole picture. You're at step 1, but there will be some other steps in the process:

1. you get sufficiently pissed off with your current job
2. you resign
3. you spend some time doing... something else? finding yourself or whatever
4. you figure out it's time to get another job
5. you search for a while
6. after due consideration, you apply for A Great New Opportunity
7. you're at the interview

From the lofty perspective of step 7, you'll have a whole transformative story to tell. Right now, you don't know how that story goes. Understandably! It hasn't even happened yet.

Some people will think & plan for the whole process in advance, because it's in their nature. Or, they're obliged to because money. If those factors don't apply to you - then take your time & let future-you see how it all works out. Then tell the story from that perspective of future-you.
posted by rd45 at 8:41 AM on September 29, 2021 [10 favorites]

Remember that a period of feeling lost and rudderless is the time when you have least in the way of a coherent story in your head about where you have been and want to go. You are feeling burnt out, not in control. However there will necessarily be a gap before you start interviewing for another job. Use that gap to actively think about what you want next - also use it for the winds of serendipity so maybe work their magic; don't make it too short! Then compose your story as you are preparing to interview for the new job - not as you are leaving the old one in desperation.
posted by rongorongo at 8:43 AM on September 29, 2021 [5 favorites]

I think greta simone's direction is a good one. I imagine the specifics vary on industry, but I think the way I think about it is: why do they ask this question? They want to know that you are excited to work there, that you won't quit immediately, etc etc. So it's less about them caring so much about your previous job, and more about you needing to convince them that you will be a hard-working and loyal employee (of course, I'm not saying you shoudl actually bust your ass to the bone for a new employer, but this is the general type of impression that the people hiring you will want). As such, I try to frame my responses in terms of this.

"Well, at $previous_job I had just finished some big projects,[1] and I knew that I wanted to find a new direction for my career--exactly like what I can do at $interviewing_company.[2] I decided to quit before taking on any new projects,[3] and decided to give myself a little time off to try and find a company that would be a really good fit, where I can ideally grow for many years to come[4]. Luckily, I found your company and am really excited about the opportunities in $interviewing_position.[5]"

[1] emphasizes that you were doing important things there, and that you were in fact being considerate leaving when you did. I personally would not mention things like burnout etc during an interview, because the mba class gonna mba and anything that tries to appeal to humanity is not as convincing as things which make you look like a good and considerate worker

[2] as greta simone said, keeping the focus on the new job is a great idea. this isn't about "I was pissed off and left," it's about wanting to find something that is a better match. That does leave space for bringing up issues at the old job, but they should always be framed as "and that's why I am so excited about your company."

(note: I think you should investigate any new companies to make sure you won't just have a repeat of your old job, but the job interview isn't really the time to do that, even if there is a song and dance where they make it seem like it is, and you sort of ask the friendly questions in this realm...the time to do the real investigation is after you have a job offer--that's when the real conversations can be had)

[3] look at how considerate I am! I almost _had_ to leave when I did, otherwise I would screw over my team even more than they already are screwed by losing me! I'm a team player!

[4] stuff like this will show them that you are thinking about your career strategically, that you're not just some vile job hopper (note, as a vile job hopper, I am very good at selling that I am not a vile job hopper!), that you're thinking about where you want to grow and, gosh darnit, this company seems like a great fit. again: reframe everything in terms of why this job is great and you are a great fit for it

[5] and again, you bring the conversation back to the company and the role at play

Interviewers are humans and humans love to talk about themselves and their experiences. Framing things in terms of them and their great company (which they are interesting in!) vs you and your boring old company (which they sort of have to get to know because it's an interview but don't really care at all about otherwise) will keep the conversation in a space the interviewer cares a lot about. I often think the most successful fit/culture interviews (vs technical ones which have a different dynamic) are the ones where the interviewer talks about themselves or their company...without realizing they've done that, and thinking like they really came away with an understanding of you. Because people love themselves, so if they just talk about themselves the whole time, they will think you're great. Of course, there is an art to this...
posted by wooh at 8:57 AM on September 29, 2021 [8 favorites]

These questions often aren't even asked in an interview. Hopefully your gap isn't too large. Often, people apply currently in a job, so the question doesn't make the interview guide question lists usually. So don't stress too much!

If someone asks, it's likely just because someone is just curious, rather than it being a "defining moment" of the interview. If they ask, I would just say,

I really appreciated my time at [company], and I learned a ton there! My department was restructured and no longer had the resources to support growth in the company. I knew it was time to look for a company that was ready to invest in their employees and focus on growth.

It's mostly BS, but it will get you on to the next question without raising red flags. It demonstrates that you want to grow a company, while showing you derived value.
posted by bbqturtle at 9:10 AM on September 29, 2021 [9 favorites]

An HR or hiring person can confirm this but I’m pretty sure that they just ask this to see if you had been fired for cause (fraud, etc). Other than that, a basic response of “I was looking for new challenges” is pretty expected
posted by raccoon409 at 9:15 AM on September 29, 2021 [4 favorites]

Yep to all of the above.

This question also serves as a litmus test of your professional diplomacy skills: Hiring managers know very well that previous jobs are never perfect -- otherwise, you'd still be there. But by asking this pretty neutral question, they can very quickly see if you're willing to badmouth your last employer to strangers, which makes you much more likely to act more negatively (and less constructively) with clients and coworkers. No one wants to hire that person. Any answer is fine so long as it's forward-looking and generally positive about the new opportunity.
posted by mochapickle at 9:30 AM on September 29, 2021 [9 favorites]

I quit and am interviewing. People seem actively excited when I'm just like "New opportunities, realized remote work is awesome for me." but I also add on something about looking for something with growth potential because my old company was a small department and no one was going anywhere so I couldn't advance.

That's a perfectly fine reason to want a different job, no need to explain more or be negative. I know some very bad things about my previous employer but that's neither here nor there, it doesn't matter anymore.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 9:39 AM on September 29, 2021

No one you want to work for, because non-monstrous interviewers don't care about gaps in general, and during a pandemic specifically: "Please explain this gap"
You: "I decided to take a unique opportunity to spend $season with my family, and along the way I $didThisThingThatSoundsGoodForTheJobAndIsntTotallyALie".

.. then you just change lanes into talking about whatever that cool thing is and no one speaks of the gap in your resume again.
posted by Geckwoistmeinauto at 9:40 AM on September 29, 2021

If you want to minimize a gap in your resume, consider waiting until the first weekday of a month to quit. You can then engage with potential employers for the rest of that month without disclosing that you left your previous job. You can generally get away with this as long as you are not applying with people in close contact with your previous employers, because everyone marks the box for "please do not contact this employer" (or whatever the equivalent is) since at-will employment lets so many employers fire you for applying elsewhere if they want.

This may not give you enough time to find your next position, but since resumes generally just list months, it will buy you about four weeks.

I did this by total dumb luck. Just happened to walk out on the ideal day. I got lucky and got hired by a new employer to start the next month. So no "gap" in my resume. Nothing to explain.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 9:57 AM on September 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

I’ve done this several times.

"There was some family stuff to sort out" works fine and is basically true even if the family is you and the stuff was being utterly sick of the place you were working. You don’t tell them that part of course.

One time I went with "I quit to pursue my own project" followed by "…and it didn’t work out" but that was a special case as the project was relevant to the job and it was an atmosphere where people respected giving your own projects a shot.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 10:19 AM on September 29, 2021 [4 favorites]

It probably helps that a lot of people are leaving jobs right now, so you are not likely to be the only future job applicant with a gap in their resume around this time.

I'd probably try to concentrate on the positive aspects of why you left, hopefully focusing on any professional development that you might decide to do when you're not working. You can imply that the company sucked, but I'd leave that as subtext.

If you do project-based work, I'd probably mention that you left at the end of a project/assignment (if you are doing that), since that's generally a big positive to future employers—it suggests that you're not going to screw them down the road when you're ready to move on, by leaving in the middle of something.

Though in general, I would echo some of the previous posters' advice about potentially not leaving just yet, and pushing back against your current employer for some better work/life balance in the meantime. (Potentially by just refusing to work 12-hour days and letting things go undone, since they have made it clear they're not going to compensate you for the additional effort.) On one hand, yes this does create some risk that you might be fired, but if the company is hurting that badly for bodies it seems unlikely they'd immediately fire you. And it keeps some money coming in while you search for a new position.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:21 AM on September 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

They may fire you, but then you can collect unemployment.

That might depend on your specific location.

This would be very bad advice for example, in Canada - where if you are terminated/fired with cause, you are not eligible for unemployment.
posted by rozcakj at 11:04 AM on September 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

I always always left my previous jobs because of "limited growth potential" regardless of my actual situation and how I felt about it. Except for one situation where my small employer had been acquired and the writing was extremely on the wall (in which case I just said so - in part because I did want to negotiate a slightly longer start date than some places wanted).

And I think a graceful answer for why you left when you did - without actually saying anything concrete - is something like "there was a natural stopping point at that time and it was feasible for me to leave without the next opportunity lined up, and it would have been difficult for a lot of people if I'd spun up on the next project and then left."

But also? Normalize gaps, fuck capitalism. "Oh, that was a planned gap." There is nothing meaningful about a gap of less than years unless you're working in semiconductors or some kind of cutting edge science. If you stayed home to raise your child, if you spent a year licking toads in the jungle, if you started to get a degree in corn fungus but then changed your mind, not working for some length of time means nothing about you as an employee and anybody still hanging some kind of importance on that has no management training and you don't want to work for them.
posted by Lyn Never at 11:10 AM on September 29, 2021 [9 favorites]

I had the opportunity to do a bucketlist project, and I just couldn't pass it up.
GinormoMegCorp: what was the project?
It was of a spiritual nature and it's pretty personal.

It's none of their business. It's reasonable and healthy for employees to have lives. "What might future employer say" is a form of coercion. Employers love it. We should try to not let them do this.

The many replies listed above are better than mine. I left a job to take a Road Trip that included the Grand Canyon, other National Parks, and Adventures. It was a spiritual journey in my version of spiritual. Good luck
posted by theora55 at 11:14 AM on September 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

“With everything going on the last year or so [gesture vaguely], it made me realize what I’m really looking forward to in my career. And that’s why I’m excited about the work at XYZ Corp.”

The pandemic is making people actually reevaluate what’s important, what they want, where they live, and who they work for and how. Agreed that if they grill you super hard and make you uncomfortable about something basic like switching a job - which at some point you usually quit a job when you interview for another one - then it’s probably not a great employer.
posted by Crystalinne at 11:25 AM on September 29, 2021 [7 favorites]

Anecdote: I quit my job last year without anything lined up. I had lots of phone screens, some interviews, and a job offer. At no point did anyone ask why I left my last job.
posted by paper chromatographologist at 11:32 AM on September 29, 2021 [2 favorites]

I always always left my previous jobs because of "limited growth potential" regardless of my actual situation and how I felt about it.

FWIW as a hiring manager/interviewer, I don't particularly like this one. I don't ask why people left their job anyway, but if it comes up, I wouldn't be thrilled to hear this. Why? Because I've had some experiences managing people who thought they weren't being promoted fast enough, when the fact was that they simply weren't ready for it. It's a frustrating place to be as a manager, and some people take that coaching better than others do. I think my roles provide a lot of opportunity for growth, and I also know that growth can come in ways other than promotions and raises. But whenever someone complains about "limited growth potential" to me, it raises a yellow flag that maybe this is someone who is unrealistic about how quickly they can grow, and they are going to bring those headaches to my team. I'm not saying I wouldn't hire someone who said this, but I do think it unnecessarily raises some questions.
posted by primethyme at 12:31 PM on September 29, 2021 [7 favorites]

+1 crystalline

You just say you realized where your passions lie and so took some time off to be able to read up on and pursue a job in that field. You look amazing for knowing what you want and going out and making it happen. Le fin.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 3:03 PM on September 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

IIRC, you had left your dead-end awful job and go into life sciences. That was 19 months ago. I assume you now despise a facet of life sciences. Lesson learned, that's why you walked away.
posted by parmanparman at 3:18 PM on September 29, 2021

I always ask why people left jobs.


When the answer is to make up some bullshit I can tell. Made up family stuff exposed as such in one follow up. Philosophical crises in 25 year old frat guys. Etc. Resume in garbage as soon as I can get them off the phone or out of my office.

When the answer is true it’s rarely a problem.

Here; the truth is is far better than any made up stuff. “My duties were doubled with no increase in pay or prospect of it. That didn’t work for me.” This is a seller’s market for employment - anyone interviewing you worth working for is prepared to pay you fairly for your work.
posted by MattD at 8:59 PM on September 29, 2021 [1 favorite]

As a hiring manager, a generic/diplomatic/neutral answer is what I'm looking for. What I don't want to hear is the candidate I interviewed who just said "Management." And when I pressed him further, he said that everyone he worked with was incompetent and only had their jobs due to nepotism. I mean, that may be true, but don't say that in an interview! I will say that this was not the only red flag for this candidate.
posted by radioamy at 11:49 AM on September 30, 2021 [1 favorite]

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