If you currently hold a job, but are interviewing, you’re likely familiar with one of the most common but challenging questions: “Why are you leaving your current job?” A knee-jerk answer can hurt your chances at getting a good job offer. A thoughtful answer can ultimately contribute to future career success. This is the third and last story in a series on how to handle sensitive questions in the job interview.

This particular question is one that serves multiple purposes for your hiring manager, including whether you’re having personality conflicts with your boss or co-workers. Employers assume that whatever character traits you possess at your current job could continue into the new, prospective one. They expect you to put a positive spin on this question versus disparaging your current employer. You don't want to help make the process of elimination easy. Your thoughtful response is critical.

Here are some of the things hiring managers are really asking when they inquire why you’re leaving your current job. Are you:

• Difficult to work with?

• Professional?

• Able to handle tough situations (like this question!) with poise?

• Going to have similar issues in the same job?

• Eager to work with them?

Anything too far beyond, “I’m looking for a better challenge,” has the risk of you appearing negative. Chances are you DO seek a more rewarding opportunity. You’re better off saying positive things about your employer than disparaging them. By saying, in effect, “I’m grateful for having learned a lot, but want to be able to advance in my field,” you remain professional. You’re explaining that, at this point, it’s a mismatch – versus opening up a proverbial can of worms.

Try these tips

Try these tips to keep you out of the interview minefield:

• Don’t spin the whine-o-meter and vent about your current job, your boss or the organization. If your comments are negative, then it raises questions about your own judgment: why have you stayed at the company so long, and are you vindictive about potentially being terminated?

• Do put a positive spin on the reason you’re leaving. The more you take the high road, and that includes listing positive aspects of your current employer, the more professional you’ll appear. Your interviewer doesn’t want to feel that you badmouth companies – as they put themselves in the shoes of an employer, too.

• Don’t dwell on the answer. Your focus on the topic will last as long as you let it.

• Do segue into discussing why you feel you’ll thrive at the new company: “Based on what I know about this position, I think it would be a great match because of xyz.”

• Don’t be coy and say that you can’t explain the issue. That’s a cop-out and can be considered disrespectful. Better to focus on what you ARE looking for.

• Do tone it down. Take on a straightforward, professional tone that communicates your desire to make a difference, leverage your skills and work with a strong team.

• Don’t give the impression that you’re bordering on desperate to get away from your current employer — no matter how “motivated” you are. Every prospective employer wants to feel that you’re in demand in the marketplace. That said, enthusiasm is a core, valued trait in any job candidate, and you must show you genuine interest in the position and explain why.

• Do give a thoughtful, concise answer when asked why you’re leaving your job. Then transition to how you’re looking forward to the opportunity of working with them.

“Why are you leaving your current job?” is a complex interview question worth preparing for. If you think strategically about your response, you can turn a perceived minefield into a potential gold mine.

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