“Can you tell me what made you leave your previous employer?”

This is an interesting question to ask a potential candidate, as their response can provide immediate insight into the type of employee they are, their passions and what drives them. The thing about leaving a role is there is always a reason and quite often people have more than one. Sometimes the first reason they give can be their polished response that covers up the others – so I always press on to see if there is more to be learned from a longer discussion. Money, professional growth, team culture, flexibility – what a candidate reveals as important to them in their career can help you determine whether they are the right fit for you.

It’s likely something changed to make them seek employment elsewhere

Yes, I do get the piece around people joining organisations and leaving poor managers. Reasons for leaving, when explored properly, can tell you a lot. If there are several previous roles to be worked through in the interview, look for the repeating pattern of behaviour. Most likely something changed in the person’s circumstances. This might be a new manager, or a change to the working environment such as being asked to come back to the office after working remotely for some time. Suddenly this person became open to a recruitment call they might have previously ignored or interested in a role that popped up in their social media feeds. The way an employee reacts to change can reveal a lot about their appropriateness for a role. It is worth discussing this point to get a feel for how rigid a person may be in a working environment, or if they have an understanding that some changes are necessary for a business to remain productive and competitive.

The employee might be looking for “more”

Leaving for more is often a common reason but does it hide other things? Keep in mind – it is much easier to say “I was offered more money” than to say you didn’t get on with a new boss or disagreed with the strategic direction of the organisation. This may have been the original reason that caused the person to look. Your interview process should delve deeper. Lack of flexibility is another easy reason to give that might cover over other grievances the person has. Make sure you hear out their original explanation, and then ask, “What else caused you to look?”. If it was a reoccurring grievance with a manager, their response may provide clues to how this candidate manages conflict. If they had tried to implement strategies to manage this conflict, which after time proved unsuccessful, it shows a willingness to work on relationships but also personal boundaries when pushed too far. These can be attractive attributes in a potential employee and should not necessarily be viewed as a bad thing.

Be aware of those driven by money

There are some common reasons that can be quite insightful. If the person explains their main motivation was more money, they may have been underpaid. If they indicate they changed for money several times in their career, they could be very driven by money. This is ok, but you should expect this person to be continually pushing the envelope in relation to pay rises throughout their time with you, so you should be clear on your pay scales and review processes from the outset.

A better role – or better cultural alignment?

When people leave it is helpful to understand if they went to a better role, or just a role that took them away from a situation they didn’t like. If someone is frustrated by several things about their work environment, have they taken the time to assess what they really want in a role and an organisation? By listening to their reasoning, you will pick up cues indicating what attracted them to change. Some meaningful things may be “I wanted to be involved in an exciting and inspiring project”, “the role provided opportunity for development”, or “it was an opportunity to work with a great brand”.  Each of these statements can assist you when deciding if they are the right fit for your organisation.

Reasons for leaving can have different connotations. Always probe so you get the right perspective. Some common reasons:

  • More money – “the previous organisation was under-paying me”, could mean “I am always looking for more money and will change if offered more”.
  • The management team was not aligned with my values – “there was a direct misalignment”, could also mean “they would not let me do what I wanted and kept trying to make me accountable”.
  • The new role is closer to home – “I was commuting a long way and found it too time consuming”, could really mean “I want to spend as little time as possible commuting, so don’t expect me to do anything extra”. In the current environment be careful with this, as candidates are generally looking for more balance and flexibility.

Interestingly, this Seek survey suggests mediocre management as the top reason for departures with more money being the fifth. But remember, there is usually more than one reason for leaving.

Every response to the “what made you leave?” question provides handy insight to how your new candidate will fit in with your culture, team and role. Likewise, asking why someone joined an organisation can give as much information as asking why they left a role. Take the time to think about their response and decide whether you provide a more supportive environment for them to grow and if they will bring the drive and experience you need to succeed. A good fit now will offer lasting benefits for your whole business.

As always, if you would like to discuss this post or anything else for that matter, please get in touch.

Happy recruiting!

Ian Hamilton

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio