There is no way to avoid it being asked about your last job or previous work so the best action step is to prepare for it. Potential employers are constantly on the look out for the best talent to and you want to assure them that you are just that.
There are a number of circumstances that you might be in — currently employed, “in between jobs”, laid off, fired, freshly resigned, “seeking new opportunities”— and answering the “last job” question adequately could catapult you into a company's good graces. While your own answer might not be the most easy to talk about, there are ways to present employers with a silver lining without glossing over or sugarcoating the truth.
If you are CURRENTLY EMPLOYED:
You are still technically employed but for whatever reasons, you’ve decided that you need a change. Remember that, in this case, the ideal answer is from the employer’s perspective. You are trying to sell yourself to them so mold your answer in a way that appeals to them.
- Acknowledge the good. You are considering leaving your current position because the new one, and the company offering it, are just too good to resist. While the employer already knows that you are interested in them, explain from your personal perspective and circumstance why this is so. But be careful because you don't want to sell your interest in them to the point of sounding insincere.
- Highlight positive and avoid the negative (if possible). The employer will want to understand where you are coming from and this entails your reasons for wanting to leave your current position. Put the spotlight on the positive aspects of the open position and what you can gain and contribute to it. Emphasize that you are not leaving your current company on bad terms or with demerits. Some negative aspects might have to be discussed but remember not to dwell on them. Its also a good idea to round back to the positive after bringing up a negative point.
- Discuss accomplishments in some detail. It's never enough to state that you are "seeking new challenges, experiences, opportunities, etc" and leave it at that. Share accomplishments and insights that you've gained from your current position and how that would be an asset for the position you are seeking.
If you are NOT CURRENTLY EMPLOYED:
Employers have a bias when it comes to candidates with resume gaps. They assume the worst about unemployed candidates and while this is an unfair predisposition, it's one that we have to deal with.
- Be prepared for the bias. Knowing that they have certain assumptions allows you to have an answer at the ready for when they ask about your resume gap, which they will. If you are in between jobs now, consider productive ways to spend the downtime. Improve or gain new skills to add to your resume by attending various trainings, doing volunteer or consulting work. This tells the employer that you are proactive even with the lack of structure.
- Trash talk is not an easy way out. Most people assume that blaming a previous employer for losing their last job takes the red tape off but this only adds more. If you are willing to bash a previous employer now, who is to say that you wont do the same to this potential employer in the futire? If you lost your last job because of something you did, own up to it (but do not dwell). If it really wasn't your fault, resisting the urge to trash talk tells potential employers that you are a team player and professional at all times.
- Laid off? Again, highlight your accomplishments and imbue that you lost your job for reasons out of your control. Cite lessons learned and experience gained while you were at your last job. Keep things positive, employers like optimists as much as they do realists.
- Fired? This is a sensitive case and while the degree of the reason for being fired will affect the situation, emphasize the lessons learned from the whole experience. Draw the positive out of the negative. You want to assure the employer that this was an isolated case and that you are not a risky hire.
If you RESIGNED:
Choosing to leave your last job provides yet another angle for the answer you provide. Because a resignation is within your control, you may have even more to answer for this time.
- Point to the new job having things the old one didn't. Having a clear idea of what you want for yourself means you are decisive. If the new job is aligned to your plans for the future, the employer will be assured of a certain level of productivity or consistency from you. Be careful with how you disclose your reasons as well. If they are generic reasons such as toxic management or low pay, the employer might foresee the resignation as something that could happen with them later on.
- Highlight the positive. Like you would for any interview, do research on the company and communicate how the new company possesses challenges, opportunities, and responsibilities that are aligned with what you want in life. This partially justifies your choice to leave your last job. You want the employer to know that their company and the position are the kind of work that you've been looking for or are trained to do.
Things to keep in mind
Employers are proactively on the look out for red flags in their candidates and if they're not, chances are they are predisposed to a certain opinion after seeing your work history, education, skill set, or the clothes you're wearing for the interview. Your job is not only to impress but to assure them of your credibility, work ethic, motivation, and just you in general.
Interviewers and potential employers ask questions about all previous work experience but they are most interested in the most recent jobs. Your entire work history give employers an idea of your character patterns and if your most recent work history isn't your favorite to talk about, put some time into how you can best present it anyway. It's more relevant for employers to know what you were like 6 months ago as opposed to six years ago.