Editor's note: This article is one in a series on how to answer some of the toughest job interview questions. Read previous articles on answering interview questions about yourself, your greatest weaknesses, and your salary expectations.
If you're looking for a new job while you're already employed, you can expect interviewers to ask why you're leaving your current employer. While this question is fair to ask, it can be tricky to answer. Leaving your current employer implies that you're unhappy in some way, but sharing those feelings may not be appropriate in an interview.
"In today's day and age, traditional responses like 'looking for growth' or 'seeking more opportunities' won't cut it," said Lindsay Gaal, chief human resources officer at accounting firm Friedman LLP in New York City. "Employers are looking for, and almost expect, stronger answers because creativity is key in a competitive job landscape."
What the hiring manager wants to learn
Hiring managers ask this question for two reasons: to learn why you are looking for a new job and to see how you choose to talk about your current employer, said Michelle Armer, chief people officer at the job website CareerBuilder, based in Chicago.
"If you bad-mouth your current employer, it is a red flag for hiring managers; whereas if you speak highly of them but simply talk about how you're looking to take the next step in your career, it shows that you are mature, professional, and goal-oriented," she said.
Your answer may also provide clues about your goals, said Gina Curtis, executive recruiting manager at JMJ Phillip Group and career coach for the career-coaching firm Employment BOOST in Troy, Mich. In some cases, those goals indicate that you might not be the best fit — for instance, if you say you are looking for advancement, but are interviewing at a smaller organization that can't offer you as many opportunities.
Finally, knowing why you're leaving your current employer helps the potential employer at the offer stage, Curtis said.
"They can truly understand your pain points and what will get you to accept a new position," she said.
Good strategies for answering the question
Go into an interview assuming you'll be asked this question. To provide a strong answer, Gaal suggested researching the organization to learn about new initiatives and using what you've learned to frame your answer.
For example, you might say something like, "I want to join an organization that is growth-oriented and innovative. I see that in the past year, your firm grew its employee numbers by 15% and expanded to new practice areas." That response is "not about the past; it's about the future," Gaal said.
"I love to see candidates who deliver well-informed responses," she added. "It shows me that they are taking this opportunity seriously and that they truly want to contribute to our firm."
Another strategy for answering the question is to share the kinds of tangible changes you want in your career, suggested Armer.
"Examples may include an opportunity to expand upon your current area of expertise, the chance to take on more responsibility, work with clients in different industries, or experience working in a different type of team or organizational setting," she said.
But "be authentic in your response," she cautioned, "as you never know how this could impact your future role if you are hired."
What not to say
An honest answer to this question may include some negative reasons for leaving your current job, such as a difficult boss or demanding schedule, but Armer said candidates should not share that type of information with the hiring team.
"Instead, focus on positive ideas first," she said. "And if asked directly, you can speak lightly about areas for improvement."
Curtis also said that you should never speak poorly of your current employer. "This will only reflect negatively on you and can make you look difficult," she said. "Keep all answers positive."
— Stephanie Vozza is a freelance writer based in Michigan. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien, a JofA senior editor, at Courtney.Vien@aicpa-cima.com.