While most everyone experiences a “nontraditional” career change at some point, seemingly out-of-place transitions on your resume will raise questions about your work history. Whether it’s a gap in employment, shorter tenure, or even an industry change, hiring managers will want to know more. Here’s how to answer their questions with just enough context to close the topic of conversation and move on to what matters most: the value you can bring now.
This bears repeating: career changes are a normal part of working regardless of your circumstances.
Maybe you were laid off or fired, took time off to care for a family member, wanted to pursue more fulfilling work, or only took a job as a short-term solution. Maybe your employer changed leadership or work policy or wasn’t transparent about the workload and hours. There may have been disruptions in your field or a decline in your industry, and you wanted to find a more financially stable opportunity.
Whatever the situation, be honest. And if your reasons point to your former employer, refrain from casting them in a negative light. Always express respect for their decisions.
Give Context, But Don’t Overshare
Your interviewer needs more context than “It was the right time to leave,” but not too much more. Being able to tell your career story is an important part of interviewing well, but this is not the time to do it. Keep your explanation simple so you can spend the rest of your interview time looking forward.
Give the minimum amount of information needed for your interviewer to understand and even empathize with your situation. If it makes sense, include brief details about what you learned or how the change has better prepared you for this new job.
Practice Before You Interview
A practiced answer comes across as genuine but matter-of-fact. That’s the tone you want here. Rehearse your response in a mirror or with a friend until you can say it confidently, without rambling or emotion. Here are sample explanations of common career transition scenarios:
Policy or Leadership Change
- “My previous organization changed their hybrid work policy from three days in-office to five. I respect their decision to make the change, but I couldn’t do the long commute five days a week.”
- “There was a change in leadership and strategic direction. While I respect the new leadership and direction, it felt like the right time to pursue other opportunities.”
- “They added a large travel commitment to the responsibilities of the job, and that’s not something I could do.”
Being Fired or Laid Off
- “Unfortunately, I was let go after losing a major client due to miscommunication. I completely understand and respect their choice. Since then, I’ve focused on my project management skills and have a better system to manage client communications.”
- “I was laid off after a merger.”
- “They restructured, and now I’m looking for a new position.”
(For layoffs, specify if your entire department or a large number of people were also let go or if there were multiple rounds of layoffs.)
Gaps in Employment or Short Tenure
- “I moved to a new area and had a couple of shorter-term jobs while looking for something in my field.”
- “I had a sick family member and took time off to care for them. Now I’m ready to get back to work.”
- “I’m proud of my work during those six months but knew I would burn out if I stayed. I respect that a 60-hour workweek enables them to reach their goals, but that’s not the right environment for me.”
Changing Industries or Functional Areas
- “Marketing might seem like a big jump from library science, but there are a lot of through lines in storytelling, information organization, understanding user behavior, and creating digital experiences. I have a fresh perspective to offer, which is a benefit to any marketing team.”
- “In corporate finance, I recognized the role education plays in leveling the playing field for career opportunities. Transitioning to this nonprofit allows me to directly champion equity in higher education, merging my financial acumen with a deeper purpose.”
Step Back in Title
- “I took a step back in title because I believed in the organization’s mission, and their titles didn’t follow the same hierarchy as my previous role. My job responsibilities and accomplishments show you that while the title may appear smaller, the job itself was a growth opportunity.”
- “I took a step back in title and responsibilities so I could dedicate more time to my family. Now, I’m ready to shift focus back to my career.”
You’re Explaining, Not Defending
Hiring managers aren’t looking to demonize you for your choices; they simply want an explanation so they can move on to the more productive part of the interview. Remember that you’re not defending your work history; you’re demonstrating your adaptability, resilience, and ability to communicate clearly about topics that can be difficult to talk about.
While shifts in our career journeys may seem like detours, they often enrich our skills and perspectives in unexpected ways. Provide your concise, practiced explanation and direct the conversation toward the future; it’s what you can do for this organization now that matters.