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“What were the Circumstances of Your Departure?”

One of the most critical factors in evaluating a candidate’s work history is how/why they left previous jobs.  As a recruiter, how you ask the question, and how you receive the answer, will impact the accuracy and completeness of the information you receive.  Questions about departures must be asked without bias – don’t word the question to presume either a voluntary or forced departure.

Never say “Why did you leave Company A?”  By using the word “leave”, you imply that the candidate made the choice to depart.  This presumption gives the candidate an opening to provide all sorts of truthful info about things that were lacking at Company A, but may completely conceal the real truth –  that the candidate was actually let go.

It is better to ask “What were the circumstances of your departure from Company A?”  A quick and straightforward answer to this is a somewhat reliable indicator of truth:  “I was in the third round of a series of layoffs;”  “A new President came in and changed out the management team;”  “I saw the writing on the wall that the company was declining in sales and might close my facility, so I started looking and found Company B before the layoffs happened.”  These are “clean” responses.  Even such straightforward answers still invite a bit more scrutiny, though.  So if a candidate says that new management brought in a new team, I ask how many executives were change; for what reasons; and were they all let go at once.  Upon probing this response, you may often find that this particular person was the only one let go within a particular year!

Beware of responses like “It was a mutual decision.”  It never is.  Mutual means the boss wanted this person out.  Also beware of “I resigned.”  Why? What was happening to cause you to resign?  Were you asked to resign?  Did you get a severance package?  Many resignations are mere formalities or simple word-smithing to cover up a firing.

The way in which you probe for more answers is important.  If you ask in a confrontational or adversarial  manner, the candidate may clam up and be evasive.  If you ask in a collaborative way, assuring the candidate that you are seeking to help them, they may be more open.  I use phrases like, “Help me to understand better how….”, and “The employer will really want to understand this.  Let’s discuss how best to explain your circumstances.”

When candidates get defensive, I see it as a red flag that the actual situation was probably even worse than what they are describing to me.  When there are inconsistencies, and I find myself saying, “A minute ago I thought I heard you say….”, the candidate usually can’t recover.

If you are seasoned in recruiting, your gut will tell you when you have a good story and when you don’t.  Whether in-house or third party, every recruiter owes it to the hiring manager to get an accurate picture of the candidate’s history, and present that with complete transparency, so the hiring manager can make a sound decision.