Q: I have held three management jobs in the last five years. What is the best way to explain this to an organization with which I am interviewing?

A: (George E. Linney, Jr. MD, CPE, FACPE, Vice President) There are many plausible and acceptable reasons for leaving a job after a relatively short stint:

  1. My position was eliminated.
  2. My spouse was unhappy after our move. (This one is OK, but do not use it more than once as it would raise all sorts of red flags for a prospective employer.)
  3. My job requirements changed drastically after being in the position for a little more than a year. (A specific example might be, “I came to the job with the understanding that my main responsibilities would be in the areas of quality improvement and implementation of the electronic medical record. But, I found that most of my time was spent in operations, which was neither my passion nor my area of expertise.”)
  4. When a management company took over our organization, all senior managers were fired except me. I feared I would be next.
  5. I really clicked with the boss who hired me. However, the CEO that replaced my boss had very different priorities, and it was difficult to work with him/her. 
  6. An elderly family member developed significant medical problems. My spouse and I felt I had to take a job that would allow us to be much closer to this person.
  7. After I had been in my second position only a year, the career opportunity of a lifetime presented itself. (Be careful with this one if it did not turn out to the job of a lifetime!)
  8. I lost my job during a consolidation or downsizing.

It is quite possible that an unlucky employee could face one or more of these situations in a succession of jobs. This would force him/her to leave a series of positions, each after a short period of time.

Several other words to the wise when explaining such circumstances in general:

  • Never lie, but do not feel compelled to tell all of the truth. People usually say too much. Trying to explain a situation like a short job stint tends to make people particularly verbal. This is one of those occasions when less is more.
  • Be cautious about bad-mouthing a former boss. That can come back to bite you. 

If you are working with a retained executive search consultant, discuss all job changes with him/her before going to the hiring organization for a first interview. This session will best position you to navigate the job transition discussion during the interview itself.

You might have left some of your previous jobs for reasons other than those I’ve outlined above. (Be sure to write me with specifics, as I enjoy adding to my list!) But, you might not have a good reason for one or more of your moves. If this is the case, all the more reason to discuss the transitions with your search consultant prior to having to answer these questions during an on-site interview.

This column was featured in Tyler's Tidbits, Winter 2010 issue. Dr. Linney retired in 2013, 18 years after having founded the firm's Charlotte, NC, office.

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