Handling The Question Of Why You Left A Previous Employer

From time to time, I get asked for strategies about handling resumes and interviews for those concerned about how a short tenure at Epic might appear to future employers. Regardless of any reasons behind a departure something has you seeking better sailing, and yes employers will indeed want to ask you why you made the choice to leave. The most important thing I can share is that you should always avoid bad-mouthing a past employer – there are no exceptions. The single reason for this rule is that it has everything to with your principles and what a future employer will assume about your integrity. If you talk poorly about a former employer, any interviewer will immediately start to wonder what you might someday say about them. And while it is important to be honest and genuine, we should avoid over-sharing. So, what is the balance? What is one to say when the question arises?

If you don't fall into the category where your impetus for departing was to move home or closer to family – something everyone can understand, few will question, and indicates that the same reason for departure is not applicable to any future employer – the best advice I have is to craft your response to the "why did you leave" question in advance based upon where you're interviewing. The baseline goals should be to talk about how the experience at Epic taught you something and that this lesson brought you to the decision. Alone, such advice sounds hollow and generic, so let's cover some examples to fill in the color.

First, imagine you plan to interview at a smaller company. One way to address the question about why you chose to leave could be that you discovered just how important relationships with colleagues and customers are to you personally. These relationships provide meaning to your work from which you draw motivation and value. It may be unfortunate, but sometimes the internal processes required to manage a 10,000-person, multi-national company inhibits forging customer trust through inter-personal relationships. When hundreds of customers are treated uniformly, personal connections and tailored approaches can become lost among the required checklists and pre-formatted emails. While that method helps prevent some customers from receiving terrible service, no customer will feel special, and making customers feel special is what it takes to provide exceptional service.

Alternatively, if you prefer to investigate non-travel roles or a job where the typical workweek is fewer than 60 hours, there is research that demonstrates how reprioritizing time over money in personal life demonstrably improves happiness (I remember in phone screens and interviews being instructed to tell IS candidates to expect 55-60 hours per week just to be good [with the heavily implied, "but not great"] at their job). Personally, as I reflect on the people I've lost in my life, I would rather a future me to look back and be pleased about time spent with family and friends rather than finding disappointment in the sacrifices made by taking on extra trips, late-night emails, and weekend war rooms all for a paycheck that, in reality, cost me the truly valuable time. Although, do be cautious in tone and delivery – you want to appear grounded and focused on a stable work-life balance, not come across as a bit lazy.

Or, if you interview with a company not related to HIT then you can take the tack that electronic medical records are not a passion for you, but you are grateful for the opportunity to have discovered that you really liked XYZ aspect of your job. With that self-realization in hand, you decided it was time to apply the strengths and skills you developed at Epic toward making an impact in a role/industry you are drawn toward.

So, again, consider the role for which you are applying and investigate the culture of that company. What did you learn about yourself from your time at Epic (strengths, weaknesses, motivations, ambitions, preferences, needs) and what were the more positive experiences you had while there? What from learnings or positive experiences overlap with the role/company/culture/industry of the position to which you are applying? Use that intersection as a foundation to build your answer. But, if you're unsure or would like help, then all you need to do is ask. Feel welcome to shoot me a note, or you can get in touch with the folks at Carex who specialize in helping former Epic staff transition into different careers.

As an aside, for those thinking about or planning to leave Epic early on because of PIP...
First, if you've already left, then it is what it is. I would not call it getting fired nor should you. There are plenty of odd things about Epic that make it tough to understand how and where to find one's place. Getting a truly helpful mentor, constructive AM/TC/etc., or a transparent TL is a lottery, application domain makes a difference, and application + role leadership groups construct varied micro-cultures where not everyone has the same chance at being given clear expectations and appropriate assumptions. And, for some roles, there is the blind luck or misfortune that is customer assignment.

I have known people who were hindered from the start. Good people with plenty of smarts who were simply never told what was expected of them or how to navigate unspoken rules. In implementation, an absent TL and an over-staffed AM is all it takes to leave a new AC flying blind with customer work, and that's all but a recipe for a PIP. Being put on a PIP is not the end of a career, but make no mistake, it might be a brutal couple of months to years required dig out of the hole that initial circumstance of bad luck first created.

This is not to say that bad luck is the only reason for a PIP. For one example, if you are miserable in Wisconsin and do not enjoy the work, it can be hard to muster the desire to push yourself. This is not your fault, but neither is it because of another's failings. Recognize that and understand that it's okay to admit that finding something that will allow you to be happy is important. Many events and circumstances can bring about the conditions that trigger a PIP, but only you have lived the experience and only you can evaluate your motivations for staying or going and what this moment of bitter reality inspires.

August 2019

About the Contributor

Jon doesn't really have an agenda here beyond trying to help.
At Epic, he originally authored the "100 Lessons Learned for Epic Project Managers" as well as the "develoPMent memo." If it isn't obvious by now, he is no longer at Epic and so tries to help in this way.

Still doing good, working hard, and having fun... just my own way.

© 2019