Can an Employer Legally Ask an Applicant About the Reasons for Leaving a Previous Job?

by Russell Huebsch; Updated September 26, 2017

Experience is so vital to determining the best candidate for a position that there are few restrictions on what an employer can ask about a previous job. One of the most potentially damaging questions is the reason you left a job, but you can always avoid making yourself look bad.

Identification

An employer can legally ask an applicant about his reason for leaving a previous job, according to Michigan Technological University. The only illegal questions are those that directly related to a group protected under federal law, such as your race, gender, age, creed, religion, national origin or sexual orientation. The employer also cannot ask for a specific reference that pertains to a protected group, such as asking for a reference from a member of your church.

Answering the Question

If you must answer the question, never say you were fired, terminated or something generic like "personal reasons." If you were actually fired, use a neutral term like "involuntary separation," suggests the Idaho Department of Labor. Otherwise, try to use positive statements. For example, you can say you quit to finish your education or you left for a better work environment or place with more opportunity.

Considerations

Even if an employer asks an illegal question, you should not point out its possible violation of civil rights law because doing so makes you look like a potential trouble-maker, suggests Randall and Katherine Hansen of Quintessential Careers. Instead, read between the lines and respond to the heart of the question. For example, if the employer asks about your family, respond that your personal life will not keep you from being successful at the new employer.

Tip

Talk to your previous manager about what he will say about your tenure at the company. Many companies will agree to avoid saying something potentially slanderous, such as that you were fired for incompetence, to prevent a potential lawsuit. When you have to answer the question about why you left a previous job, try to keep it brief and if possible, blame it on a structural change. For example, you might say the company downsized and eliminated your position along with several others.

About the Author

Russell Huebsch has written freelance articles covering a range of topics from basketball to politics in print and online publications. He graduated from Baylor University in 2009 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science.