As straightforward as this question sounds, the employer interviewing you is listening between the lines for potential reasons not to hire you. Don't let this question go unrehearsed.
Your work history speaks to your emotional intelligence. Your next employer wants to know why you left previous jobs, but what they are really assessing is how self aware you are, how you handle your emotions on the job and if you are ready to start a new work relationship. The reason the interviewer asks this question is to see if you have learned any lessons from your history. Do you continue to make the same mistakes? Has managing stress been a recurring issue, or have you repeatedly disagreed with past management? You have to help the interviewer understand all this throughout the interview.
Some jobs do just end. Layoffs, downsizing and off-shoring are unfortunately all too common. And contract work almost always has an end date. There is nothing to be embarrassed about or worry about, as long as you make the situation clear to the interviewer. Be sure to let the interviewer know the job was for a contracted period of time or that the company had a reduction in force.
Sometimes less is more. Rather than go into the gory details leading to your departure from the company, keep it short and sweet. If you were laid off along with many others in a downsizing, it is enough to say "XYZ company had a large reduction in force and my entire department was let go."
Never cast blame. It's been said that employees don't leave companies, they leave managers. Therefore, the odds are pretty good that you and your supervisor had a falling out or didn't see eye to eye. However, never, ever bad-mouth a manager or a company. While it may be true you were mistreated or your manager's behavior was unethical or perhaps even illegal; never cast blame. This is not the time to bring it up. Your answer should focus on the actions you took, such as "I chose to leave the company to pursue new, more rewarding experiences."
Honest vs. truthful. There's a subtle difference between being honest and truthful. Often, job seekers say they feel the need to confess the whole truth and nothing but the truth, but does a full confession work against you? Think about how your attorney may suggest you answer the question. A lawyer would probably recommend you provide only the information requested. A simple truthful answer is "my position was eliminated." But don't stop there.
Never leave them hanging. If you don't provide enough details, the interviewer may feel you are hiding something and probe further. While short and sweet is a good strategy, don't leave them guessing. One way to move the conversation forward is to add a positive spin to your response. "My position was eliminated. However, what this has enabled me to do is to seek a role where I can use my project management talent to help a nonprofit increase membership and raise more money. This would be an ideal opportunity." Adding a part two when you answer this question gives you the opportunity to redirect the conversation and shows the interviewer that you've reflected upon your departure from your last employer.
Believe in your answer. To sound convincing your answer needs to convey confidence. This is easier to do if you have practiced your answer out loud and tested it on respected colleagues. Sit up straight, look the interviewer straight in the eyes and calmly provide your answer.
Hannah Morgan is a speaker and author providing no-nonsense career advice; she guides job seekers and helps them navigate today's treacherous job search terrain. Hannah shares information about the latest trends, such as reputation management, social networking strategies, and other effective search techniques on her blog, Career Sherpa.