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In an interview is it okay to ask the interviewer why the previous employee left the position or was fired from the position I am applying for? I would like to understand why someone would have quit a job or been fired to better understand if the position is right for me. Many companies these days do exit interviews so they probably got an answer from the last employee before they left. Is this considered rude? Am I likely to get a meaningful answer or simply a generic answer to avoid the question?

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Be careful on phrasing the question. If you ask it like, "Why did the last guy leave?" that may not go over as well as, "What were the circumstances that caused this opportunity to be created?" or something like that. –  JB King Jan 21 '13 at 16:11
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I can just imagine phrasing this type of question to a single girl that I might want to ask out on a date: "describe the circumstances that caused you to be single". –  Evik James Jan 21 '13 at 18:53
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@EvikJames - possible answer: "Birth" –  Nathan Long Jan 21 '13 at 21:39

3 Answers 3

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I have both asked and been asked that type of question without apparent harm. (I've gotten offers after asking.) However, your phrasing is problematic; the better way to ask the question is "why is this position vacant?", which covers two cases you haven't considered in your question: (a) it's a new position, and (b) the previous person was promoted. Don't assume that something bad happened; it makes you look like you're jumping to the worst interpretation, which might give an interviewer pause.

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My experience is similar. I have asked and answered 'Is this a new position or am I replacing someone?' That usually elicits whatever information they are willing to share. Hint: The best time to ask this kind of question is when you are interviewed by a potential peer, rather than a manager or HR type. –  Jim In Texas Jan 21 '13 at 17:20
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What happens in the case that the interviewer responds "The previous employee was let go from the company"? How would, and should, you appropriately ask "why"? –  Jeff Jan 21 '13 at 17:44
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@Jeff Most likely they're going to be vague about that, esp. if it was for personal or conduct reasons. However you can specifically ask if it was "job-related" reasons -- I was told once that the previous employee was fired because he did not want to travel for business, which was good because I did not want to travel either and that was the first time it had come up :) –  Michael Edenfield Jan 21 '13 at 18:16
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The best way to get around the "why" is to ask a different question: what characteristics are you looking for that will make your next employee excel in this position? –  thursdaysgeek Jan 21 '13 at 23:04
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A thought - keep in mind that exit interviews and answers on why the job is vacant may have a biased slant. Exit interviews are rarely perfectly accurate and in the case of a firing, the history is written by the victor. I'm not saying don't ask (much the opposite!) but pointing out that you need to consider the answer in light of the answer-provider. –  bethlakshmi Jan 22 '13 at 16:30

There is nothing wrong with asking an interviewer why the previous employee left or was fired. In some cases, you may get the actual story. However, you should treat the answer the same way you would treat the answer you get from someone you're dating when you ask them why their previous relationship ended. You're only going to get their side of the story. If they were the reason their previous relationship ended, you'll likely not get the complete truth. "We discovered it wasn't a good fit." "They decided to seek other opportunities." "They had a change in their personal life which necessitated a shift in their career direction." Sometimes they will slip up and reveal something unintended, which is why the question should be asked, but don't expect the full story.

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@Petter HR lies all the time, talking to the staff doesn't change that. Consider almost all developer job ads are actually for maintenance developers, yet almost no job ads say that is what they are for. –  Chris Pitman Jan 21 '13 at 19:46

Before ask this question, I would ask my self what the person would answer to me. In that way, you may able to phrase the question in a different way according to that person. Do not make any inquiry without knowing possible answers in the interview place. Don't expect them to say to you that - 'We gave him hard time, so he quit, now you are next !!'

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