So, you were fired. Now what? How will you explain it when you interview?
How do you respond to a job interview question about why you left your last job, when the answer is that you were fired? This question is dreaded by everyone who has ever been laid off. But it doesn’t have to be that way…
There are many questions that job seekers are asked. “What salary are you looking for?” is a common one. “Why should we hire you?” is another. And “Why did you leave your last job?” - this one can leave you spluttering if you were fired and don’t know how to answer, and most people don’t! After they’ve stumbled through a few answers, trying in vain to phrase it in an acceptable way and are not invited back for a second interview, their fears are confirmed. No one will hire them because they’ve been fired.
But that’s not what is really happening. The problem is not that they were fired, but how they answered the question.
We don’t stay at a job our entire lives like our grandparents did. Not only is it common to change jobs, some believe it’s the best way to leverage salary and a career. Most of the changes may be of your own volition – odds are a few changes will involve being fired or laid-off.
Companies are bought out, they merge, they down-size, and they consolidate, which means inevitably there’s a duplication of staff. It can be as simple as the new president wanting to bring in his own team. He probably didn’t even look at your capabilities; he just decided you were “outta there”. These departures aren’t as difficult to explain, and your answer can be relatively easy.
The instances that cause real concern feel very personal, even when they aren’t. You are the only one who was dismissed, and what’s more, you know they’ll replace you. You’re caught off guard, angry, and frightened. In an instant, you’re on the defensive, which is usually where people remain. And that’s exactly what causes the problem. Interviewers can spot “victim” mentality from a mile away.
Firing isn’t always about the individual, even though that’s who is impacted the most. Sometimes it’s about the boss—especially bosses with issues. It might be about poor performance, but that’s not always negative. It could be the result of having different philosophies. For instance, the company may value those who work weekends, nights and holidays. You prefer to balance your life.
Once you’re fired, you can’t change the circumstances. But you can control how you view them. While departmental or companywide layoffs are easier to explain, they can also cause damage. You wonder, “If I’d been really good, wouldn’t they have found another spot for me?” In addition, you’re in an insecure place that sometimes is difficult to adjust to.
Take some time to clear some tears or anger. If you’re tempted to recoil, rehash, threaten revenge or otherwise communicate with your previous employer, don’t. Remember two words: reference and reputation. Don’t burn your bridges! Leave the company gracefully.
During this time you have given yourself, detach yourself from the event and honestly examine what happened. Look at the facts. That’s the only way you’re going to get any insight and begin adjusting your thoughts and perspective. There are hundreds of reasons for dismissal, so there is no perfect answer.
The first step, as trite as it sounds, is to look at it as a blessing – an opportunity to grow or move on. It may take some time to see, but no matter how bad it looks or feels, something good will come of it. Maybe it will be a better job, a chance to grow, a new business, or the realization that you hated your career – who knows?
If you’re too busy being the angry and defensive victim, not only will you miss the chance to capitalize on the positive outcome, but you’ll also keep experiencing negative consequences. When you’re in a victimized frame of mind, you’ll miss recognizing an opportunity and continue to perpetuate your unemployment.
The unequivocal rule in an interview is to tell the truth. If they discover you lied, you’ll be wondering for a long time how you’ll pay your bills. So when you’re asked why you left, tell them you were fired. Forthright brevity is best. It’s all in how you phrase it. The trick is a shift in perspective, which is easier when you’ve purged the defensiveness and shame.
Don’t give a long, rambling story or blame the company, your boss, or anyone else. Take full responsibility. Do not be a victim in any way shape or form. Did you learn from the experience? Then by all means, say so. It is okay to say the role, company, or job was not a good fit for me. Not every job is right for every person. There are philosophical differences, chemistry problems, tough spots, and bosses who are difficult and self-absorbed.
Regardless of the reason, it wasn’t your perfect job, or you weren’t quite what they needed. The great thing is that it was recognized (in whatever form) and everyone is moving on. The goal is to be real about what works for you and why the firing took place.
Let’s examine two answers to the question: “Why did you leave your last job?”
“I don’t know. I was doing my job. Most everyone liked me. They always came to me for advice instead of our boss. When the other manager left, they promoted the assistant. She’s maybe about 28. I guess they thought she’d be good just because she’d been there a long time, but she really was a shrew. I think she hated me. She was always talking down to me. She never did this with the “higher ups”. One time she took credit for one of my projects. She’s the one that should have left! I’m glad to be out of there.”
“I was fired, actually. The assistant manager was promoted to manager because she had seniority and she was very good at her job. Unfortunately, she was young and perhaps she thought respect was automatically accorded instead of earned, because when everyone else began coming to me instead of her, it didn’t seem to sit well with her. Despite that I excelled in my responsibilities and met my goals, she let me go. I’m sorry to have had to leave the company. I did learn that I could have been a better communicator and I could have built a relationship with her. That could have saved my job. Next time I will work harder on that instead of assume someone knows my intentions.”
Can you spot the differences? As the interviewer, what would you think?
You must work out a comfortable response. Rewrite it, rephrase it, and test it. Be able to say it calmly and sincerely. If you notice hesitation or discomfort, your words and your attitude (possibly both) need an adjustment. There is no good or bad. There’s only perspective, which is your choice. Firing is considered “bad,” but what’s bad about being fired when a boss has issues? What’s bad about protecting a customer or not compromising your ethics? What’s bad about being asked to leave because the position description changed and doesn’t fit your job preferences or skills? What’s bad about being fired from a sales job for lousy numbers when you hate selling (and realize later that you’re relieved to be gone)?
One last bit of advice: talk through your responses to interview questions with an objective supporter, like a career counselor or a career coach. Sometimes we can gain perspective by having a conversation with a neutral party.
People Biz, Inc.
Alicia Marie brings a wide range of experience to coaching. For more than 10 years, Alicia has coached managers, professionals and sales people on how to build a business truly worth having! She applies almost two decades of business ownership experience, a background in organizational development as well as a wealth of sales and marketing knowledge, to help her clients tackle the business challenges they face. Alicia Marie enjoys dispelling the myths about misunderstanding about coaching. “It is not training and it is not consulting,” she says. “In a coaching relationship the client is the expert.” Alicia is a mother of four and grandmother of two. She is a Yoga enthusiast as well as a runner. Having spent most of her life in Texas, she currently resides in the Austin metro area.