By: Andrew Forrester
As if being fired weren’t hard enough, now you have to talk about it in an interview. Here are some things to consider before explaining yourself to future employers.
“Working to keep negative information out during a difficult conversation is like trying to swim without getting wet.”
Douglas Stone, lecturer at Harvard Law School on negotiation and author of Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most
Well, it happened. You were fired. Amid the wide range of emotions with which you might respond—anger, embarrassment, confusion, relief—there are probably two questions that rise to the top:
- Where am I going to work now?
2. How am I going to explain this to potential employers?
Let’s say you tackle #1. You’ve applied to a few jobs, and now you’re staring down an interview with one worrisome question lurking in the ether: Why did you leave your last job? There are lots of ways to answer this, none of them easy or foolproof. But going in with your eyes open and a response ready could be the difference between landing the job you need and going back to the application drawing board. Here are some strategies to get you started.
To Lie or Not to Lie
That is a trick question. Lying in interviews never goes well. Plus, if you don’t own up to your story now, you lose the chance to tell it in your own words. Consider the difference between your version of what happened with your former job and the version a new employer might get if they start calling around.
“Why did you leave your last job?” they ask. You could say, “It wasn’t the right job for me, so my boss and I agreed it was time for me to move on. ”Or you could say, “There was a disconnect between my superior’s expectations and my own.” Either of these answers might work, but rest assured, the people on the other end of the interview can read between the lines. Consider instead “I was let go, and here’s why I’m glad that happened. ”Or “I was fired. I’m not proud of it, but here’s what I’ve learned.”
For one thing, employers will probably respect your honesty and your forthrightness. For another, you are now the one steering the ship. You’ve gotten the hard thing out of the way, so now you can get to the important stuff.
The Important Stuff
Being fired does not mean you were incompetent or defiant, disrespectful or derelict in your duties. People are fired for all sorts of reasons, some personal and some structural, which means you are the one who determines where the focus should be placed. Employers want to hear about what you’ve learned about yourself, how you’ve grown and why they can hire you without the fear of some sort of repeat offense. Rather than worrying about your past, they want to be excited about a future with you on the team.
None of this can happen without accepting some responsibility. It can be really tempting to attribute your firing to the failings of your old boss or a convoluted set of circumstances, but even if doing so would be accurate, recruiters aren’t interested in blame-shifting. Instead, own up where you can. There’s nothing wrong with leading with the idea that you weren’t necessarily set up for success. But be sure to take the time to face your past shortcomings head-on, with a view of how you have grown—and how you intend to keep it up.
Be Certain and Succinct
Now is not the time to be overly remorseful or perplexingly candid. Be direct in your discussion of what happened, and then be done with it. There is no need to offer an itemized list of all your missteps. No one needs to know about all the times you came late to meetings with a latte in hand. Don’t shirk the question, don’t avoid the implications and don’t hang out there either. Remember, it’s your story: tell this part of it, but don’t forget about the rest.
There may also be jobs you may have been fired from in the past, prior to your most recent employment. These are easier to talk about because, presumably, more time has passed, meaning you’ve had more opportunities for growth. Likely, you have a track record that speaks to this growth—don’t let that go to waste! Rather than avoiding that chapter in your life, use it. The same rules apply, however. Address it, make meaningful sense of it and then move on. There’s so much more to you than this one thing.
Anticipate Follow-Up Questions
It’s unlikely that your interviewer will want to know the nitty-gritty details of what went down, but they may be interested in all that talk about growth. There’s no reason you can’t get there first. Now’s your chance to indicate how you respond to failure, how important clear expectations are to you, why you feel your skill set is even more suited to this current opportunity and so on.
You applied for this job for a reason. What sets it apart from your last one? Put another way, why do you feel ready to take on this role in a way you might not have before being let go? Answer before they can ask, and do so in a way that disconnects the information from your past by reframing it as an unalloyed positive.
Don’t Let It Get You Down
Remember, you may have been fired, but that doesn’t mean you’ve been blackballed. It’s a setback, sure, but maybe not even all that big of one. The statistics are in your favor: in a study of 2,600 business leaders, 18% had been fired at some point in their careers, and 91% went on to be hired in comparable roles. And in the wake of the Great Resignation, employers are likely more open to candidates of all experiences and experience levels.
Interviews are just as much about confidence as they are about competence and fit. There are a million mitigating factors that can get in the way of you landing a job. Most of them are out of your control. Your attitude about your past, however, is entirely up to you: don’t let it get in the way.
Andrew Forrester is a writer whose work has appeared in Parents Magazine, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and elsewhere. Andrew also teaches English and creative writing in Austin, Texas, and has a Ph.D. in English literature from Southern Methodist University.
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