Why Were You Fired? How to Recover and Get the Job You Want
by Tom Washington
Why did you leave your last position? This question strikes fear in the hearts of most job seekers who have recently been terminated. This fear, however, may be unfounded when the question is properly handled. Studies reveal that issues of personality and “fit” account for most terminations and most managers recognize this. Being fired is not the kiss of death to a career.
By developing a response that demonstrates maturity, you will gain the trust and respect of the interviewer. Cause the interviewer to realize that regardless of the reasons for the termination, you are a person with great value and potential.
Rose Emerson, president of Career Relocation Corporation in New York, encourages clients to “project the kind of employee you’ll be.” Speak in such a way that the interviewer neither questions your competency nor integrity. For this reason you must never attack your former boss or company. Everything you say must be said without the hint of defensiveness or rancor.
If you were recently terminated, you have several options. First, determine whether you were laid off or fired. If your position has not been filled, you can claim you were laid off. If other jobs have been eliminated, you might say, “The company is downsizing and I got caught when my job was eliminated.” If you are going to make that claim, be sure your former boss will back that up.
Sometimes people think they were fired when in fact they weren’t. Ronald was summarily let go by his boss, but he was given an opportunity to accept a position in another department. The job was undesirable to him and when he turned it down, was terminated from the company. Technically he was not fired, and technicalities can be important. After coaching, he was able to deal with probing questions matter of factly as he sold his many successes and explained why he had turned down the offered position.
If you were indeed fired, one approach is to tackle the question head on. Most headhunters, corporate recruiters, and outplacement consultants recommend this approach. Admit that you were fired, and then without any defensiveness, explain the reasons. Kathy Evans, a Bellevue, Washington based executive recruiter in the medical industry says, “If you have any skeletons, get them out in the open. I can still sell you if you’ve been fired, but I can’t help you if you lie about it.”
To face the situation head on does not mean you should raise the subject yourself. Sell yourself throughout the interview and deal with the issue only when it comes up.
When explaining the reasons for the termination, be sure to describe your strengths and contributions as well. If you believe the termination was unfair, say so, but avoid any name calling. While not blaming yourself for the outcome, you could mention things that, looking back now, you wish you had done differently.
The key to this approach is explaining things in a totally nondefensive manner. Because of the understandable concern of the employer, your task is to convince the person that this was a one-time occurrence which will not affect your future performance.
Accepting responsibility for the termination can be another very effective approach. Jack Chapman, author of the salary negotiating guide, Negotiating Your Salary: How To Make $1000 A Minute, suggests, “Frame the firing as a mistake on your part and take responsibility for it. Describe a lesson learned by stating something such as, ‘Now I know that with this type of manager I’ve got to maintain a much higher level of communication than has been required in other positions.’”
When using the approach of accepting responsibility, Lou Adler, principal of the recruiting firm The Adler Group in Tustin, Calif. recommends thoroughly discussing the environment and management style of the prospective organization. “Having been terminated from one organization for poor fit, I would recommend avoiding organizations where the same issue is likely to come up again, even if that means turning down a job offer.”
Career experts agree that an employer’s concern over a termination can be minimized when handled properly. Jay Stenda, corporate recruiter for Microsoft states, “As long as the candidate is up front, I’ll try to determine how serious it is that he or she was terminated. If someone has the guts to describe what happened, I’ll take that person seriously. Providing sterling references from peers, coworkers, and others in management can help a lot.” For Stenda, a personality conflict or a difference in management philosophy will not usually get in the way, but lack of performance will be harder to explain.
Lou Persico, founder of Career Management Consultants, a Harrisburg, Pennsylvania outplacement firm, finds the direct approach usually works best. An initial response to “Why did you leave?” could be, “We had a philosophical difference and it seemed best to leave.” If the explanation is accepted, you are able to move on to other questions where you can sell your skills and experience.
Often, however, the interviewer will probe further with a question like, “Were you fired?” At this point Persico recommends looking the interviewer in the eye and responding with a “yes.” The response is then completed with an explanation that reflects negatively on neither the applicant nor the former boss.
Coming up with a good explanation takes time, but is worth the effort. One of Persico’s clients was able to take the following approach: “I’d been with the company for ten years and during that time I had six supervisors. With the first five I got great reviews. Then my most recent boss came in and he had a totally different management style. He also wanted his own team. Within six months he had it. I was the last of the VPs to be let go.” This statement was made with no criticism of the boss; this person simply recognized that these things happen in business.
It is acceptable to indicate that you were a top-quality employee who received excellent reviews. You can indicate that you got caught in a political squeeze; perhaps your boss was fired and your termination quickly followed.
You might admit that had you been more astute, you would have quit months earlier. You could mention that months prior to the termination, the organization began experiencing problems, or that major policy changes occurred that you disagreed with. Out of loyalty to the company and a desire to make things work, you then stayed too long.
For those with strong track records, George Hodges, president of Human Resource Transitions Group (Bellevue, Washington), suggests statements such as “I’m not going to fit everywhere, but when I do, I can outperform almost anyone.”
Strong references can always be useful, but they are especially important for the person who has been fired. Marilyn Moats Kennedy, author of Office Politics and Office Warfare, tells her clients, “If you can’t stop a bad reference, swamp it with good ones.”
Generally a past employer has no desire to hurt a terminated employee's career. If that's true in your case, discuss your situation with your former boss and reach an agreement on what both of you will say when asked. Agreement is essential, so your former boss can back you up. In these days when people are suing their former employers for defamation of character, your company has every reason to want to help you.
If you've been fired, you must know what your former boss is saying about you! The issue is often taken care of in your discussion with your former boss, and can be confirmed by having the person write a letter of recommendation for you.
When someone has written nice things about you, it is much harder to say bad things about you. Provide your boss with a description of past results and contributions so they can be included in the letter.
Having the discussion with your former boss and getting a letter of recommendation may be enough, but often it isn't. Sometimes you just won't trust your former boss. If you have any doubts regarding what is being said about you, obtain the help of an executive recruiter or a friend who does hiring. The person should not only write down what is said, but also indicate the tone of voice, since the tone can totally change the meaning of what is said.
Knowing what is being said about you is critical. Bill had been fired from an executive position. Due to his past successes he was highly marketable. Although his interviews went well, he was not offered any of the positions. After three months of interviewing for seven high-level positions, he discovered that his former boss was giving him negative "recommendations." He confronted the person and it was agreed that a more favorable person would provide future recommendations. Bill then quickly found another job, but numerous opportunities had been lost.
If you know your boss is going to be a bad reference, seek out someone else in the company to provide a reference for you. If the boss who fired you was not always your boss, list a previous boss, even if that person is no longer with the company.
Sometimes your boss's boss will do an excellent job, since he or she is not hindered by old emotional baggage. Of course, whoever you use, he or she must know what you are doing and must agree to assist you.
Because of their concern regarding defamation of character lawsuits, many companies will not allow managers to give references. In those cases, people trying to check references will be referred to the HR department where only job titles and the dates of employment will be confirmed.
If your company has a strict policy of giving out only dates of employment, you’ll be less concerned about what your boss might say. Executive recruiters, however, will often find ways to extract information from managers, even from those organizations with strict no talk rules.
People do recover from terminations. They do get jobs—often better jobs. Attitude and a sense of confidence can be the key. Hodges, consultant and former HR director with American Express sums it up by saying, “Getting fired is no big deal. It will not deter you from getting hired. When an explanation was presented to me well, I never had a problem with a person having been fired. But when I saw fear and anxiety in their eyes and body language, then I assumed there was more to the situation than they were revealing.”
Develop that necessary level of confidence and know how you’ll handle the issue of your termination. Then you’ll get the job that’s right for you. After the debacle of overseeing the introduction of New Coke, Sergio Zyman left Coca Cola and ginned up his career with another company. After numerous successes he returned to Coca Cola with expanded responsibilities.