Why did you leave your last job?
It’s a question that’s already hard enough to answer, but is especially uncomfortable and stressful for people who have been fired. Explaining to an interviewer that you were fired from your last job — or even the one before that —is definitely a challenge. Still, it’s not an insurmountable one.
Here’s how to do it right, so that you can be honest about your past without letting it hold you back:
Reckon with yourself
This is step one: coming to a place of acceptance. Getting fired is one of the most emotional, traumatic events that can happen in your career. You can’t answer an interviewer’s questions about it until you know how to answer to yourself. Was there anything you could have done differently? Are you mad at your employer? Are you mad at yourself?
All of these emotions need to be processed before you can talk to a future employer about it. To deal with these emotions, career expert J.T. O’Donnell suggests writing out what happened in a journal and then taking out any subjective details in your retelling. That way, you train yourself to tell your story with facts, not opinions.
This is all so you can walk into an interview with a clear head and speak about your experience clearly, not with lingering bitterness and resentment.
Keep it honest but keep it brief
You need to disclose but not overshare. You don’t want to lie about your termination, because with a reference check or some deeper digging, your lie can easily be found out and it will diminish you in the eyes of your new employer.
But you also don’t need to put yourself at a disadvantage and go deep into unflattering details about what happened. A job interview is not a court of law, and you could talk yourself into a hole very easily when you think you’re vindicating yourself.
You’ll need to tailor your response to your specific circumstance, but your answer should explain what you learned from the experience and how it’s made you a better employee. By doing this, you’re reframing the narrative of a negative experience into a positive one.
Explaining what you learned and how you’ve improved shows that you can take personal responsibility for your actions and it can even showcase new skills that you’ve learned since your firing.
Don’t badmouth your employer
This is the most important rule of all. It may be tempting to clear your name by burning bridges and airing an employer’s dirty laundry, but this approach will backfire.
Let’s repeat that: Talking badly about your previous employer will backfire on you. Every. Single. Time.
Justification will sound like an excuse. Take the example of John Thain who could not stop himself from getting into a he said/he said war with Bank of America after he was fired from his position as CEO of Merrill Lynch. The story became about his firing, not his accomplishments and tenure at the bank. Getting fired is a hit to your ego, but if you rail against your former employer, you will lose the industry respect needed to get a new job.
By badmouthing your past employer, you are sending a message to your potential employer that you could one day speak ill of them too. Don’t do this.
Our pasts don’t have to determine our futures. Next time, you’re asked the dreaded “were you fired?” questions, come in prepared with what you’re going to say. Carry yourself with dignity. Don’t talk smack about your past employer’s misdeeds in the belief that it will make you look better. The truth is, every employer knows that how you talk about your past employers is how you will talk about them.
Be honest and brief about how your previous role ended, so that you can move on to the most important thing in an interview: persuading your interviewer that you’re the best candidate for the job.
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