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“I was fired! How do I handle that in an interview???”

image I was recently asked a question by someone trying to help a job seeker that had been terminated from his last position. They wanted to give some helpful advice. Here’s the conversation (edited for privacy)…

I am trying to help a gentleman who was let go from “ABC Company” last month. My first impression was that he was laid off, but when I asked him some questions about the change he said he was terminated. Obviously I wasn’t there, but this person was at “ABC Company” for 20 years, had very successful performance reviews and then got a new manager (and from what it sounds like) this manager just really wanted someone different in his role and instead of laying him off, terminated him through progressive discipline and said he wasn’t meeting the requirements of the job. He won his unemployment case, but he’s having difficulty talking about this when he interviews. This person is very smart, focused and it’s hard to imagine him being terminated.

How should he best deal with this in job interviews?

There’s no question this can be a difficult situation, however, a 2-step strategy may be appropriate:

If, in an interview, he’s asked about the circumstances of leaving his last job, his initial response can be somewhat light-hearted, simply saying something like:

“Unfortunately, there are a lot of people losing jobs these days.”

The interviewer might just leave it at that and move on. If they do ask for more specifics, however, it’s important he gives a brief, well worded answer that ends on a positive note, then ask a question that moves the conversation in a different direction. Too often people dwell on too many details that only serve to raise more questions and make the situation worse. When you’re in a hole… stop digging! He might say something like:

“I had been at “ABC Company” for 20 years with consistently positive performance reviews. Last year though, through some transitions in the organization, I ended up with a new manager. It’s not uncommon for a new leader to come in to a group and want to make changes. Unfortunately, I was one of those changes and ended up being separated from the company. In many ways, I’m looking forward to the opportunity this gives me to continue developing my career in a new environment! Can you give me a more detailed idea of what the expectations would be of me in this role in the first 3 to 6 months?”

He’s got to use words that are true, and comfortable for him to say. However, since this is something he knows is likely to come up in most of his interviews, it’s very important that he hone his words, and memorize them. If he “wings” his answer, he’s likely to ramble and dig a deeper hole.

Effectively discussing a termination is always difficult in a job interview. However, if you have a plan and are well prepared you can move past it and make the case why you are the best candidate for the job!


ac said...

I went through a similar experience a few years ago, but luckily I found a new positiion before my new manager could terminate me.
When looking for work I focused on my skills, my good work performance and stressed that my current company was going in a different direction -- which on some level they were.
But the experience of getting pushed out can be Earth-shattering on one's confidence. Just convince yourself that good reviews aren't just given out.

John Smetana said...

I agree with the advice in that you need to have a prepared, concise answer. The more you try to explain the situation, the more it will hurt you. It causes the interviewer to become skeptical that they are getting the full story.

What I picked up on is adding a question that moves the conversation forward. It conveys confidence and assertiveness.

Mack Papers said...

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Daisy Wright said...

Hi Harry,

I agree with your comments, and it sounds pretty easy for someone in senior management, but am wondering what advice you would have someone who was fired 'for cause'. It could be incompatibility, or harassment, things of that nature?

Although I haven't met anyone who has recently been fired, as a career coach, I would love to get your perspective.



Harry said...

Thanks for the question Daisy. I think the answer would be the same. The person has to put together their explanation in a brief form, without going too deep. Show that they've learned from the experience. Give a positive outlook for their future, and then ask a question to move the conversation in a new direction.

It's not easy, but with good preparation and practice, can be done.

Best wishes,


Pamela Pospichal said...

Thanks Harry! Very useful information.I had similar circumstances occur, but the company replaced me with someone with more seniority. I was able to collect unemployment until I found my current job. Now there have been some management changes and big turnover with that company and I have been verbally harassed and not going to continue with the company, but makes it hard when everything was fine before new management. How do u suggest handling situation in interviewing with new company? Same as you had suggested?

Harry Urschel said...

Thanks for the note, Pamela. Your situation sounds very similar to the one in the article, and yes, I would handle it exactly the same way.

Briefly explain the circumstances without trying to make the employer look bad, and then redirect the conversation in another direction by asking a question.

Best wishes!


Anonymous said...

I have a similar situration but I was "terminated" from my company that I was at for the past 13 years because the owner's daughter didn't like me closing my door (our offices were right next to each other and she said I kept slamming my door). She confronted me about it one day and she began to rant and rave and proceeded to call her father (the owner) and with her crying and going on and on to him on speaker phone(her, me and my immediate boss were in my office) the owner swore a couple times and said "fire her (me), !@#$% fire her, get her out of there, !@#$% fire her!" and that was it, end of conversation. Most potential employers have asked what happened. How do I explain this without making it look like I am hard to get along with? I always got rave reviews going above and beyond my job. This "altercation" was not work-performance related whatsoever. How do I handle this in an interview?

Harry Urschel said...

Sounds like a tough situation!

I think this article may help...


Best wishes,


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