What To Say If You Were Fired From Your Last Job

By Gerald Walsh ©

“I was let go in my last job and feel very embarrassed about it. I have never been dismissed before and I have never been unemployed. I know the question will come up in interviews. How would you suggest I handle it?”

I was asked this question not long ago and I understand this person’s concern. Being fired or terminated can be embarrassing – and difficult to overcome – especially if your dismissal was for performance reasons or a personality conflict with your boss or peers.

You know you are going to be asked why you left your past employer. So, what is the best way to respond? How can you frame your leaving in the best possible light?

1. Deal with your emotions before starting to interview.

Especially if your firing was unexpected, you may still be in a state of shock and denial. Or you may be angry and bitter toward your previous employer. It is important that these emotions be dealt with, or at least under control, before you set foot in an interview room. Any obvious displays of these emotions in an interview will likely be deal breakers. Interviewers will expect you to be poised, confident, and ready to answer questions like a professional.

2. Prepare your answer but don’t sound too scripted.

Planning ahead and rehearsing your answers is an important step in any interview. The same applies here. Whatever the reasons are for your leaving, take some time to organize your thoughts and consider how this explanation will be received and interpreted by the interviewer. Then rehearse your answers, ideally in a mock interview session, with a friend or colleague. Ask them to listen to your answer and observe your body language and comfort level in answering the question.

3. Keep your answer simple and to the point. 

Answer the question directly and briefly so you can move on to other topics. Explain what happened even if it is uncomfortable. Long, carefully rehearsed answers never go over well. It makes it seem like you are hiding something. Keep the tone positive – emphasizing that the past is behind you and you are moving forward.

4. Bring it up before the interviewer does. 

If you bring up the issue before being asked about it, you will come across as confident and  truthful and with nothing to hide. Interviewers will appreciate your frankness and likely move on to the rest of the interview.

5. Don’t point blame at your former boss or employer.

This is a big no-no, even if you feel this way. As when any relationship ends, both parties have at least some responsibility for the outcome. Instead, stay positive and focus on what you learned from the process.

6. Don't lie and make up stories.

This happens all the time. Candidates, wanting to avoid the real facts, say things like” We agreed mutually that it was time for me to leave.” I know that is almost never true! One lie usually leads to another, and before you know it you are in over your head. Remember: references will almost always be checked and any indication that you lied in the interview could be grounds for future dismissal.

7. Check with your references and previous employer.

A new employer may want to speak to your previous employer and will likely ask the circumstances around your departure. This is why it is important for you to have this conversation with your former employer and discover what they will say about you. If you kept your leaving professional, the odds are they will be fair and helpful in their explanation.  

A final point.

At one time or another in your career, you’ve probably heard someone say “It’s easier to find a job when you have a job.” While that may have been true in the past, it’s no longer relevant.

Most certainly, the stigma associated with being fired and unemployed is far less than it used to be. That’s because with all the corporate restructuring that has taken place, almost everybody has been laid-off, fired, downsized, or dismissed at one time or another. How you deal with it, though, will determine the outcome.

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Gerald Walsh is an executive recruiter, career coach, public speaker and author. During a 25+ year career, he has interviewed more than 15,000 job candidates, completed hundreds of successful searches for a range of organizations and guided many individuals – from young professionals to senior executives – to successful career change. He is the author of “PINNACLE: How to Land the Right Job and Find Fulfillment in Your Career.” You can follow Gerry on Twitter @@Gerald_Walsh and LinkedIn.