One of the questions I frequently field pertains to how a job seeker should position himself when he’s involuntarily left his previous position. Many people think that being involuntarily severed from a previous employer leaves them with an indelible mark and that they are forever stained. This simply is not true. Many, if not most people will find themselves on the wrong side of the conversation with HR at some point during their careers. It is by no means an insurmountable hurdle to overcome.
Let’s start with what it means to be “fired.” The only place a manager ever tells an employee, “You’re fired” is on a reality TV show. Separating employees from an employer is a sticky situation, involves a certain amount of paperwork, and entails uncomfortable conversations that no one likes to have. Contrary to what is portrayed on TV, very few managers enjoy letting staff go. When people are separated for cause, it is called “termination.” When people are separated due to budget cuts, a change in the business, or redundancy, it is a layoff.
So your first step is to determine whether you were terminated, or if you were laid off. Employers tend to look more favorably upon candidates who were laid off because there is a perception that their layoff had nothing to do with their individual performance. That might be true. But it might be false. But “layoff” carries a more favorable connotation than “terminated” does.
If you’ve been laid off, the best way to address that during the interview is to be succinct and factual: “My position was eliminated in a 15% reduction in force. My entire team, including my manager, was let go.”
As for being terminated, if it was for something egregious such as embezzlement, physical violence in the workplace, or violating some company policy, that’s going to take a bit more explanation. Honesty is always the best policy. Come clean, and don’t sugar coat it. Focus your explanation around what you’ve learned and how you’ve changed. Show that you are introspective and self-aware. It is going to take time to recover from such a termination. Whatever you do, do not lie. This is something that is very easily checked during a pre-employment background investigation.
We move into a gray area if you’ve been terminated for something that is beyond your control, nebulous, or for an unknown reason. Most states are at-will employment jurisdictions, meaning that you can be terminated at any time, for almost any reason, or for no reason at all. My client Steve was terminated from his sales role for not making his numbers. On its face, that sounds pretty reasonable. But as I talked with him, he revealed that his management kept changing his sales goals, making it impossible for him to meet those goals. Another client was terminated for “not being a good fit.” In their cases, I advised each of them to avoid using the word “terminated,” and instead to say “I was let go.” So in Steve’s case, his answer would be “I was let go because sales goals were frequently changed, which resulted in a need to constantly redirect my efforts and priorities. For this reason, it’s really important to me that in my next role, I clearly understand the expectation for quotas.”
Many, many people have been fired, and they’ve moved past it. Be brief, be positive, be truthful, and focus on what you’ve learned and how that can be an asset to your new employer. Whatever you do, you want to avoid coming across as bitter or angry. Managers are looking for people who can learn from past mistakes and can solve problems, not for people who hold grudges.