If you were recently fired, laid off, or left a job on bad terms, it doesn’t have to have negative effects on the rest of your career.
Leaving a job is hard. Being forced to leave is harder. And talking about it – well, that part definitely sucks.
When you are looking for your next role, though, it is inevitable that you are going to have to field questions like:
- Why are you looking for something new?
- What made you leave your last position?
Given that you will have to answer, it helps to have a response prepared with how you plan to answer.
You can’t lie. Honesty is the best policy. You have to act with integrity, all the time. Plus, you wouldn’t want a new company to check your references or find out later that you lied in your interview (such a situation could easily cost you the new job or at a minimum lose any trust and credibility you happen to have built since starting the new role).
Don’t fret, though! The rest of this text is going to walk you through how to talk about your less-than-ideal departure and turn it into a response that will actually work for you instead of against you.
It’s your fault
It is time for a bit of tough love. You need to face the fact that if you were let go, then it is your fault.
Sure, there may have been external factors. Yes, the position may have been a bad fit. However, unless the company folded and everyone was let go, the fact remains that if you were let go, you weren’t the most important person on the team. And that means that there was something you could have done differently.
Most companies try very hard not to fire people. And most hiring managers know this from personal experience, so they know you likely weren’t fired on a whim. Therefore, the best thing you can hope for is for them to be willing to give you a fresh start. Trying to justify your departure or cast responsibility elsewhere won’t help you win any favor.
For example, what do you think when you read the following statements?
- “I was a great employee. It was all their fault and they were totally wrong to fire me.”
- “My boss was totally crazy. Yet he got promoted and I was let go. I think it was just because he was there longer and sucked up to management.”
- “The way they ran things made no sense. I just know the company is doomed. I was let go, but I know that other people are leaving too.”
While there are certainly two sides to every story and there may be nuggets of truth in those statements, no person or company wants to be cast in that light. And if someone is willing to talk about their old employer in that way, isn’t it likely that they could talk about this new job that way too? The past is a pretty good indicator of the future.
And when managers hear statements like those, it is hard to see that person as someone smart, self-aware, and a great team player. Sharing negative opinions about your old company or coworkers can make you seem like a whiner, or at least like someone who wasn’t capable of handling their personal issues.
It is like dating someone who says nothing but terrible things about their exes – yes, some of those things might be true, but then wouldn’t you also question their judgment about who they chose to date, and worry just a little bit that you are the next one on the other end of their wrath?
Create your own narrative
Let’s talk about spinning your situation into something that you are comfortable talking about, and a scenario that will help you in your current role – not set you back.
In the time since you’ve been let go, you’ve had a chance to process what happened that led you here. Now that you’re possibly facing a conversation about these facts with a hiring manager, take time to revisit those thoughts and calmly evaluate what happened. Here are some questions to get you thinking:
Owning responsibility for the job you lost
- What were the requirements of the position? Did I clearly understand them?
- Did I have the skills and strengths to complete the requirements of the position?
- Were there things (projects, conversations, etc.) I could have done that would have made my contributions more valuable?
- How could I have improved my personal relationships at work?
- Were there warnings I didn’t see or acknowledge?
- Could I have handled my communication or decorum better?
This line of thinking should help you focus on some important things: what you learned from the experience, and how this experience should impact your next position and role. This is what you need to make clear to the person you’re interviewing with.
If you were let go because the role was truly not a good fit (like it required sales and you suck at selling, or it required 24/7 on-call responsibilities and you can’t seem to wake up to your cell phone at night) then make sure any new role you apply to doesn’t have those same position requirements.
On the other hand, if you truly didn’t meet expectations or just didn’t turn in a stellar performance, then you likely need to make some changes.
If you always missed our deadlines try to think about how you can demonstrate an ability to make deadlines. How can you change your working style? How can you proactively communicate when you get stuck (instead of just putting your head down and trying to power through it)?
Come up with a plan, and try to execute that plan on some personal projects while you are searching for your new job – that way you can have some fresh examples during your interview process.
As you think about what you are going to say, here are some guidelines:
- Know what others are going to say about you. If you have a good relationship with your old boss or their HR department, take the time to make a quick phone call to understand how they plan to talk about your departure. Some companies won’t say anything; others will give all the juicy details. Make sure you know what they plan to say so that your message is consistent.
- Check your references. If you are using different people as your references than your former boss and coworkers, it would be good to proactively reach out to them. Let them know the circumstances of your departure, and that you are looking for a new job. You want them to be your advocates and not be caught off guard with the questions regarding your previous employment. They may also be willing to offer counterpoints, or emphasize your strengths in other areas (that are hopefully a better fit for your new position).
- Keep it short. You don’t need to give all the details of your firing story; aim for an explanation that is 1-2 sentences. If your new employer wants to know more, they will ask. And if someone pries and you aren’t comfortable spilling the details, here is a power sentence for you:“I would prefer not to say. However, here is why it won’t be an issue in this new job … [insert all the great things you are going to do to not let it happen again]”
- Practice your explanation. You want to keep your emotions in check. Once you have written down what you are going to say, practice saying it. Tape yourself or ask a friend you trust to listen to you. Be sure you don’t sound angry, bitter, or upset. You want to sound confident, relaxed, and open – you want the other person to know and truly believe that you are still a great candidate.
Crafting your message
Now comes the important part – you need to craft your message. A good structure for this has 3 parts:
- The reason
- What happened
- What you learned from the experience that makes you awesome
If you have a handle on what these 3 things are for you and your experience, then it is just putting it into an explanation that you are comfortable saying.
Here are some templates and examples to get you thinking:
The job required ____________, and I am better at ____________.
“The job required visual design skills, and after trying it out, I realized that I am more of an implementer. I work better when someone else is putting together the design and I am just building it. This role is the perfect fit for me because your team has people solely responsible for the visual design so I will be able to work on things that cater to my strengths.”
The position was a bad fit. The role required ____________, and I just didn’t know it well enough.
“The position was a bad fit. The role required someone to be proficient with the Microsoft technology stack and all my experience has been in open source technologies. I just wasn’t able to learn the skills fast enough to make big contributions before their round of layoffs. That is why I am excited about this role, it involves working with technologies I already know so I am sure I can hit the ground running and knock it out of the park.”
There was ____________, and I tried to handle it by ____________. In retrospect I should have ____________.
“There was a really heavy workload, and I thought I could handle it by just putting my head down and powering through the work. However, I kept missing deadlines and ended up letting the team down in a big way. In retrospect I should have communicated that I was overloaded and needed help. If I had let my manager know, I am sure they could have found other people to help out without jeopardizing the launch. I will never make that same mistake again – proactive communication is so valuable.”
Even though I ____________, the company had to lay off ____________. In my next role I want to work somewhere this won’t be an issue.
“Even though I was always in the top 10 salespeople, the company had to lay off half of their sales team and that meant me. In my new role I want to work somewhere with a more stable market and product.”
Now try to write your explanation. Remember to be honest and object and emphasize what makes you awesome.
Best of luck with your new role!
Here’s to new beginnings, superstar. We are cheering for you.