First Fired. Next Hired. (Handling questions about being fired)

Through the years, I’ve met with several hundred people seeking jobs who were recently fired by an employer. Some of these interviewees were the subject of a RIF (reduction in force). What’s been interesting is how the person handled the inevitable interview question, “Why did you leave the job or employer?”

Actually, as the interviewer, I prefer to ask “Why did you decide to make a change?” Or, I might ask, “You were with ABC Company for seven years, how did you know it was time to make a change?” When a candidate immediately replies that the choice was not his, I sit up and take notice. The job candidate’s facing the question head-on can be interpreted in a number of ways:

  • Good ability to size up the interviewer. If a job seeker pays attention to the cues I give, he will know I appreciate a no-nonsense approach to conversation. Communication skills, including the ability to frame a message in a way that the listener prefers to hear it, is a definite positive trait. An interviewee should evaluate (and be prepared) if the interviewer prefers a softer communication style, or if the interviewer is not concerned with why he left the job.
  • Direct communication style. Perhaps the job seeker has a direct communication style of his own. If the work environment supports a direct style, the candidate has shown a propensity to communicate effectively.
  • Confident in skillset. Sometimes the direct answer is a sign that the job seeker is confident in his abilities and skills. What’s not to like about that confidence level?
  • Still a little bitter. Depending on the tone and other signals provided when answering “I was terminated,” the person may be demonstrating he is still feeling the sting from being fired. If it was a recent termination, I’ll take the time to put the candidate at ease. However, if the termination was several months ago, this open display of bitterness should have started to wane.

One lesson I have learned through the years is that many great employees have at one time been terminated. That termination may have been a “you’re fired” situation, or the person may have been caught up in a reduction in force. Seasoned employers, managers and recruiters should know that a single termination is not necessarily a red flag.

The second lesson learned is that the candidate’s way of handling the communication around the termination can be proof of a good skillset, i.e. an ability to handle a difficult message. Or, that communication may signal a growth opportunity for the job seeker.

Sometimes an interviewee provides a reason for leaving that is either vague or nonsensical. If you are the interviewer, you may want to ask follow-up questions to determine why the candidate appears not to be giving a straight forward answer. If the job seeker’s second answer is still less than clear, I’ll actually ask if the person was terminated. Here’s where the candidate makes a very important decision. Tell the truth. If a recruiter is asking one or two or even three follow-up questions, that recruiter doesn’t believe your answer. It’s easier to address the issue than to leave a lingering negative feeling.

At this point, a warning is necessary. The truth is not a long explanation of he said and she said. It’s a short, matter of fact statement. Different ways to phrase this answer is probably a topic for a follow-up article. The candidate needs to demonstrate an ability to discuss the matter without too much emotion, and be prepared for a possible follow-up question that may include:

  • Why were you terminated?
  • What did you learn from the termination?
  • Was there anything you would have done differently? or
  • What would your employer say in a reference?

Bottom line for this direct communicator: If you have been terminated from one job, dust off your boots and move forward quickly. And if you don’t wear boots, you get the point, right? If you are the interviewer, find out what you need to know, put the candidate at ease, and move forward.

Happy Hunting!

LK Greer