Being fired from a job is never easy, but the situation is something that almost always needs to be discussed with potential employers. You don’t usually need to go into a lot of detail about what happened, but acknowledging that you lost a job is usually considered the honest thing to do. Preparing yourself for questions and deciding how you will frame the topic is usually the hardest part. It’s usually a good idea to practice talking about the subject and think hard about what you learned from being fired before you’re faced with questions, and bring the topic up yourself if at all possible. When you introduce it, in many ways you can control it.
The Importance of Honesty
The general rule when discussing having lost a job is to be honest but brief. There’s no need to list how you left a job on a resume, but be prepared for the question to come up in an interview. Employers often want to know why you stopped working in a certain capacity, particularly if the job you left and the one you’re applying for are similar. It often helps to have a standard response ready so you can comfortably answer the question, then move on to other, more positive topics.
Some job applications may also ask if you’ve ever been fired in the past. If you see a question like this, it’s very important to answer truthfully — be sure to check “yes,” but be prepared to discuss the details in more depth. Depending on the application, it might make sense to add a short addendum with a few explanations.
Framing Things Positively
Preparing an explanation usually starts with self-reflection. Think about what caused you to lose your job and determine how the experience has helped you to become a better worker. Particularly in written applications, you will want to stay brief but positive. What you should strive for is a quick, simple explanation of the situation. Don’t give a lot of details — strive to simply be open about the reason and briefly explain in one or two sentences how the experience makes you a more valuable worker now. At the very least, state that you’ve learned from your termination and leave it at that.
When you’ve been fired from a job through no fault of your own, as with company or department layoffs, merely state that the company reorganized, shut down, or cut its workforce. In this sort of situation, it may make sense to ask someone like a co-worker or former supervisor to write you a letter of recommendation. Most of the time, people will have no problem doing this since your termination was not related to your performance. Personal letters can eliminate fears that you were fired because your work did not meet the company’s standards, which often eases the minds of prospective employers.
When You Were Fired for Cause
Being fired “for cause,” which basically means “for good reason,” is not usually as damaging as it might seem at first. The key is in the presentation, and you can almost always find a way to spin even the worst situations into something positive and encouraging. If you were fired from a job because of constant tardiness, for instance, you could consider what you’ve done to remedy this situation, or develop a plan to ensure on-time arrivals in the future. If you made a mistake or series of mistakes that cost you your job, you might think about what these errors taught you.
Prospective employers tend to be more interested in what you will bring to the company in terms of skills and integrity than what your past says. Acknowledging errors and mistakes can demonstrate maturity and growth if you are also able to show that you learned from them and they made you stronger.
Things often get a bit harder when deciding how many details to share about wrongful termination decisions. Although disputed firings often reflect poorly on your previous employer at the outset, they can carry ramifications for you, too, if you aren’t careful. Discussing a past company’s discrimination or retaliation sometimes runs the risk that future employers will consider you a liability, or may view you as eager to sue.
If you sued the company and resolved the matter, you can state this in a few words. “I was illegally terminated, reported the matter and resolved it” is one example. There’s no need to talk about the specifics of the circumstances. It’s best to be very brief when explaining specifics, and perhaps express that it was an unfortunate situation best forgotten.
Disparaging Past Employers
There is often a temptation, particularly in wrongful termination situations, to say negative things about past employers. It may be true that working under a certain person was simply unbearable or that certain colleagues made life so difficult that getting good work done was all but impossible, but it's usually best to keep these thoughts to yourself, no matter how true they are. Sharing them runs the risk that you will be viewed as a whiner or a nag, and a prospective boss may worry that someday you will talk that way about him or the company. It is usually best to stick to the bare facts, put a positive spin on the situation, then move on to discussions about how your other skills and interests make you a good fit for the advertised job.