What to Say When a Job Interviewer Asks “Why Were You Fired?”

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There’s no way around it. Losing your job involuntarily is a great big bummer. Not only do you feel bad, you now have to worry about finding a job with a termination on your record.

First of all, give yourself a break. Believe it or not, you’re in good company. Among those who have been fired in the past include Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfrey and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Although it doesn’t feel like it at the time, sometimes being fired is a very good thing. If you’re smart and use it as a learning experience, it can help you recalibrate your goals and expectations and tweak anything that stands in the way of you reaching your full potential.

Once you’ve had a chance to reflect on what’s happened and plotted your next step, it’s important to figure out what to say to future employers. Here are some guidelines to consider when crafting your narrative.

Be Honest
Although you don’t need to volunteer that you’ve been fired, you definitely don’t want to lie about it either or look as if you are evading the topic. Invariably the question of “Why did you leave you previous job?” will come up in an interview and when it does, you want to avoid the “deer-in-headlights” look. Be direct and honest while trying to spin it in your favor as much as possible. If you’re on good terms with your former employer, make sure that you’re on the same page regarding why you were terminated.

You could say, “I misunderstood my former employer’s goals when I was hired. Although I was qualified for the position, it soon became clear that my skills were incompatible with her objectives.”

Be Concise
Although it might feel that way sometimes, an interview is not an interrogation. It’s in your best interest to provide a satisfactory excuse for why you were terminated, but you’re under no obligation to provide a detailed explanation of what happened. Try to offer a concise, but brief account of the past and then quickly segue into what you learned from the experience and how it makes you a stronger and wiser employee.

For instance, “I’ve learned a lot from this situation. Now when I apply for a job, I do my homework to make sure it seems like a great match. For example, it seems as if my work history and accomplishments are well matched to your needs. I’d love to discuss how I think I can help address your issues, such as …”

Be Positive
One of the fastest ways to turn off a prospective employer is by badmouthing a former one. Focus on the positive things that you learned and contributed while working there. And try not to sound bitter. Skew the termination into a good thing by saying that it’s given you a perspective you wouldn’t have had otherwise.

Take Responsibility
Taking responsibility doesn’t mean accepting blame when it wasn’t yours. It simply means acknowledging your role in events and not blaming others for what happened. This can be as simple as admitting that your skills weren’t the right fit for the job or your personality wasn’t compatible with your supervisor.

There are times, however, when the blame is clearly all yours. Examples can include chronic lateness, inappropriate conduct (towards a co-worker or otherwise) or failure to meet deadlines when given a reasonable amount of time in which to complete them. In this case, you bear a greater burden in convincing the employer that you aren’t unreliable.

When confronted about it, be straightforward. Being defensive only makes you seem guiltier. Explain what you learned from the experience and why the employer can be confident that you’re not going to repeat your misconduct. Sound genuinely repentant without dwelling too long on it.

You could say something along the lines of:

“As you can see from my past work history, this event is an anomaly. I regret that it happened, but I’ve really learned a lot from the experience. I’m fully confident that it won’t ever happen again. As my numerous references can attest, I am a reliable employee and will work hard to prove to you that this incident is completely behind me.”

If applicable and helpful, you can provide reasons for your conduct, just don’t let it turn into a psychotherapy session. Remember that “reasons” aren’t the same thing as “excuses.” The difference is that reasons demonstrate that you’ve reflected on what’s happened for the purpose of changing your behavior.

Always stick to the truth and speak proudly about the rest of your work experience and accomplishments. You deserve to feel good about them.

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