How to Deal
Interviewing When You've Been Fired
Thursday, October 19, 2006; 5:48 PM
I was fired from a job once. What am I required to tell a potential new employer about this?
Legally, you are not required to tell them a thing.
Strategically, you need to consider whether the employer that fired you is going to talk. Because of the risk of defamation claims, many employers no longer discuss why employees departed or comment on their performance.
Personally, I recommend that employers are careful even when providing positive references lest their compliments are interpreted as weaknesses by the questioner. An example: I might believe I was giving a former worker a glowing recommendation by gushing about her originality and creativity, while the person on the other end of the line could think "This candidate could cause trouble for an organization like ours, which values adherence to strict processes."
When you were fired, did your employer give you any assurance that they would handle reference checks in a manner that would not jeopardize your chances of future employment? If they did, you can answer the classic "Why did you leave?" question with a diplomatic answer about wanting to move on to greater or different challenges.
If you did not leave with a clear impression of how your former employer would handle reference checks, your question is trickier. You can go with "Plan A" and hope your former employer will take the high road, or go to "Plan B" and make a more forceful case for why you left the job. You might, for example, state that it was not what you expected and, without disparaging your former employer, give a constructive account of the lessons you learned that have helped to make you the strong candidate you are today.
Keep your answer positive and constructive and I expect your prospective employer will understand. We have all had jobs that didn't work out -- you were just unlucky enough to be asked to leave before you had the chance to make the decision to leave yourself.
Now, if a prospective employer asks you directly -- either on the employment application or during the interview -- whether you have ever been fired, tell the truth. Then loop back to "Plan B" above, and make a compelling case for why the job was a not a good mutual fit. Your goal is to convey the message that this was a relationship that didn't work out. It doesn't make your former employer a degenerate sweatshop, nor does it mark you forever with a scarlet letter.
In fact, you will come off well if you can illustrate how you metabolized an imperfect experience into valuable insights about your strengths as a professional.
I tackled another, more specific, aspect of dealing with difficult questions about your past in a June article about job searching with a criminal conviction.
Lily Garcia is director of human resources for Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive. She has been offering employment law and human resources advice to companies of all sizes for 10 years. To submit a question for consideration, e-mail HRAdvice@washingtonpost.com.
Disclaimer: How to Deal is not meant to be a replacement for actual legal advice. Please contact your HR representative for issues that pertain to your organization. We reserve the right to edit submitted questions for length and clarity.