The job search can be brutal; just getting that first interview feels like an enormous hurdle, even if your resume is airtight. And if it isn’t? Well, this is how you explain a past job ending badly to a prospective employer.
Fast Company recently posted about how to explain a gap on one’s resume, but a gap doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve been fired. You could have taken time off for any number of reasons, from health to family to even pursuing a different line of work.
In my early 20s I worked in admin, then started working in restaurants. When I wanted to get back into office work, there was a chunk of time to account for.
But there are also sometimes gaps that are related to being fired, and those get more awkward to explain. That means you should prepare your response ahead of time, per Fast Company’s interview with Michele Mavi, director of internal recruiting, training and content for the employment agency Atrium:
You must be prepared to talk about it. If an interviewer senses reluctance or avoidance in answering questions about gaps, it creates distrust and distance, which will work against you. That doesn’t mean you need to go into every detail, either.
In an email with Lifehacker, Jonathan Soormaghen, founder of Resume Advisor, shared some further tips for how to navigate this conversation.
You don’t have to bring it up
You should be prepared, but that doesn’t mean you have to initiate the conversation. You might be so anxious about the question, that you rush to answer it before it’s asked. Remember, you don’t have to explain that you were once fired to someone who never asked.
However, Soormaghen warns that there are some jobs where they’re obligated to investigate you fairly formally:
They will assume that you simply just moved on, especially if there is no gap in between jobs. However, if you know they will conduct a background check and speak with your references, then it would be best to explain that you were let go.
Gauge the situation — if you are going to bring it up yourself, do it after you’ve gotten a chance to talk about your other, more successful positions. Let them get to know you a bit before spilling all the tea.
Put a positive spin on the situation
There are reasons for being fired that aren’t connected to being a terrible, awful employee. Soormaghen suggests saying that a job you were fired from “wasn’t the right fit for your long term career goals”, or something else neutral.
Consider some other ways to explain what happened that don’t dwell in the negative, and be sure to end on a good note by mentioning that “you were grateful for the opportunity they gave you”.
Don’t assign blame
Positivity is imperative; most people have been fired at some point in their life, so it might not be a deal breaker for the job you’re trying to get. Talking a lot of smack about your former employer, however, probably is a deal breaker, according to Soormaghen:
Avoid saying anything negative about anybody. This will display your professionalism and composure. Also, you never know who they might be in communication with or know from the past.
And you also don’t have to denigrate your own past work by way of explanation. Maybe it was totally your fault, but there’s no reason to advertise that. If there’s a way to discuss your failures without talking about how bad at your job you once were (and hopefully no longer are), use that language instead. Here are some scripts from Soormaghen:
Try to associate any failures with big picture explanations. For example, “the project didn’t get completed within budget and timelines”, as opposed to, “I failed to complete my project deliverables.”
Maybe you can’t think of a way to put a time you were fired in a good light. Soormaghen is still hesitant to tell people to lie — though he does more or less say you might not get caught if you do:
In general, lying is never encouraged. If they decide to check references, then it will likely be revealed that you were fired. However, in most cases, they won’t check further back than your 2 most recent jobs. And given the longevity - based on the size of the company you were fired from, it is possible that your boss/manager/etc. is already out or has moved on. So for positions going back 5+ years, it’s tough to verify, and there is more room to be lenient with your answer.
But if you are hired and your boss one day discovers that you were dishonest, that will likely be another firing you have to explain at the next interview. Honesty is always the best policy.
Have confidence in yourself
Sure, you were fired once. That isn’t the end of the story. Employers want to know how you learn from the past and improve. Soormaghen says don’t go into the interview worried about the past:
Be honest, confident, and maintain a composure that will make the interviewer disregard a previous firing. Focus on the positives of this role and the future.
Getting fired doesn’t have to be a life sentence; it’s a just a blip in your long-term career story.