Corporate Provocateur

How Not to Say 'I Was Fired'


After three years of a recession-tinged job market, employment seekers have been stuffed to the gills with résumé-writing tips and best-in-class answers to tricky interview questions. Certain applicants, however, face a uniquely high hurdle, one that vexes even seasoned job hunters. I’m referring to those who were fired from their last jobs. To say to a prospective employer, “You know, they fired me over at Acme Explosives,” is essentially to say, “We can just skip the interview, and you can focus on other candidates.” It’s job-search death.

It doesn’t matter how horrible the bosses were at Acme Explosives or how badly they treated you. Something about the words “I was fired” makes prospective managers’ blood run cold. They think the worst of a job seeker dismissed from his or her last assignment. As the words “I was fired” leave a job candidate’s lips, a hiring manager will likely feel an unwarranted kinship with the person who gave Mr. or Ms. Job Seeker those walking papers (or to use HRspeak, “separated him or her from the payroll”). In that moment, the hiring manager isn’t on your side: “As much as I like the person sitting in front of me, I can’t take a chance. How would I justify my decision if I hired this person and things went south?”

If you left your last job on less-than-sensational terms, there’s got to be a way to address that issue without summarily ending your candidacy, right? As a longtime HR director, I can tell you, there is. First, shake off some misconceptions.

NO CRAWLING OVER BROKEN GLASS

Lots of us have grown up with the idea that the employer-employee relationship is as formal and cast in stone as our immigration status or driving privileges—no gray area whatsoever. We’re in this country legally, or we’re not. We have a valid driver’s license, or we don’t. Employment history is a different. There is zero requirement ever to tell a hiring manager or HR person that your previous employer let you go. The misconception that you have to disclose all comes from the same “please like me” mindset as the notion that a job search means crawling over successive piles of broken glass in order to meet an organization’s endless requirements, to be found acceptable, and if we’re lucky, eventually hired.

That thinking isn’t just ineffective in this job market; it’s dangerous. Job seekers who know what they bring—who know the business problem they solve, in other words—don’t have to grovel. Groveling serves only to demean you, and it doesn’t work. Job seekers who have identified a hiring manager’s chief problems and already come up with relevant stories that link their experience to the manager’s “business pain” don’t have to please anyone in order to get a job offer.

The same good-girl/good-boy thinking (I call it the Hermione Granger Effect) that has us ready to contort ourselves into pretzel shapes to please an employer also makes us think that a prospective employer is entitled to every detail of our working lives, including the exact circumstances around our departure from every job we’ve ever held.

But why would that be so? Would the same employer share with us its internal personnel dramas? I doubt it. We can talk about our past roles without making the last 10 minutes of our employment the central topic. We can address the “I was fired” issue in several ways that don’t focus on the transaction itself—the moment when a former boss said, “We’re going to have to ask you to leave.”

PREFERENCE FOR MUSIC

Now, I love it when people feel confident enough to claim the negative stuff in their professional backgrounds. It’s easy for me now, 30-some years later, to tell readers and live job-seeker audiences that I was fired from a Burger King for calling in sick in order to go see Boston play at Madison Square Garden. I talk about how getting fired gave me a lot of juice, a sort of inoculation, so that by the next morning when I called in to get my hours for the coming week and the very young manager said, “Bring in your uniform,” I had enough mojo to say, “Come and get it.”

If your termination took place more recently and still feels painful, of course, it’s not easy to be blithe about a getting-fired story, especially when you’re worried about how to pay the rent. We don’t owe a prospective employer a lot of information about what went down as we left our last gig. Here are some possibilities:

Option No. 1: The Learning Was Done

“It was a fantastic learning opportunity for me—I credit those folks with teaching me everything I know about SEO, for instance, but it was time for me to go, and we agreed on that just as I was getting interested in social marketing.”

The “we agreed on it” is key. If the “agreement” took place only in your own mind as the security guard escorted you out of the building, that’s fine. In the first place, your new employer’s HR folks probably won’t find out you were fired—that information is typically not conveyed to a prospective employer in an employment verification process. And if they do find out and end up claiming the “we agreed on it” was a lie and terminating you because of it, you’ll know those people are pure evil. You don’t want work for them.

Option No. 2: My Interests Shifted

“I got to do so many fantastic projects at Acme Explosives, but my focus was shifting into project management, and the opportunities for that were very limited over at Acme. I didn’t know what I would do next exactly, but my friend from college was starting a consulting practice, and I decided to collaborate with her on that as I shifted to the next thing.”

This way, you never mention who said what to whom, or in what order. What does it matter, truly?

Option No. 3: We Went in Different Directions

“When I got to Acme Explosives, the mission had everything to do with building the brand fast, and we had great results on that front. Two years later, I was becoming a zealot for branding and customer evangelism, but Acme was moving more into OEM work, where the branding piece was almost nonexistent. I was very glad to have been around to help the company advance its value to the point where the Motorolas of the world found it and formed partnerships with it, but as the business moved more and more backstage and away from the customer-facing arena, it wasn’t a great fit for me anymore, and we decided to move apart. I still have tremendous relationships there, of course.”

Those relationships are with managers who “get” you, and with your amazing colleagues, not with the turkey who fired you, but that’s a whole ‘nother Oprah.

We are trained like Pavlov’s dogs to say, “I was laid off” or “I was fired,” but we never have to do that in the selection process. It is part of the same “transaction first” Kool-Aid most of us have running through our veins. The transaction—the conversation in which the universe said, “This place is not for you, darling”—is the smallest part of the story, not the focal point.

THE UNIVERSE SPEAKS

Instead, concentrate on the learning. What message was the universe trying to send me when the manager at the hamburger place told me to bring in my $2.98 striped polyester dress? “This is not your path.” As soon as I got that message and owned it, I wasn’t a victim of the termination any more. It wasn’t something that was done to me. It was something I chose, in a way. (Not that I exactly knew the crew chief from my Burger King would be sitting three rows away from me at the Boston concert and then rat me out.)

Three months later I was patting myself on the back for having withstood that fast-food environment as long as I did (about 60 days, as I recall). Until we get that “Aha” that makes it clear why this or that event pushed us to make a change, we may feel victimized or ashamed about having been fired, and that’s when we are at the greatest risk of apologizing for being ourselves, of saying, “Well, they let me go,” in a way that conveys “and they were right to fire me, because I am useless.”

That’s crazy. We can claim the learning first, and claim the actual headbump from the universe—the getting-fired part of the story—down the road. Whatever you tell a prospective employer, focus on that employer’s need and your own tremendous talents in solving similar needs in the past—not on one 10-minute conversation that moved you out of the wrong path and, with luck, closer to the right one.

Liz_ryan_2
Liz Ryan is an expert on the new-millennium workplace and a former Fortune 500 HR executive.

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