By Michael B. Laskoff I know from personal experience that the only thing worse than being laid off is being fired. You've got to deal with more than the normal headaches faced by the jobless. Often, people experience wild mood swings between anger and guilt. What will you tell employers about losing your job? Who will you use for a reference? How will you minimize the impact of being fired on your current job search?
Sadly, many people who've been fired don't confront these issues until they're actually sitting in an interview, with predictably disastrous results. But this needn't be the case. With appropriate planning and preparation, you can limit the effect on your search and put your best foot forward, if you do the following:
Doesn't hurt to ask. Find out if your ex-boss is willing to give you a good reference. Don't laugh. Just because your he let you go doesn't mean he wants you to remain unemployed. He most likely didn't enjoy firing you and probably feels a good deal of guilt for having done so. As a result, the very same person who discharged you may be more than happy to act as a reference and corroborate a helpful account of why you left the company.
In an ideal world, you would ask for this help during the firing itself, when your soon-to-be ex-boss feels most inclined to assist you. In most cases, however, you'll be so overcome by the experience that you'll forget.
When you're ready emotionally, call your ex-boss, tell him the positive things that you took from working for him, and that you're sorry circumstances led to this conclusion. Then ask if he would consider helping you in your job search by providing you with a reference. If he responds with enthusiasm, coordinate your stories. You want to be certain that the account you give in an interview will match the one he provides in a reference check.
A word of caution, however: When you ask for assistance, be sure to listen not just to his words but his tone. Even slight hesitation is likely to be detected by a prospective employer, who will then question your appropriateness.
Develop alternative references. Generally, your former boss is considered the most logical person to provide you with a reference -- he supervised you most recently and can presumably provide the most compelling recommendation. Sometimes, though, a former boss may be clearly inappropriate as a reference, even if he claims he's willing to help.
In such cases, you'll want to use a handful of people who can credibly comment on your skills and professional contribution. While you didn't report to any of them, supervisors from other departments, outside consultants, and former peers had the opportunity to observe your work and can reflect on your skills and experience. Taken together, they can provide a credibly proxy for an absent ex-boss.
You will, however, have to provide a simple, compelling reason why your previous manager isn't on your reference list. You might point out that your ex-boss gave you the highest possible rating on your review just two weeks before discharging you, or you might indicate that several other people were also fired recently without justifiable provocation. Whatever the reason, make sure that the people providing you with references mention it as well. The consistency will greatly bolster your credibility.
Portray your situation positively. Great references won't matter if you can't explain the circumstances of your job loss in a generally positive way. And rather than try to fit a good explanation around an awkward interview question, I strongly recommend that you work out your account in advance and then offer to relate the information proactively in the interview.
Prior to your meeting, practice talking about the highlights of your work history, accentuating your accomplishments and ending with your termination. Keep the length between five to seven minutes, and refer to your recent job loss factually, calmly, and without giving it undue importance. This should provide you the confidence to raise the subject yourself in an interview and then maintain a high degree of control when presenting it.
Accept some blame. As you tell your story, you'll be tempted to pin all the blame on your former boss, but this would be a mistake. No matter how bad your previous manager may have been, you contributed to the situation as well. Admitting this and reflecting on what you've learned demonstrates maturity, which will impress most prospective employers.
Don't beat yourself up verbally in front of the interviewer. Rather, you should focus on forgivable faults resulting from inexperience, which you've overcome, or exigent circumstances, which you've eliminated. In this way, you will make the necessary admission without revealing anything that will knock you out of contention.
Without question, it's harder to find a job if you've been fired. And even sensible preparation won't always allow you to overcome the extra obstacles. Nevertheless, crafting a strategy in advance, lining up the best available references, and offering a compelling narrative will make for a faster, more productive search. Laskoff is the author of Landing on The Right Side of Your Ass - A Survival Guide for the Recently Unemployed. A graduate of Harvard Business School, he has worked in the investment banking, consulting, and entertainment industries, as well as a number of e-commerce startups. He operates a Web site at www.askyourass.com