INTERVIEWS / OCT. 03, 2014
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How to Answer, "Have You Ever Been Fired?"

Interviewing for a new job when you’ve just been fired can make you feel like you have a gigantic pink slip stapled to your forehead. But it shouldn’t. In tough economies like this one, it’s hard to turn on the news without hearing about another round of layoffs or terminations. And what about all of those CEOs? CEOs are fired all the time, and that doesn’t stop them from getting their next multimillion-dollar gig. Having a termination in your past shouldn’t stop you, either. Answering that question in an interview, however, takes careful preparation, and that starts at home.

Analyze what happened

Your first step is to conduct an objective assessment of the situation:

  • What happened? Was it a particular incident? An accumulation of small things? Lack of skill?
  • What role did you play? Sure, some people are fired for reasons that are totally unjust, but that’s the exception rather than the rule. It’s more than likely that your own actions played at least a small role. How would your former boss describe the situation? Would an objective person think that summary was fair?
  • What did you do after being fired? Did you go to the bar and slam a few drinks? Bad-mouth your boss all over social media? Or did you identify some weaknesses that contributed to your termination and take steps to address those weaknesses?

Once you’ve thought things through, write down what you think you’d like to say. This isn’t the kind of question you want to answer on the fly. No matter how confident you’ve been throughout the interview, “Have you ever been fired?” can bring on a sudden case of the nerves.

Next, go back and read what you just wrote. Is it fair? Accurate? Does it leave out anything important? If so, put it in – it’s bound to come out, and then you’ll just look like a liar.

Own it

This is perhaps the most important step. It’s also the hardest, because the urge to offer explanations can be almost unbearable. Getting hit with this question in an interview can make you feel like a child in the naughty chair, and it’s just human nature to want to explain why it’s not your fault. But excuses are the last thing in the world interviewers want to hear. Scratch these responses right off of your list:

  • “My boss never did like me.”
  • “The other employees set me up.”
  • “I did my best, but my boss kept changing the rules.”
  • “The company had unrealistic expectations.”
  • “Nobody ever trained me the right way.”

Even if one or more of those statements sounds perfectly legitimate to you, keep it to yourself. Just because you’re thinking, “Yes! That’s exactly what happened!” doesn’t mean your potential employer will see it that way. It’s better to just take responsibility for the things that were under your control and move in.

Tell what you’ve done to fix it

Taking accountability for what went wrong comes with a catch – you also have to take accountability for fixing it. To end on a high note, stress what you’ve done to avoid similar situations in the future:

  • “I attended a seminar on personality types so that I’ll be able to adjust my style to what makes the other person most comfortable.”
  • “I took a class on effective delegation, and I can’t wait to give the new things I learned a try.”
  • “I recently called my former boss and apologized for my role in what happened. I asked for her input on how I should have handled the situation, and she gave me some good advice that I’ll remember.”

“Have you ever been fired?” doesn’t have to be an intimidating question. Lots of people have been fired, including hugely successful business icons (Apple’s Steve Jobs, for example). Answering the question well – with fairness, tact, and humility – could even give an extra boost to your career objectives.

photo credit: flickr via Alex France, 2009

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