One of the most stressful moments in life is surely the Dreaded Job Interview (let’s not even get into video job interviews, in which your road is paved — or not — via iPad). Even more so than the exit interview, the whole endeavor is a charade of glass-half-full answers and presenting a version of yourself that you’ll probably never live up to. And yet, the same questions often get asked, and one, in particular, is virtually unavoidable: “Why did you leave your last job?”
That’s a tricky question to answer for anyone, and it’s especially tricky if you got fired from your last job. So is it a deal killer? When should you bring it up, and what should you say? For advice, we talked to Phil Blair, owner and executive officer of Manpower, a staffing service company, and author of the book Job Won!
“The short version is, I believe in bringing up the topic before the interviewer discovers it,” says Blair. “It’s very naïve to go through an interview and then have a background check, reference check or drug test done, only for the potential employer to come back and go, ‘Uh…you didn’t tell me about this?’”
Basically, the lesson is, be sure it comes out, because if you don’t, and your potential employer calls your references, they’re gonna find out anyway. “I get very suspicious if you don’t give me your last employer and the one before that,” says Blair. So, yeah, if you’ve been fired recently, it’s gonna come up. Here’s how to handle it for a variety of depressingly believable scenarios.
You lost your job in a company merger.
This one’s pretty easy to explain, no trepidation necessary — Blair says not to sweat it, as it’s obviously not your fault. Stuff happens.
You lost your job when new leadership came in.
Eh, again, stuff happens — new supervisors often want to bring in their own people. “That doesn’t mean I did a bad job, it’s just very typical for new CEOs to bring in their own management team, especially administrative assistants,” says Blair. Essentially, tell your interviewer, “Yes I was fired, but for a very valid reason that makes perfect sense, and my old boss would be happy to be a reference for me.”
You got fired for not hitting your goals.
Let’s say you were a pharma rep, and you realized that pharmaceuticals isn’t your strength, or your interest. Tell your interviewer that, then immediately say, “And that’s why I’m here now talking to you about [this other industry, whatever it is]. I’m a good salesperson — I was just in the wrong field.” Blair says that if your interviewer then calls your old boss, who says, “Yeah, great guy, but his heart just wasn’t in pharmaceuticals. He didn’t like doctor’s offices (or whatever it was). Great salesman, just not right for our industry/company,” that’s perfect, especially if your old boss adds that your skills would probably be great in a different company or industry.
(By the way — the lesson in this scenario, says Blair, is to just shake hands and quit your job before it comes to you getting fired.)
You done messed up.
If you’ve done something bad and it’s gonna be in your background check, get it out, Blair warns. “Don’t let me be shocked in the paperwork. Because if you hid that from me, what else are you hiding? I’m very suspicious.” Even if your interviewer doesn’t ask you about it point blank — or they start and get distracted, and they find out about it after you’ve started — it’ll affect your employment there forever. “Even if I don’t let you go, everything you give me — expense vouchers, personal expenses, etc. — I’m gonna wonder if this is accurate or if you’re hiding something,” says Blair. You lose all trust.
So how do you get it out? Timing is everything, Blair emphasizes. Don’t just tell them you embezzled at your last job right as you sit down, obviously — use common sense. But remember, if it’s a deal killer, why go through three more interviews? It’s not like you’ll get any sort of CFO job anyway if you were caught stealing. So if an opportunity doesn’t present itself naturally in conversation, at the end, say, “I think it’s important that I share with you that [your story of how you done messed up].”
As for how you say it, first of all, you’ll have a much better shot at a job in which you won’t have a chance to repeat your mistake (where, for example, you won’t be able to handle or move money). If that’s the case, get it out, and be sure to quickly follow it with, “Let me tell you what I learned.” And: “Boy, did I learn my lesson.”
If there was a compelling reason for your screw-up, tell it, too. “I have a child who’s sick, the medical bills kept piling up, my healthcare was getting discontinued, etc. I made the wrong decision, I admit it, I paid the price and I’d like to move on.” The goal is to engender empathy from your interviewer. Ideally, they’ll consider that they’d have done the same thing in your shoes, and that there’s no chance you’d embezzle in this new job, so, what the hell, we’ll give you a chance.
You got fired for something you dispute.
Think this one through beforehand: If they call your ex-boss, what do you think they’re going to say? Game plan that out. Then in the interview, get the whole story on the table — your perspective on it as well as that of your old company. Because when your old boss is called, they will tell their side of it, and best-case scenario, it will match up with what you told the interviewer. Whether it’s about miscommunication, rules or company policy, leave it to your interviewer to determine whether the issue is worth worrying about. And whatever it was about (say it was a miscommunication issue), be sure to say, “What I learned from it is to communicate better, and I take half the blame for it,” or something along those lines.
Just whatever you do, don’t throw your old employer under the bus! Don’t point fingers, don’t apportion blame, don’t even come across negatively. Sure, offices can sometimes get negative, and frustration is a natural part of work. But revealing it in a job interview? That’s a red flag to an employer. Maybe not as serious as getting fired! But don’t do it.
Also, don’t wear cologne.