Being fired won't hurt your chances ‒ as long as you handle it well

It's that interview question that nobody wants to be asked, but everybody should be prepared to answer: Why were you fired?

You may have been fired for reasons totally out of your control, or you may have acted in a way that you now regret and have learned from. In either case, when in a job interview, you need to be able to eloquently talk about why you were asked to leave your previous employer.

Before you begin, it's important to remember that being fired from a previous job isn't necessarily a weakness. Business leaders like Walt Disney, Oprah Winfrey, and Steve Jobs were all fired at some point in their careers – but that didn't stop them from forging ahead to become visionary leaders. 

With a bit of storytelling ability, careful reflection, and honesty, you can turn your story about getting fired into a compelling, moving anecdote. Here are the tips on how to do it.

Show you've reflected

Even if getting fired wasn't your fault, there's always room for reflection when something goes wrong. By framing your answer to the "Why were you fired?" question in terms of what you learned from getting sacked, you show that you're an agile, adaptable employee who has the potential to grow. Everybody makes mistakes, after all, but not everybody is able to learn from them.

And if getting fired wasn't on account of a mistake you made but on account of your employer, talk straightforwardly about what you would look for in your future work situation that was lacking at your old one.

Most importantly, talk about what you learned after you were fired that you will use as an advantage in your new job.

Don't get negative

After you've been fired, there's often nothing you want to do more than bad-mouth your employer and explain why they made an unfair decision. But the blame game rarely works in interviews. After all, your interviewer must be wondering if you'd say the same thing about their own company in your next interview!

This doesn't mean you should hide if you worked in a workplace with a toxic culture, but it does mean that you should be as straightforward as possible when talking about the situations surrounding your firing. Rather than blaming anyone specific, lay out the facts of your firing and let the interviewer draw their own lines between them.

Be honest

The temptation to gloss over the unflattering bits about your firing can be strong. Whilst you don't need to spill all the gory details, it's a sign of maturity to speak honestly about what happened. In addition, being caught in a lie is a surefire way to get yourself booted out of the interview process.

If there's not much you feel like you can say without casting a serious negative pall on yourself, there's no harm in keeping your answer short and truthful. Just make sure you represent it in a way that wouldn't cause the interviewer to feel like you hid key details from them, especially in the eventuality that they talk to your former employer.

Know your former employer's policies

Some companies have strict nondisclosure agreements that govern how you can represent your employment (and termination) to a future interviewer. Before you go into an interview, make sure you're on the same page with your former employer's HR department about how they will be discussing your employment when asked. If you violate your former employer's policies you may be on the rocks, legally speaking.

Say it out loud

When you're crafting your anecdote about why you got fired, practice makes perfect. Whilst there are usually warning signs, getting fired can be a very emotionally jarring experience. It may take some time before you can talk about it without feeling overwhelmed.

That's why it's so important to practise telling your story before the real interview happens. There are so many ways to do this, whether it's recording or videotaping yourself, talking in the mirror, or sitting down with a friend or family member to tell your story. You may also consider hiring an interview coach who can give you professional feedback on the story of why you were fired. The more you talk about it, the easier it will become.

The bottom line

Should you say you were fired? If it doesn't come up and the interviewer has already spoken to your referees, then it may not be wise to bring it up unnecessarily. But if you have a feeling it may come up in during reference checking or in a later stage of the interview process, and want to have the chance to tell your side of the story, it's always good to put it out there.

As to whether you should write why you were fired in your application, address it only if you're asked about why you left your previous position.

Getting fired is more common than you think, so it won't ruin your future job prospects. What's uncommon? Weaving your story about getting fired into a beautifully crafted narrative that impressively shows what you've learned and how you'll bring those lessons to your next job.

If you're looking for a job after being fired, you'll need a CV that shows you at your best. Start with a free CV review to receive expert feedback.

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