What to say in an interview if I’ve been fired?

I love your site and have a sticky question to ask about resumes/interviews when you’ve been unemployed. You said you yourself had been fired a few times, so I hoped you might have some insight.

I worked at a company with a high rate of turnover and what was (in my mind) a toxic work environment. I was fired for the first time in my professional life last summer.

I know it’s something like career suicide to say your old bosses were horrible people and that you were victimized, but when asked about why you left the last job, what is appropriate to say?

I was considering something to the effect of, “Restructuring.” And also bringing up the detail that I was replaced by a contract worker, but I myself was offered continued freelance work with the company, after the fact (which shows that I couldn’t have been a horrific employee and that they liked my work).

Do I mention that there was constant restructuring at my old company? That I saw 60% of my colleagues get let go, restructured, or otherwise terminated?

It seems unfair that the only time my performance was called into question, it was by a volatile company. All the same, a lengthy explanation makes it sound like I’m covering something up.

I know the best course is diplomacy, but how do I cover my butt while being professional?

4 replies
  1. Penelope Trunk
    Penelope Trunk says:

    Don’t say you were fired or laid off. Top employees are never kicked out in a restructure or layoff – they are just given a different job. So people hear layoff and restructure as getting fired.

    Your best bet is to say that you decided it was time for you to do something else – climb your next mountain. Job hoppers are much better candidates then people who get fired.

    Besides, saying it was time to move on is honest. It’s just that you decided that after you were fired. But it’s fine to say you decided and leave out the fired part.

    You need to discuss every past job in this way:
    1. It was great because of x (what you learned, what opportunities there were, something. There has to be something)

    2. You made a big impact (decreased costs, increased sales, saved time, something. You must quantify your success in some way. It can be done for any job — even one you sucked at.

    3. You decided it was time to leave and go to x (to the next job you went to, to the job you are trying to get, etc) always frame things in a positive light. you loved your job, you were great at it, you needed to take your next step.

    That’s how the story of your career should unfold, no matter what interview you’re in. Practice telling that story and after a while, you’ll believe it, really.

    Good luck!


  2. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    So sorry to hear about your situation. That company does sound horribly toxic, and red flags all over the place.

    They did a reduction in force and then offered you a freelance position after which you declined. So just say that. You don’t need to give any more information than that, and quickly move on to more positive topics related to the position you are interviewing for.

  3. Megan
    Megan says:

    I am a recruiter, and I notice immediately when people are cagey about leaving positions, so definitely address it directly. I like the language from YesMyKids and a few hard facts (like 60% workforce turnover in a year) would help me get the picture that it was a terrible place and a good move to leave it. Penelope’s 3 points are very good, and the right structure, but don’t try to hide, just tell the story your way. They wanted to transition you to freelance, you didn’t want to be with them under any terms.

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