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Interviewing Tips/What to Tell an Interviewer if You are Fired From a Job


Hi Lisa,

After being laid off from my last job due to acquisition, I was unemployed for over a year. The job I have now is absolutely the worst job I've ever had and certainly more than I am able to handle. The problem is I felt I had to accept the offered position due to Unemployment Compensation rules (since I applied to it) or possibly suffer financial consequences should an audit occur. Ironically, it is the best paying job I've ever held. It is a state agency and things couldn't be more different than any private company I've ever worked for. It is super fast-paced and I don't really feel like I'm getting it in addition to making tons of mistakes.

I instinctively knew when I started that this job was wrong for me, even though some of my past experience could be useful. I am "detail-oriented", yet this job is hyper- Detailed. I feel like I'm losing an uphill battle since I started 2.5 months ago. Incidentally, I have felt miserable and frustrated there since the first week, something that has never happened in any previous job held! In that regard, if I am terminated (which is probably likely due to management assessment of my performance), how do I present this to an interviewer when they ask why I left my last job or why I was fired? Can I say the job was a poor fit for my skill set and personality? I want to make sure to not be too negative in the process. Please help me. I do have a very good job history, so this would be the shortest position I've held so far. Thanks.

Hi Wayne,

I'm sorry you're in a tough situation.  It is smart that you're being proactive, though, and not waiting until you have an interview to try to get answers.

Answering questions about why you left your last job if you were fired is really tough. Here are a few suggestions:

Sometimes, when clients of mine have been in a similar situation, they would simply leave the job off their resume so they wouldn't have to discuss it in interviews.  In your situation, I would not recommend that strategy. Because you were job searching for a year prior to finding this job, you would be creating a large gap in your resume if you omit your current job, and that could make it harder for you to get to the interview stage.  

Were you really fired?

If you do get let go from your current job, ask yourself if you were really, truly fired.  Often, when a person isn't a good fit for a job, employers will find a way to let the person go without technically firing him or her.  For example, if it is a contract position, they might not renew the contract, or they might do a little restructuring and make the position redundant and lay the person off.  Based on my experience, I'd say outright firings are less common than you might think.

So if you are let go, think about what actually happened and the reason the employer provides.  You may know that the job isn't an ideal fit for your skills, but if it is a contract, and the employer says they are not renewing your contract, you can say something like, "It was a contract position, and the contract was not renewed." If they move your responsibilities to other staff and lay you off, then you can say, "There was some restructuring. My position became redundant, and I was laid off."

I'm not suggesting you lie in an interview.  You absolutely must be honest, but if you are laid off and not fired, do not say you were fired.

People frequently come to me saying they were fired, but when we talk through what actually happened, they weren't fired.  In the minds of employers, there is a big difference between being laid off, or having a contract that isn't renewed vs. being fired.

Don't offer the information if they don't ask

Interviewers don't always ask why you left your last job. If the interviewer doesn't ask, do not offer that information.

If you actually are fired and you must answer, provide a brief reason, and follow it up with something positive

Never leave a negative hanging in a job interview.  The old technique of sandwiching a negative between two positives can help here.

If you are in a situation where you must tell an interviewer that you were fired, start with something you liked about the job, the tell them why the job wasn't a good fit. Be brief, but also be clear and honest so the interviewer is less likely to dig for more information. If possible, provide a reason that has nothing to do with the new job. Finally, try to redirect the question in a more positive way by following up with what you learned from the situation or comment on why the issue won't be a problem at the next job.

For example:
Start with a positive that is honest: "I had a great supervisor and co-workers at ABC Company."
State the problem briefly: "Unfortunately, I was let go because the job required someone who is extremely detail oriented, and although I am well organized and very reliable, this job required an extreme level of detail-orientation that many people do not have."
Finish with why the issue won't be a concern at the new job: "I can see the job at your company requires someone who is a logical problem solver, and I am certain I am a good fit for this role."

Of course, you'll need to work through your own answer that fits you and your situation. Please don't simply copy the answer above. It won't sound sincere because it isn't in your own words, but you can use the answer above as a model when thinking through your own answer.

Think about who will be your references

Another problem that can arise if you are fired from a job, or even if you leave on less than ideal terms, is providing job references.  

You'll need to really think about who would be the best person to use as a reference. Ideally, you should have a reference from your current job, although the bulk of your references can come from your previous jobs if you feel they will be better references.

If you are fired, consider discussing with your current supervisor what he or she would say if called to provide a reference, and what he or she would say about why you were let go.

For example, you might say something like this to your supervisor, "I really enjoyed (name something you like about the job), but I do understand why you've made this decision.  I am concerned that this will hurt my chances to get a new job. If I'm interviewing for a new job, and the employer calls to ask why I left this job, what will you say?"

Again, use your own words, so they fit with your personality and your relationship with your supervisor. Once you know what your supervisor will say if he or she is called by another employer, make sure your answer to why you left your last job fits with the answer your supervisor plans to give. You don't want to lose out on a job offer because your reason for leaving the job, and your boss' reason don't match.

If you really don't trust your current supervisor to say something reasonable, ask yourself whether there is someone else in the company (particularly someone with a more senior sounding job title) who could provide a reference. I was once in a situation where I did not trust my manager to provide a reasonable, fair reference, so I asked the assistant manager, who I did completely trust, to provide a reference for me. It completely solved the problem.

Also, if you are let go, no matter what reason is given, I would suggest asking your supervisor for a reference letter.  He or she may only be able to provide a letter confirming your job title and dates of employment, but even that can be helpful.  Many companies have a policy that staff are not allowed to provide references, and they may only confirm dates of employment.  Because this policy is fairly common, if you have a letter that confirms this information, it may be enough to prevent a future employer from calling for a reference check.  It isn't a fool-proof solution, but it will help in some situations.

Is there anything at all you can do now to turn the job around for yourself?

You haven't been let go yet, and you have the benefit of having the maturity and self-awareness to see there is room for improvement in your performance.  A lot of people don't have that.

Is there anything at all you can do to turn things around? I don't know much about the situation, but you might ask yourself if you have exhausted all options to make this job work.

Can you talk to your supervisor or a trusted colleague to get advice? Is there some type of training, maybe even self-study you could do to help develop the skills you need to make this situation work, even if it's just to protect your job for the short term until you find something that's a better fit?

If you haven't done so already, making a point of developing a skill or learning techniques to improve your work might either save your job, or at least buy you some time.  At the very least, it should earn you some good will with your supervisor, if he or she knows you are doing everything you can to make the situation work, and that should help with future references.

Consider job searching now while you are still working

The decision to job search while you are still working can be a tough one, especially since your income is good, and you've just come out of a year-long job search.  However, you should take some time to think about this option.

It is much easier to find a job when you already have a job. If you are completely convinced that you will be fired, and you job search before it happens, you can avoid answering questions about being fired.  Again, this option is a tough call, and only you know enough of the details of your work and financial situation to make that call, but it is worth considering.

Take what works for you, leave the rest

Of course, you won't use all of these recommendations.  Some will work in your situation, and some won't. I hope I haven't overwhelmed you with too much information. Because job searching after being fired can be tricky, I wanted to provide you with as many options and suggestions as possible so you can choose those that make the most sense for you and set yourself up for success.

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Lisa McGrimmon


I can answer questions about resume and cover letter writing, how to find job leads, and all facets of the interview process including how to prepare for an interview, common techniques used by employers, how to handle specific interview questions, and what to do after an interview. I facilitated a job finding club for five years and have helped approximately 2000 clients find work. I have written almost 1000 resumes and have conducted approximately 2000 mock interviews for clients.


As a job club facilitator, I ran weekly workshops which covered resume and cover letter writing, maintaining your confidence through the job search process, how find good job leads, and job interview skills. I worked one on one with each participant in my workshops. By the end of the week, each client received an individualized resume written by me, with the client's input, and each client participated in a mock interview that I observed and critiqued.

Career and Work Counselor Program, Sir Sandford Fleming College, Bachelor of Education Degree, Queen's University

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