Fired from your last job? Here's how to bring it up in your next interview

Jul 05, 2022 - updated Sep 13, 2023

4 mins

Fired from your last job? Here's how to bring it up in your next interview
Harrison Kelly

Harrison Kelly is a British writer, producer, filmaker, and - ever since moving to Paris - a reluctant Francophile.

So you got fired. It certainly doesn’t mean that you are unfit for the workforce. When applying for your next job, the interview is the best place to talk about your dismissal, on your own terms. But how can you broach this sensitive topic during an interview with a potential employer? Read on for advice and tips.

With all of the news on the Great Resignation and how Americans are changing jobs in droves, we forget about people who just didn’t cut it in their current positions. According to an Airtasker survey which was updated in 2019, among the most popular reasons for dismissal are attitude issues (57%), not completing assignments (40%), poor attendance (34%), asking for a raise (23%), and tardiness (18%). Whether your dismissal was for one of these reasons or something else altogether, it’s entirely possible to bounce back. Here’s how you can handle questions regarding your dismissal in your next interview.

1. Tell the truth

Many people try to downplay a dismissal, especially if they were laid off because of their own poor performance or misconduct. As tempting as that may be, it is always best to be honest about the circumstances in which you left your previous job.

It’s unfortunate that being dismissed from your most recent job may count against you in some interviews, and may even cost you a job opportunity. However, if a new employer learns of your dismissal at a later date, after offering you a position, they may decide to rescind it for dishonesty.

Some industries are very small, and it is highly possible that a recruiter may hear the truth from someone else at your former company. Nobody wants to build a reputation as a liar, and being fired twice in the same industry can double your woes. To repeat the age-old cliché, honesty really is the best policy.

2. The role of references

It is standard practice for a recruiter to request a reference from your most recent employer after an interview. So if you have been fired, be aware that your previous employer is under no legal obligation to provide you with a reference, which could raise alarm bells for a recruiter. That’s why, even if the interviewer doesn’t inquire about your reasons for leaving your last job, you must be prepared to raise the issue yourself.

If your former employer does agree to provide a reference, it has to be truthful and fair. Most employers won’t give explicitly negative references. But if you are seriously concerned about receiving a bad reference, you can request a “basic reference” that states your job title, salary, and dates of employment. Many companies provide this, but recruiters will naturally favor candidates who come with glowing references. If you are unable to provide these, it is important to clarify this to your recruiter at the interview stage.

Lastly, most recruiters ask for three references. So you can submit a reference from another former employer, with whom you share a good professional relationship.

3. Never badmouth your former company

You may still believe that your dismissal was unfair—or even be involved in legal action against a former employer. Recent examples of wrongful termination suits include a Chipotle worker who was found unlawfully terminated because of a previous workers’ compensation claim, all under the guise of menial theft.

If such legal proceedings are ongoing, you need to be extra careful about prematurely labeling your dismissal “unfair”, just in case the verdict does not rule in your favor. It’s also worth checking your former employer’s privacy policy, in order to be aware of what information you can and cannot share.

Irrespective, it’s never worth moaning to a recruiter. Hearing you insist that you are a victim of circumstance, unreliable colleagues, or a toxic manager, may actually diminish their opinion of you.

4. Keep your language impersonal

Avoid using personal pronouns as these can make your version of events sound emotional, bitter, or resentful. Perhaps your last employer ended the contract for your services or chose not to renew it. Or maybe you were made redundant as part of a cost-cutting exercise. Being clear about the reason why you were let go and using non-judgmental language will make you sound reasonable and level-headed.

5. Remember, you weren’t ‘fired’,’ just ‘let go’

Try to avoid negative verbs like “fired” or “dismissed” as these can still raise doubts in the recruiter’s mind. Instead, stick to the passive tense and you run far less risk of sounding negative. For instance, “It was decided that the company would end our collaboration,” or, “My services were felt to no longer be necessary.” Once you find a phrase that rolls off your tongue comfortably, and helps you to avoid feeling flustered, use it as your default line. As in any job interview, you need to show confidence in your own abilities, and this needs to be contagious. So do not “dismiss” yourself, or the recruiter might, too.

6. Be objective

Ultimately, most recruiters are less interested in your past dismissal than in whether or not you are capable of doing the job you are interviewing for. Be objective about what went wrong in the past, and how the negative experience has helped you develop. This will help them feel confident in your abilities for the role. It will also help you to move forward, rather than dwelling on a situation that didn’t work out.

7. Practice your explanation

As with any particularly difficult interview question, it may help you to prepare an explanation of what happened and rehearse it. It is important to make sure that your explanation outlines:

  • The reason(s) you were let go
  • What you learned from the experience
  • An example that illustrates why you are now in a better position to undertake this job

Focusing on what you learned from your experience, showing the recruiter how you have developed, and explaining why it will be different for you this time, is vital for getting them to trust you.

If you are still dreading the question, just remember that being fired is far from the end of your career. It happens to the best of us, and recruiters know that as well as anyone. The copious list of highly successful people who were fired from early jobs includes the likes of Steve Jobs and Oprah Winfrey. Walt Disney was reportedly fired from his cartoonist job at the Kansas City Star because he “lacked imagination and had no good ideas”—so you’re in good company.

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