The layoff taboo: how to talk about it in an interview

Sep 28, 2022

4 mins

The layoff taboo: how to talk about it in an interview
Lauren Dunmore

Content specialist passionate about storytelling

Facebook, Netflix, Shopify, Tesla—once they were just tech giants, resume gold that millions of Americans would give a left arm to include on theirs. Then 2022 happened and a wave of layoffs swept the nation. Thousands of employees came to work one day and left without a job. Maybe you were one of them. But this isn’t a story of loss, instead, it’s a guide to redemption. Here’s what the experts say you need to do to justify your layoff during a job interview.

The Layoff Coach

Meet Jess Wass, NYC-based career coach who guides clients and organizations through the challenges of the modern working world. She helps people experiencing periods of transition ace the interview process and ultimately find their perfect career match. Not only does she assist clients who’ve been impacted by layoffs, but she’s also been laid off before, so she’s no stranger to selling a layoff during a job interview.

Her advice? Bring it up. Use it to tell a better story, and take advantage of the opportunity to craft your own narrative.“You being laid off should come up during an interview because it’s a part of your story,” she says.

How to tell your story

According to Wass, your layoff will typically come up at some point during a job interview. You’ll likely be asked something like, “Why did you leave company X?” If you feel tempted to lie, fight the urge. A lot of companies will run a background check which will probably include talking to references. So bring it up before someone else does. The big positive of being honest is you can tell your story in a way that paints a better portrait of your untimely dismissal.

For example, if you were part of a mass layoff, then the story becomes less about you and more about the company. Instead of being related to your performance, your story can be that of a company and its failure, rather than a performance issue on your side.

Wass advises, “if you were part of a company layoff don’t be afraid to be forthright. It might engender some empathy from the person on the other side of the table.” Layoffs are more and more common these days. So it’s something that a lot of people have had experience with and perhaps been through. Being a little vulnerable could help you create a stronger connection with your interviewer.

In terms of how much detail to share, Wass advises that you put yourself in the shoes of the interviewer. “What’s important to them and the organization? They want to know that you’d be an asset to the company rather than a liability.”

You’re in that interview for a reason. Figure out what that reason is and focus on it when you tell your career story. What did you learn from your experience? “That’s what people really care about. Do you have self-awareness? How have you grown from the experience, and most importantly, what unique thing could you bring to the table if you were hired,” Wass explains.

However, it’s not always appropriate to bring up a layoff during an interview. The further that job is from the present, the less likely it is that you need to even bring it up. The general rule of thumb is if someone asks you straight up, “Why did you leave this job?” you should answer that honestly. But in Wass’s experience, nobody ever asks that type of question. They’ll ask you more general questions like, “Why did you leave your last job?” or, “Tell me about your career journey.” That’s your opportunity to tell the story in a way that benefits you without blatantly lying to an employer.

To share or not to share

Thanks to social platforms like LinkedIn, the recent wave of layoffs has been loud. Some recently laid-off employees have been pretty vocal about their struggles. Wass sees this as a positive sign. “When my clients are able to let go of the guilt or embarrassment or even shame that they have around that experience, they are able to move forward in a more productive way.” She thinks asking for help is a good way to do this. There’s a lot of camaraderie and sympathy for people who are part of a mass layoff, and LinkedIn is a great platform to get support.

Of course, there’s a right and wrong way to do this. Be careful about badmouthing a former employer on LinkedIn or in an interview, even if they laid you off. Recruiters and hiring managers tend to see this as a reflection of how you might talk about them if things go sour, and could get spooked. So talk about any former role with a level of respect. “Instead of focusing on the negatives, highlight what you’ve learned and how it will help you be more successful moving forward,” advises Wass.

She also believes that the mindset of employees is changing. Whereas in the past a layoff may have been seen as something shameful, social media culture has changed this. Most employers won’t actually hold a layoff against you, unless for some reason you actively contributed to the downfall of the company (think CEO of a company that failed due to poor leadership).

Wass also thinks that the rise of talking about both the positive and negative aspects of employment has created a lot more transparency and empathy around topics like mental health, layoffs, and work-life balance. “At the end of the day, things happen that are outside of your control and it’s often not actually a reflection of you. It will get better,” she says.

When Wass starts working with new clients, they’re often resistant to the idea of asking for help or putting themselves out there. But what they find, after talking things through and being vulnerable about their situation, usually through the art of our coaching, is that asking for help is a superpower. And those who find resilience and are successful, are the ones that aren’t afraid to look for support.

“I experienced it every single time I changed jobs, and I’ve changed careers like five times in 15 years. So I’ve gone through this personally,” admits Wass. “But every time you put yourself out there you’ll find how supportive your network really is.”

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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