Handling Tough Questions

How to answer interview questions about being fired.

By
Leslie Stevens-Huffman | August 2007


So, you’ve been fired. While it may seem devastating right now,
remember you’re not the first, and most people rebound and move on to
new opportunities.

But one thing is certain: To get your
next gig you¿ll need to answer questions about why you left your last
job. The keys to doing so effectively are self-awareness and
preparation.

Mend the Fence

When
you’re ready to get back in the game, call your previous manager to
conduct some relationship repair. Start by asking his opinion about the
type of position he thinks you’re best-suited for. Then inquire about
the reference information he’s comfortable providing to a prospective
employer. Doing this serves several purposes: It mends the fence
between the two of you, and lets you know what he’s likely to say in
response to reference calls. In addition, it causes him to reframe his
thoughts about you.

"I would ask your previous manager
about your greatest strengths," advises Gayle Abbott, president of
Hureco Inc., a talent management consulting firm with offices in
Phoenix and Washington. "By asking him to reflect on your positive
attributes, he’s more likely to remember those things when a reference
call comes in."

If you didn’t ask during your termination
meeting, call HR at your previous company and ask what information
they’ll release about you during a reference check. While most
companies are reluctant to release negative information about previous
employees, the truth may still come out. You should never lie about
being fired, but talking to HR will help you prepare for any objections
you encounter by giving you insight into what prospective employers
might hear from your old firm.

Reflect

Why
were you terminated and what have you learned? The answers are vital,
not only because you want to find a better fit in your next job, but
because you’ll need the result of such introspection to assure an
interviewer you’ve learned from your experience and the same situation
won’t happen again.

"It’s important to identify what part of the culture may not have been working well for you," says Paula Moreira, author of Ace the IT Resume and Ace the IT Interview.
"Was the technology not challenging enough, did you want more
collaborative design sessions, or do you prefer to work alone? If you
weren’t motivated enough to take the job seriously, it’s important to
understand what the real reason for your termination was, so you can
explain it and make a better choice next time."

Technique

First
of all be honest. If you’re asked directly if you were fired, answer
affirmatively but use language that will soften your answer. Most
importantly don’t offer up the fact you were let go unless you’re asked.

"Never
bring it up first because the subject may never come up," says Arlene
Vernon, president of HRx Inc.com, an HR consulting and training firm
based in Eden Prairie, Minn. "Rehearse your answer out loud so you’re
more confident when the subject arises, and try to handle the question
initially with a generic comment, such as you didn’t fit into the
company culture or you didn’t get along with your boss."

Notes
Abbott: "You don’t want to bring up the subject of your termination
right off the bat, because the interviewer assumes the worst about you
and they will just shut down."

Because your old boss can
still be a wild card, line up some former peers who are willing to give
you positive references. Exercise some control over the process by
proactively providing a list or letters of reference to your
prospective employers.

In response to questions about
your termination, Vernon suggests beginning with a phrase like, "I
don’t want to speak ill of my former employer, however the situation
was this." This allows you to tailor your answer in a way that conveys
your diplomacy so interviewers are less likely to dig for information.

Finally,
stay emotionally controlled while answering questions about your
termination. Focus the lion’s share of your answer on what you’ve
learned and the corrections you’ve made as a result of losing a job.
This is where you can take the opportunity to spin your answer back
around to the positive if you’ve had that fence-mending discussion with
your old boss.

"To demonstrate that your previous job
performance wasn’t all bad, I’d say something like, ‘I¿ve spoken with
my old boss and he acknowledges that we didn’t see eye to eye on
everything. But he’ll also admit that I’m a hard worker and that I
offered up some great ideas for improving the department,’" says Vernon.

And remember: What do Steven Jobs, Howard Stern and Terrell Owens have in common? They’ve all been fired.

Leslie
Stevens-Huffman is a freelance writer based in Irvine, Calif. who has
more than 20 years experience in the staffing industry.

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