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You’ve Been Fired. What Do You Tell Job Interviewers?


Dear Annie: I’ve been fired, and it’s totally flipping me out, because it was the last thing I expected. My first job out of college was at a successful startup (I was the third person the founders hired, four years ago), which was just bought by a larger company. The new owners have very different ideas about the business, and the original crew has been struggling to adapt. One of the managers from the new parent company asked my opinion about some of the changes they want to make, and I explained why some of us have doubts. The next day, my immediate boss called me in and fired me. He said the owners had decided I’m “not a team player.” This is really not true, as I think anyone who has ever been part of a team with me can vouch for. Now, friends of mine at other companies have lined up interviews for me. But how do I answer the question of why I left my last job? Should I just say I was fired, since they’re bound to find out anyway? — Sacked in Seattle

Dear Sacked: In a word, yes. “There is only one strategy for having been fired, and that is to immediately admit it,” says Ian Siegel, CEO of job site ZipRecruiter. Since co-founding the company in 2010, he has personally hired most of his company’s 335 employees, some of whom had been shown the door at other companies. “I love it when someone says, ‘I was fired,’” Siegel says. “It shows me I’m dealing with an honest person.”

How someone describes why he or she was given the boot, he adds, is crucial. Never badmouth a previous boss (or your old employer’s new owners). “Someone who explains a firing by blaming someone else is not mature enough to work here,” Siegel says. A vague reason like “It just didn’t work out” won’t do, either. “What I do want to hear is what you learned at your last job, and how you’re going to apply it here if I hire you.”

You don’t say whether your job interviews are at other startups, but if so, that gives you an advantage, according to Siegel. “In the startup community, you run into lots of people who were fired or whose ventures failed. There’s nothing unusual about it,” he says. “What I’m listening for is what the person took away from the experience.”

One product manager, for instance, was an intra-preneur who had built a multimillion-dollar business inside a larger company. “He had done brilliantly at every aspect of it—product development, marketing, the works,” says Siegel. “But revenues from the business, although they were big, still fell short of what he had projected. So they fired him, even though his only mistake was an overly optimistic sales forecast.” Siegel hired the guy, a move he now calls “one of the best decisions I ever made,” adding that, “in our interview, he said he’d never overestimate financial results again, and he hasn’t.”

So your task now is to think hard about everything you learned at your last job, and how it could benefit your next employer’s business. “Rehearse your answer ahead of time” to the question of why you were fired and what that taught you, as well as what else you are bringing to the table, Siegel suggests. “Then move the discussion ahead to what you can do for this company. If you prepare in advance, you can get through your work history quickly and start talking about the future.”

A word about references: Since your former colleagues would apparently disagree that you’re “not a team player,” that will help you too—at least, it will if prospective employers dig into your references (including some they locate themselves, without even telling you) as carefully as Siegel does.

They probably will. Big companies often check references simply as a formality—“They know anyone can find three people willing to say nice things about them,” Siegel notes—but, here again, the startup world is different. Because most new enterprises run so lean, with as few people as possible, each new hire is a bigger gamble, so reference checks are likely to be more painstaking. Ask your erstwhile teammates to be ready with a couple of specific examples of your best stuff, with emphasis on times when you excelled at teamwork.

Above all, try to stop “flipping out,” as you put it, over having been canned. About 2.8 million people quit their jobs in January, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and that was on top of the “quits rate” having risen in 2015 for its sixth straight consecutive year. Moreover, Millennials like yourself are famously footloose. “These days, everybody moves around, for all kinds of reasons,” Siegel observes. “So there’s less of a stigma attached to leaving a job, whatever the reason.” Indeed, he adds that, especially in tech, “there’s now a stigma attached to working in one place for too long. If you’ve been at one company for, say, 10 years, it better rhyme with Oogle.”

Good luck.

Talkback: If you’ve ever been fired, how did you explain it to job interviewers? Leave a comment below.

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