Having to tell a prospective employer why you were fired from a previous job doesn't mean the untimely demise of a job search, advises Margaret Fisher, president of Fisher Group Solutions, a Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm that works with both employers and job seekers. Effectively articulating the reason you were terminated usually means just choosing appropriate words and not demonstrating any signs that you're angry with your previous boss.
Completing an application that has only so many characters in the field for "Reason for Leaving" presents your first challenge in explaining a termination. In this case, there's no way around it, except choosing the right terminology. If you were fired for performance, attendance or another reason under your control, respond truthfully. Try using "discharged" or "terminated." Either of those sounds a little softer than "fired," according to Fisher. "In any communication, word choice is crucial, and your employment application is no different," Fisher says. You might be tempted to explain why if the application has enough space, but don't. Any explanation you give is more plausible and sincere during a face-to-face interview.
Let Your Resume Get You in the Door
"You're better off rehearsing how you're going to respond during an in-person meeting to questions about why you were fired, so let your resume speak for your qualifications," she says. Fisher explains that your qualifications can trump the reason for which you were terminated from a previous job, so make your resume showcase your qualifications. If your qualifications and expertise put you at the top of the applicant pool, a recruiter or hiring manager isn't going to let a previous discharge get in the way of learning more about you and what you have to offer the organization.
Collect Your Thoughts
Once you're face to face with the recruiter or the hiring manager, you can anticipate the inevitable question: "Your application indicates you were terminated from your last job. Tell me about that." This is an opportunity to iterate why you're the best qualified for the job -- not the chance to air grievances about your former employer.
Briefly collect your thoughts and maintain eye contact with the interviewer. Eye contact generally conveys that you're making a sincere gesture, and in this case, providing a truthful answer. Avoid making any negative remarks about your previous job, the details of your termination or your former boss. If you anticipate some anxiety about answering this question, prepare for it when you're rehearsing answers to other interview questions. Preparing a written explanation about your termination that you can use to practice your verbal response can be especially helpful, says Amy Levin-Epstein in her October 2012 article titled, "Fired? How to Explain It in a Job Interview" for CBS Money Watch. Levin-Epstein says drafting a written explanation can help you put aside the subjectivity that could prevent you from giving the interviewer a response that doesn't have an emotional perspective.
Show Steps to Improvement
Explain your job and paint the circumstances in a positive light, even if you have to admit to poor performance or inadequate skills. For example, if you were fired for poor performance, Fisher recommends saying, "Regrettably, I was terminated because my performance didn't meet the company's expectations; however, since that time, I've worked hard to improve my skills and approach to professional development." Give examples of the steps you took to learn from previous mistakes. And if you have confirmed with your previous employer that you're eligible for rehire, say so. Employees get fired every day, so that's nothing new to a recruiter or hiring manager. If you can show that your work habits are better since your termination and that your former employer considers you rehire-eligible, then you shouldn't worry that "terminated" is a black mark on your record.
Even if you feel you were wrongfully discharged from your previous employer -- for example, if you were terminated for poor attendance that stemmed from family obligations or you suspect you were terminated because of sex or marital status -- do not disclose that during your interview. The best response in cases like this is to simply say that your poor attendance was the result of personal matters that are now resolved. And, if you're intending to file a legal action based on your termination, do not disclose your plans to prospective employers. You don't want them to perceive you as a disgruntled worker or a litigious former employee.