How do I answer “Why did you leave your last job” if I was fired?

by Laura Labovich on May 6, 2011

Dear Laura: I got terminated from my last job, and my boss said that I lost money for the company and didn’t do the work (in my eyes I felt that I did). What is the best way to answer the question “Why did you leave your last job?”

Laura: There are few interview questions that put the fear of G-d in job seekers more than this one. The salary question, okay, I’ll give you that. The “Tell me about yourself” is, for sure, another. But, perhaps the biggest panic attack inducer would be: “why did you leave your company?” because of the concern that they will “find out” that we were fired.

Because this dismissal was due to performance (and not a layoff or reduction-in-force), it is really best not to misrepresent it. It may be uncovered in a background check or verbal employment verification anyway, so best not to waste time trying to sweet talk your way out of it.

Here are some good rules of thumb when approaching this dreaded beast of a question:

  • Be objective. Try to detach yourself from the event and examine it honestly. You can’t change the circumstances. But, considering the part you played can go a long way to avoiding a repeat performance. Of course, not every relationship is made in heaven, and just because you were terminated doesn’t mean it was your fault!  Still, it’s good to check in…what could you change, if anything, going forward?
  • Don’t play the blame game. The truth is, if you sound bitter, you won’t get hired. Period. There’s no second chance with this one. So, don’t give a long, rambling story about your situation, or blame the boss, company, or anyone you came in contact with during your work there. This will likely take some practice, in front of the mirror and in the presence of trustworthy friends who can tell you if you still sound a wee bit angry. And, if you need to head to five yoga classes a day to “om” your way out of your hostility, do it.
  • Craft an answer that is serious, but optimistic. “We were unable to work effectively together, and it turned out to not be a great fit.” or “I have thought a great deal about this and can now understand now what went wrong. I don’t believe that I fully understood my boss’s expectations and, unfortunately, was released before I had a chance to prove myself.” or “I enjoyed my time there and learned a great deal in the process, and am excited to move on to this organization.” or “I usually have great relationships with my bosses, so this was really a first for me. I’m not sure why. But, I’m glad that we were both able to move on so we could each find the right fit.”
  • Practice it…a lot. Sure, they may not ask you this question, but that’s no reason to risk it! Assume that it will come up—in every interview, no matter what—and then rehearse it like it’s your job.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Inspire! Perspire! July 15, 2012 at 9:43 pm

I like the response “I enjoyed my time there and learned a great deal . . . ”

You also might say that you gave your best efforts at the job but it fell short of what was expected.

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