“Why did you leave your last job?” – How to deal with this question if you were terminated

I have been fired twice in my life, I deserved it both times. Neither was recent but both were during my professional career, meaning I’m not talking about being 16 and getting fired from McDonalds. In both instances I made mistakes and one of them was pretty big. So if you have been fired, I’ve been there. I wish I had some magical advice that would absolve you of this black mark, I don’t, it doesn’t exist. Until you put years (a decade normally) of work between that event and your current gig you’re going to have to answer for it.

In nearly every interview I have been on, and every interview I have personally conducted I asked some form of this question. As the hiring manager I have a limited view of you as the applicant. At this point I have your resume which is the highlights of your career, I’ve done a google search, I’ve looked at your social media if it’s under your name (Facebook, LinkedIn etc.) so I have an impression already. This question though is key and how you answer it makes or breaks my impression.

So here is the first thing to keep in mind as the applicant: The person interviewing you has a work story too. Like I said in the opening, I’ve been fired. Someone gave me another chance, I might give you one. Don’t assume the question is meant to trip you up or expose you negatively, it is meant as a general gauge to know why you want to work here. The hiring manager rarely cares about why you left, but why you want to work there. More money, better commute, shitty boss…..

The second thing to keep in mind as the applicant: Why EXACTLY were you fired? You have to be very specific here and study this and rehearse it in your head. You likely have a formal reason for being terminated from your last job, that formal reason is the ONLY reason. Let me explain. Maybe you were terminated for repeatedly being late. That’s a valid reason, and there may be a valid reason why you were late, I’m not asking for the later. The point? You answer the question directly with as little elaboration as possible and without talking negatively about the prior role.

Some jobs are forest fires

Now a good interviewer is going to ask follow up questions “why were you late” that’s natural and you should expect it. At this point you have a choice. You can be honest, you can be less than honest, or you can lie. It’s highly likely I as the hiring manager that I will never get the actual details of your dismissal, your prior company isn’t going to share it with me, you are my only source of detail for this event. Choose carefully here because lies tend to lead to horrible long term outcomes. That said if you were having an affair with the boss’s spouse at your last job you might want to not share that specific either.

People are terminated all the time it happens you aren’t the first person. If this was a mistake at work you own it, tell them you learned from it and be upfront. If this was a personal situation, like being late because say your kid had an illness, you can share it without playing a sympathy card. If this was a character issue, you stole, you harassed someone, you got into a physical fight with your boss (yes I’ve seen it) these are far trickier and require you to cultivate several references that will affirm you have corrected this issue.

So how do you deal with this question if you have been terminated prior? When in doubt tell the truth. As a hiring manager I am going to respect the hell out of you for owning it, and I will realize how tough that was for you to say it to me directly. Little do you know I’ve been fired too.

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2 thoughts on ““Why did you leave your last job?” – How to deal with this question if you were terminated

  1. Well I never had an affair with the boss’s wife so… 😂

    Great post. My issue was related to 9/11 and downsizing (I was in aviation related jobs). But it’s good to ponder these things prior to interviewing for new positions. Honestly is easy to remember, but you don’t have to divulge everything. 😉

  2. It’s hard to tell strangers you made a mistake that ended in a loss of a job, its a social marker really no one wants to admit a mistake. It’s very hard to navigate, it was for me but I stuck with honesty and it worked out. Honesty is great because it requires the least amount of memory, one of its greatest assets. Thank you for coming by and supporting my blog I really appreciate it.

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