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Were you fired? A guide to talking about termination in a job interview.

Written By Rachelle Enns on May 4th, 2020
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Rachelle Enns
Rachelle is a job search expert, career coach, and headhunter who helps everyone from students to fortune 500 executives find success in their career.
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In this guide, Mock Questions walks you through one of the toughest tasks a job seeker can face: discussing a past termination. We outline the differences between termination, layoffs, and wrongful termination. We teach you how to approach termination questions as they apply to your individual situation while providing detailed examples.

TERMINATIONS VS. LAYOFFS

If you have lost your job, whether in the past or more recently, It’s important to distinguish whether you were terminated (fired) or laid off.

Losing your job can be a confusing time, and many people find the situation tough to navigate. To add to the confusion, now you have to know what to say to a hiring manager when they ask why you left your job.

TERMINATION: If you have been terminated or fired, there is no option for rehire. A true termination is a permanent decision, usually related to your performance or behavior. The most common reasons for termination include calling in sick under false pretenses, being late too often, not coming to work at all, damaging company property, breaching an employment expectation, or even posting inappropriate content on social media that could embarrass the company.

LAY OFF: A layoff can be temporary or permanent. Layoffs can happen when a company downsizes, merges, restructures, or goes out of business. In the case of a temporary layoff, you have an opportunity to be rehired when the company’s situation bounces back.

WRONGFUL TERMINATION

Wrongful terminations are common. Some experts estimate that over 250,000 people are wrongfully terminated every year in the USA. Examples of wrongful termination include:

Cause. Your employer did not give ‘cause’ when terminating your employment. Whether you had an employment contract or not, in most regions, an employer is required to provide ‘cause’ or, in other words, have a good reason to fire you.

Whistleblowing. If you witnessed something wrong in the workplace, reported it, and were fired, this situation could fall under wrongful termination.

Labor Issues. If you were asking for workplace improvements, and you were fired, this could be considered wrongful termination. This situation is different from ‘complaining’ to colleagues. You must have been constructively collaborating to bring about change around a labor issue.

Discrimination. If you were discriminated against for reasons such as gender, age, race, sexual orientation, pregnancy, and more, you likely have a case for wrongful termination.

Medical History. If you were fired after your company found out that you have a medical condition, this could be considered wrongful termination.

Whether you choose to pursue legal action around a termination is up to you. We won't discuss legalities in this guide. However, it's essential to identify a wrongful termination so that you can shape the best and most honest answer for future job interviews.

QUESTIONS TO BE PREPARED FOR

A skilled interviewer will have a variety of methods for digging around to see if you were fired from your job. If you have unexplained gaps in your resume, some questions you can expect include:

  • Why did you leave your job?

  • Tell me why you left your job.

  • Why are you looking for a new job?

  • Why did you leave your job without another one secured?

  • Have you ever been terminated from a role?

  • Why have you not provided a reference from your previous employer?

  • Did you leave your former employer on good terms?

  • Was your job separation voluntary or involuntary?


You can also expect follow-up questions, depending on how inquisitive the hiring manager is. For this reason, it’s always best to be truthful.

TAKE A POSITIVE APPROACH

Being terminated does not have to be an embarrassing or shameful thing. Many hard-working, talented people have found themselves in a termination situation. And guess what? The vast majority of those people land on their feet!

Whichever way the interviewer chooses to frame the question, they simply want to know what your reason was for leaving your job. Perhaps you were terminated, or your company closed their office, and you were laid off. Maybe you were blindsided by a wrongful dismissal. Whatever your reasoning, be positive and do not speak poorly about the employer, the experience, or anyone in the organization.

Instead, focus on:

What you have learned. Explain to the interviewer what you have learned from the experience. You can express that the situation has been challenging and then take the opportunity to showcase your tenacity, grit, and ability to bounce back.

For example: "After being let go for missing my sales targets, I learned that my personality is better suited to a blended business development and account management role, as opposed to a pure business development position. Although I am great at sourcing prospects and closing deals, I crave the relationship-based sales approach that comes with account management. This realization is what led me to apply for this position!"

What you have done since. If you were terminated with cause, give specific details of what you have done to improve your professional performance.

For example: “Since being terminated for low sales performance, I have completed two online sales training courses through Dale Carnegie. The first was called, ‘How to Sell Like a Pro,’ and the second was ‘Winning with Relationship Selling.’ I feel much better equipped now and am ready to generate exciting results in my next opportunity.”

How you have maintained dignity. If your termination was embarrassing or a blow to your ego (which most are!), the interviewer would want to hear how you have maintained professional poise throughout the situation. This point will be especially important if you were wrongfully terminated or unexpectedly laid off.

For example: "I know that I performed the best that I could, despite the challenging work environment. My colleagues and I still keep in touch on a friendly basis. Also, my previous manager offered to be a positive reference, should you require further insight into my work ethic."

No matter how vulnerable you feel, be as open and honest as you can, while remaining positive, overall.

HOW TO ANSWER, ‘WHY DID YOU LEAVE YOUR JOB?’

When an interviewer asks you about a specific job, and how it ended, it’s best to focus on the positive aspects of the job, and your overall situation. Begin with a positive statement, briefly mention the negative factor, and then end your response with another positive comment.

EXAMPLE (TERMINATED): “Initially, I was drawn to the position because of my desire to work in a sales-based environment. I was ready to work hard, put in overtime, and take any training opportunity available to me. However, I was not prepared for the long sales cycle and just how competitive the company was, internally and externally. I took longer than expected to build a sales pipeline and was not able to keep up after a slow first quarter. My employer did what they could to support me but it became clear that being so new to sales, I should have pursued a role with a shorter sales cycle and a smaller, hands-on sales management team. We agreed that the role was not a good fit, and went our ways amicably.”

EXAMPLE (LAID OFF): “Unfortunately, I was caught in the layoffs during the COVID-19 pandemic. The company ran into financial difficulties after being unable to open their doors for a few weeks. In total, fifteen of us were laid off. The company did not promise to rehire me since their future was uncertain, so I have chosen to pursue a new opportunity."

EXAMPLE (WRONGFUL TERMINATION): “I value a workplace that focuses on teamwork, and building a supportive workplace culture. After working with my employer for three years, I saw significant changes arise which began to cause a turnover and a high level of employee dissatisfaction. When I approached my manager about the situations and raised my concerns, I was handed termination papers. The labor board deemed it a wrongful dismissal; however, I was not interested in returning. I am confident in the fact that I gave my employer the best of me. I built strong relationships with my colleagues and many of my clients followed up with me to say there were sorry to hear that I was gone. Moving forward with a positive mindset, I am eager to apply my work ethic and integrity with a company like yours that values constructive employee input.”

Now that you have a basic framework, you can tweak your response for similar termination-related questions such as, ‘Why are you looking for a new job?’ and ‘Have you ever been terminated from a role?’

IN CONCLUSION

Whether your situation is termination with cause, wrongful termination, or an unexpected layoff, being let go from your position is an unfortunate event and it can be difficult to accept.

But remember, termination can happen to the best of us, and often for situations that are out of our control.

  • Walt Disney was fired from the Kansas City Star for not being creative enough. His editor told him that he ‘lacked imagination and had no good ideas.’


  • Infamous Vogue editor Anna Wintour was fired from Harper’s Bazaar after just 9 months for being ‘too edgy’ with her photoshoots.


  • Oprah was fired from Baltimore's WJZ-TV for being ‘unfit for television news.’


Just like in these examples, many people who have been fired later eport having grown personally and professionally from the experience, coming out better on the other side.

If you’re looking for extra coaching to get you through a tough question or interview situation, check out Mock Questions one-on-one coaching options.