How to explain being fired to potential employers

Job interviews are stressful under the best of circumstances. So if you’ve been fired, your nerves will likely go into overdrive, especially when they ask the inevitable question: “Why were you fired?”

Just as you prepare answers for other common interview questions, it's important to prepare an answer for this one. Rehearsing some go-to phrases will help you craft a professional answer during your interview.

Here are some tips to help you explain a termination to a potential employer.

Honesty is the best policy
Review the incident or issue that caused you to lose your job with an unbiased eye. Were you let go because of a conflict with a co-worker? Honestly evaluate your role in the clash. Did you fail to meet production quotas? Ask yourself whether it was due to a lack of effort or lack of affinity for the work you were doing. Before you can answer your potential employer honestly, you need to be clear-eyed with yourself.

When addressing your termination with your interviewer, don't try to position it as a layoff or any other less serious situation. Even if you've relocated to a new city for a fresh start, your employer will find out the truth. Be truthful in a way that reflects on you as favorably as possible.

Don’t bash your old boss
You want to portray yourself as a valuable addition to their team. One way to raise an instant red flag is to speak negatively about the last person who offered you a job.

Perhaps even more important, don't gossip about your last boss, your co-workers or the company you worked for. Besides showing a lack of maturity and discretion, gossiping is a strong sign that you'll be a divisive employee.

Don’t pass the blame
Along with bashing, blaming is a bad way to go. Your potential new employer wants to see that you take responsibility both for your past actions and for your performance on the job. No matter how unfairly you felt you were treated at your old job, you must recognize and accept your role in your termination.

This doesn't mean you need to give major details about what you did wrong in your previous position, though. Just make sure at some point you say, "I take responsibility for not performing up to my boss's expectations," and move on.

Stick to the point
A big mistake candidates make when answering this question is trying to explain every nuance of the situation. Don't spend five minutes setting up the circumstances around your termination. Cut to the chase and keep it simple.

If you were terminated because you had an attendance problem, for example, don't go on and on about your sick grandma, your chiropractor appointments or any other life situation that caused you to miss work. Instead, say something like, “I let personal circumstances interfere with my attendance at work. My situation is stable now and attendance won't be a problem.”

Don’t sound bitter
You'll make yourself unattractive to a potential employer if you come across bitter and defeated. Even if you think your previous employer was wrong to let you go, showing bitterness only makes you look bad.

Don't use language that emphasizes a past failure. Speak in ways that minimizes the impact of your termination.

Explain what you’ve learned
Including a “lessons learned” sentence in your answer shows potential employers you're aware and adaptable. It turns a negative into an asset. It also demonstrates candor and maturity by letting your interviewer see that you are objective about your shortcomings and learn from past experiences.

Promote your positives
It's difficult to turn talk of your termination into a way to showcase your skills and experience. Learning to segue gracefully into a discussion of your value to the company is an effective way to keep your interview on track.

Try transitioning with a phrase like this: “I was sorry to leave Company X; I learned a lot about the app development lifecycle there, which is why I thought my skills were well suited to this position."

Practice makes perfect
Getting fired is an emotional experience, and it's hard to talk objectively and calmly even weeks or months after the event. Practicing your answer helps you keep emotions at bay so you don't derail your interview.

Start by writing your response down; put it away, then come back to it a day later and read it again. If you are satisfied with your written answer, try it out on an objective friend or family member. Weigh their criticisms and tweak it if necessary.

Once you're completely satisfied with your answer, commit it to memory. Practice it in front of a mirror several times. Once you're comfortable with your answer and you've internalized it, you'll be able to speak naturally about your termination with your interviewer.

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