“I Was Fired”

Dear Dr. Civitelli,

I was fired from my last job. Do prospective employers have the right to ask about this? How do I handle this in my job search? What do I say about it if I am asked if I have ever been fired?

Signed,
Worried

I Was Fired

Dear Worried,

To answer your questions, I consulted with employment lawyer and career coach Lori Rassas. She suggests the following strategies:

First of all, don’t volunteer the information that you were fired but be prepared to give a well-crafted response if you are asked directly if you have ever been fired. This response must be prepared in advance so that you are not caught off guard.

Second, don’t lie. If you mislead anyone about the situation, aside from the fact it is unethical, the truth may come out and be much more damaging that the original infraction. For example, I had one client tell a prospective employer that her prior supervisor was on vacation for a few weeks and this was the reason he could not be contacted. (She did not get along with him and she wanted to offer another reference). In response, the hiring manager said that the time delay would not be an issue because the hiring process could wait for the prior supervisor to return from vacation so there would be plenty of time to secure a reference from him.

Third, when describing a termination, make sure your response is forthright, direct, non-defensive, and neutral. An evasive response may leave the employer thinking that the situation was much worse than it actually was. The goal for your response is to briefly describe what happened in neutral terms and then redirect everyone’s attention to why you are the best candidate for the vacant position.

When responding to the question, be extremely cautious not to say anything even remotely negative about a former boss or company. Perhaps there was not a cultural fit, you had a different vision for your department than did your employer,  or the position was simply not a match for your skill set.

While no one ever wants to be told that their employment has ended, perhaps the experience created a learning experience that you can describe. For example, if you were terminated because of a lack of computer skills, you could take a few post-termination classes and reference those in your next job interview.

One other strategy that might be helpful, if possible, is to provide the employer with a list of references from the company from which you were fired. These should be people who are enthusiastically willing to vouch for your work. Within the context of the discussion of the termination, you can simply present the information to the prospective employer and state that the termination was in no way reflective of an inability to complete other work or to get along with others. Some of your references might be managers from other departments of the company for which you worked, or people who were very familiar with your work but who no longer work for the company.

Since you’ve already left this employer, it is too late to negotiate a resignation. But if you are ever faced with this situation again, one recommendation is to ask the employer whether you would be permitted to resign. In many situations, an employer is willing to accept a resignation in lieu of termination, either on its own or as part of an overall discussion about a separation package. This is particularly common when the separation is not contentious but just based on an individual’s inability to satisfactorily perform their job tasks. Note that any employee considering this approach will need to evaluate the repercussions of doing so with a legal or HR professional who is familiar with employment law and benefits because this choice may impact the receipt of some benefits. At a minimum, a person can call the Department of Labor or the agency who administers the benefits for guidance about how to complete the paperback. Many of the websites for these agencies also have FAQs that are very helpful.

Also, for what it is worth, while I am unaware of any laws that would restrict a prospective employer from asking you whether you were terminated from a prior position,  though, just as in a number of other situations, a legal issue may materialize if that employer makes a hiring decision based on the response to the question. For example, age is a protected class and under federal law an employer is prohibited from making an employment decision based on the fact that a candidate is 40 years of age or older.  So if a prospective employer asks a candidate’s age, the candidate responds that they are 54, and then the employer declines to extend an offer, an argument can be made that the employer used the candidate’s age as the basis for the exclusion which would be discriminatory.

This may become relevant for a termination situations because now, in a number of states including New York, “employment status” is considered a protected class. This means that just as employers are prohibited from discriminating against candidates because of their age, race, religion and other protected classes, they are now prohibited from discriminating against a person who is unemployed. This may be worth mentioning because it is somewhat related, interesting (I think), and still not known by many people.  (It went into effect in New York in 2013).

Hope this helps!


Lori Rassas is an employment attorney, career coach, and author of The Perpetual Paycheck: 5 Secrets to Getting a Job, Keeping a Job, and Earning Income for Life in the Loyalty-Free Workplace.

If you have been fired, it may be beneficial to practice how you will describe the situation before you are in an actual job interview. Our career coaches are experienced in helping clients prepare for this and other tough job interview situations.

Comments

  1. The questioner doesn’t describe the circumstances surrounding her firing. However, most companies are not heartless and they don’t want trouble. They fear publicity as much as a lawsuit. So this questioner could return to her employer and negotiate a way to handle references. Ideally she could have someone call to learn what they’re saying.

    Once you’re fired, or even if you’re not, often the company will say they have a policy to release only dates of employment. In a small industry your boss could be reached via the informal network, but I’ve found bosses are reluctant to go on the attack.

    There’s a way to finesse the conversation.
    “There wasn’t a skill fit. We realized I was a square peg in a round hole.”
    “My boss was new and wanted to bring in her own team.”
    “We had a reorganization.”

    If you were with the company for several years, through several bosses, and now you hit a wall, it’s pretty obvious that either you’re a good employee and you were transferred to a department where you were a misfit. You’re out of synch with the boss or the job.

    If you’re in any kind of executive or professional position most people know that firings are mostly political. So if you’ve presented yourself well and they’re eager to hire you … they’ll want to hear good things as much as you do!

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