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Everyone wants to be a gladiator, until the first round of layoffs.

There are a lot of tough interview questions.

If you’re reading this, you might already know what it’s like to have an interviewer ask, “Why were you fired?” Believe it or not, this question doesn’t have to cost you your next job.

First, if you’ve ever been fired then you need to do two things, immediately.

1) Ask Human Resources what information they release regarding your employee records

2) Ask your direct manager what information they release regarding your employee records

If you’re reading this after the fact, then you can still call them up and find out now. This may be your easiest path, so don’t skip it.

A lot of companies, especially larger ones, will only release your hire date, your last day worked and the last title you held (That’s right, as a bonus, you have been whatever your last title was for the entire duration of your employment). Many of them won’t even release salary information unless you authorize it.

If that’s the case in your situation, then you’re done here.  You determine the best way to explain, or if it’s necessary to explain, the reasons for your termination as you see fit.

So, what if the easiest path isn’t yours and you’re going to need to answer to why you were fired?

Here is the 1-2-3 rules to answering this question:
1) Do not lie.
2) Do not say more than absolutely necessary.
3) Do not say anything negative about anyone, no matter what

Those rules mean just what they say; everything that falls out of your mouth must be the truth, must show that you do not speak ill about people who aren’t there to defend themselves, and convey only the exact amount of truth necessary to satisfy the question to whatever level of knowledge about the situation the interviewer might have.

Let’s walk through a hypothetical situation together.

In this situation, these things happen to be facts:

  • Billy was fired for being late to work every day
  • Billy lived 40 miles from the office he worked in
  • Billy had car problems
  • Billy was put on a warning before being fired

“Yeah I swear! Yes! I know we’re in Phoenix! No, really!
Hello?”

Also in this situation, these are the things that Billy feels and thinks:

  • Billy didn’t get along with his manager
  • Billy is sure that other people were late too and has proof
  • Billy felt singled out and picked on by his manager
  • Billy tried his best and was there as fast as he felt he could be

Finally, these are the things he knows his boss will say, because he asked:

So , how is he going to speak to that? Well fortunately, Billy read this guide before his interview and practiced interviewing every day beforehand. Here is what Billy said when the interviewer asked him “Why were you fired?”

It’s embarrassing to even talk about, because both bad luck and poor choices were involved.

 

I really enjoyed the work, and it’s something I am very good at. Against my better judgment I accepted their job offer, even though the offices were 40 miles away from where I lived. I was leaving over an hour before my shift started, but traffic isn’t always predictable. The final straw was when my car broke down. I still did my best to show up, but I was still showing up late and eventually—and completely understandably—they let me go.

 

It was a lesson in humility, mostly because at the time I don’t think I fully appreciated the impact I had on my coworkers who watched me coming in late while they were busy working.

 

I learned from it though, and that’s one of the reasons I’m here. I need to work somewhere that I enjoy–but that’s also close enough to use public transportation, or even walk if I need to. It’s up to me to ensure that I’m able to deliver my services exactly when I’m expected. Part of my job search was making sure I only applied to positions that I could guarantee showing up promptly and reliably for, even in worst case scenarios.

“I told you, whatever it takes, I’m going to be on time.”

Like a checklist, each item that his manager might have conveyed, he answered to. He wasn’t reliable, and learned from it. Maybe he had a poor attitude, though it’s obvious he gets the impact he had on others now. Maybe he never took responsibility, but he clearly does now. There’s a chance he really did refuse to understand, but that’s not what it seems like now.

An answer like that leaves the interviewer in a much better position to hire an otherwise great candidate because it steps on all of the fears that they might have had. It also plays well for the candidate because they are able to speak to potentially tough issues without having to be asked or backed into a corner. It’s on their terms, which makes the whole conversation feel much less awkward and unpleasant.

That’s an uncommon situation, however.  Most of the time, if a company releases anything at all, it’s just the blunt fact that you were involuntarily terminated and nothing more. If that’s the case, trim it down even further.

For example, same situation as above, only the information given to the interviewer will be limited to the fact that the employee was terminated—nothing more.

Due to unforeseen circumstances, it was no longer feasible for me to travel 40 miles to the office. I tried to make it work, but ultimately it wasn’t enough. Because I fully understand the impacts not being able to meet the needs of the company, part of this job search was making sure I only applied to positions that I could guarantee I could show up early for, even in worst case scenarios.

And that’s that.

It’s very difficult to deliver the first time, because human nature dictates that we divulge details and defend ourselves. You need to practice this one, a lot, because at the end of the day you need to recognize when you’re answering questions that nobody asked.

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