How to Explain Being Fired in a Job Interview

Photo of a job interviewer.

Experience? Check. Professionalism? Check. Education? Check. Confidence? Check. You have the skills to wow any hiring manager — on paper and in person.

Well, except for that one time you were fired.

When the rest of your resume is impressive, it’s frustrating to know that a gap in your employment history might jump off the page and leave doubts in the minds of many hiring managers.

While you don’t want to hide — or worse, lie — about such a blemish, you may be able to turn this negative into a positive. A little preparation and attention to detail can go a long way.

Shake up your resume

The best way to write a resume that compensates for an employment gap is to use a hybrid format that lists your relevant skills, experience and other qualifications first. Then detail your employment history in reverse chronological order. When you list your strong points first, there’s a better chance that hiring managers will be impressed enough to want to talk with you despite the gap.

You might also consider including work-related activities you participated in while you were unemployed — perhaps participating in online classes or taking volunteer positions at local non-profits. Treat these as you would any other position: Note the dates and list your responsibilities.

Same goes for your cover letter. Describe your volunteer work or coursework as things that make you a good fit for this opening, just like relevant work experience. The point is to show that you used the time to do something productive that enhanced your qualifications for the position.

No matter what you do, though, don’t go out of your way to explain gaps in your employment history at this stage. Save that for the interview, as it’s always easier to explain these kinds of situations face-to-face.

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Have your answer ready

If you’re called in for an interview, you can pretty much guarantee the hiring manager will ask about your employment gaps. Be prepared with a strong answer.

First off, it’s important to be honest. If you provide a less-than-truthful reason for leaving your job and get an offer, the hiring manager could easily get the information about your termination while performing reference checks to verify your background, and that could cause the company to withdraw the offer.

Second, keep your initial answer short and succinct. If you ramble and over-explain the situation, the hiring manager might wonder whether you’re covering something up. The best response is a simple, direct one, such as “Unfortunately, the company terminated me.”

Third, explain briefly the circumstances, what you learned from the experience, and how you’ve grown in the aftermath or made changes in your life to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. For example, if you were fired for performance issues, explain that you may not have had a full grasp of the company’s expectations for the position, then describe how you’ve developed and honed the areas where you were weaker — especially if they’re relevant to the position you’re applying for.

Finally, be very careful that you don’t bad-mouth the manager or company that fired you. It never helps.

Other work history blemishes

Getting fired from a previous job isn’t the only work-history blemish that can be challenging to describe in a cover letter, resume and interview. Other hiccups can be explained to a potential new employer just as easily.

Job hopping. Employers have traditionally considered holding too many different positions as a sign of career instability. The good news is that attitudes are changing. In an Accountemps survey, 58 percent of respondents felt that job hopping could be beneficial to their careers, especially if it helped them gain new skills. Be sure to highlight the growth opportunities you found by switching jobs, and avoid comments like, “I was trying to make more money.” It might make the hiring manager believe that you’d leave any position for better wages.

Sticking around too long. Having the same job for many years shows some desirable traits, like dependability, loyalty and consistency. However, it might also cause a hiring manager to think you resist change. If this is your issue, use the cover letter, resume and interview to describe how you grew in your role. For example, if you were an executive assistant for 15 years, perhaps you gained more supervisory responsibilities over the years, starting with one employee and eventually managing six, which allowed you to develop managerial skills and a deep network.

Don’t be intimidated by work history blemishes. Thoughtful answers that demonstrate your growth, development and willingness to accept responsibility may actually work in your favor and make you a memorable job candidate, both on paper and during the job interview.   

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