Dear Sam: What is the best way to handle the inevitable “why did you leave your last employer” question on an application? I was terminated after being employed for three years. While I have been successful using a networking contact to secure another position—bypassing the requirement to complete an application—I need to pursue a full-time role with a higher hourly wage. – Anonymous
Dear Anonymous: Explaining why you were fired certainly can be a nerve-wracking experience. I am not sure why you were terminated though. Was it a true “firing” for lack of performance or was it due to a reduction in force or company realignment? Of course the latter would be much easier to explain, as the reason for your departure would not rest on your shoulders. If you were indeed terminated for lack of performance, the key is to present a brief, positive explanation.
First, script and practice your answer to that inevitable question, being sure you don’t sound too rehearsed; but do know your lines well enough to not over-explain the situation. Of course, in your explanation you will want to avoid making any disparaging remarks about your former employer or supervisor. Instead, focus on what you learned from the situation. Did it teach you in what environment you worked best? Did it teach you how you needed expectations clearly defined by a proactive and communicative supervisor? Can you show strong levels of performance leading up to the timeframe in which your termination was based? None of those explanations point the finger too much at you. Instead, presenting an explanation which essentially says, “Yes, this happened, but this is what I learned and this is why it will never happen again” is a very respectable way to handle the situation. Remember, most candidates have a skeleton or two in their closets that they will have to explain during the interview process. Don’t let this misstep continue to impact your career. Take charge with a well-crafted explanation, put the experience behind you, and move on to your next role where I am certain you will make it a point to be a strong contributor.