Interviewing or Job Applications: What do I say if I was fired?

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If you are unemployed, you may have a unique situation you find challenging as you interview because you were fired or left your job under unpleasant circumstances. You might be unsure of what to say or do when talking to prospective employers. Here is a question that one client posed to me:

Question: What is the correct response for a job application or interview when asked the question: “What is the reason for leaving?”, when I was terminated from my previous employer?

The word “termination” sounds very scary. In fact, it has many meanings. Someone can be:

  1. Terminated with cause. Often known as being fired, this type of involuntary termination is the result of the employee doing something wrong. The employee may have been accused of or found guilty of a behavior that is unacceptable, such as theft, lying, insubordination, workplace violence, harassment or any action that takes you through the progressive discipline process.
  2. Terminated without cause. In these situations, often the company initiates the employee’s departure; it is also considered an involuntary termination. The departure might be due to a layoff, job elimination, facility closure or the expiration of a contractual agreement. Some positions have mandatory retirement requirements for safety or other reasons which require employees to leave at a certain age. Employees and employers can reach mutual agreements where both parties agree that leaving is the best option without placing blame on either side.
  3. Terminated voluntarily. Employees choose to leave, resign, quit or give notice to their employer on their own accord.

Let’s deal with how to handle a termination with cause because that is the one that causes the most trouble for job hunters.

The first thing to do is to determine what your employer is going to say when someone calls to verify your past employment. You can check to see if there is a policy in the employee handbook.

Many companies limit what is said to reference checkers to limit their liability. In those instances, the information is usually limited to dates of employment and verification of the position last held.

Once you have found out what your employer is “suppose” to say, call the HR department and verify it with them directly. Another option is to have someone call the Human Resources department or your previous boss and ask for a reference.

If you want ex-coworkers to service as a reference, be mindful that if they still working for the company, they may be limited in what they can say about you.

Coworkers who have left the company have more freedom to share information; however make sure you know what they will say before offering them as a reference.

On your application, it is not necessary to go into a lot of detail about your termination. You can state it as an involuntary termination because terminations with and without cause are considered to be involuntary.

At some point, a prospective employer is going to ask you for more detail. Here is where it is important to have your story air tight and to say as little as possible. It is not necessary to go into all the gory details.

If you were fired for something that you believe was unfair or unjust, you can state that the termination was involuntary.

If probed further, you can say there was a difference of opinion with your previous employer.

The interviewer might still not be satisfied, so be ready to explain in one or two sentences what the issue was and 1) why you believe it was not fair and/or 2) what you learned from the situation.

When you are in a stressful situation it is easy to start sharing more information than is necessary and to start fidgeting in your seat. Write down what you want to say and practice it saying it alone or with someone else. Do this at least 50 times so that the conversation flows naturally.

A good interviewer knows when they have hit a “hot button” and your goal is to have a calm discussion so that the interviewer accepts the first response: it was an involuntary termination and moves on to telling you about the job.

This approach might work for you, however, it is important to note that personal circumstances may alter what needs to be communicated – that is what makes your situation unique. If you are having difficulty on what to say, seek some professional assistance instead of continuing to feel frustrated.

If you have been in this situation, what has worked for you and what has not worked so well?

Please note: I get a lot of questions on this post for specific advice. I generally respond to anyone that writes a comment, however, do not expect to receive advice that is 100% relevant to your situation. There is always more to the story and that requires me to work with people individually in a coaching session. If you do not have the funds to work with a career coach, you can 1) research other articles on Elephants at Work and glean an answer that works for you or 2) consider purchasing either of my eBooks, put in a little elbow grease and craft your own answers. Bottom line: making it work takes an investment of time, money or resources. 

About Lynn Dessert (449 Posts)

Lynn Dessert is a certified ICF and NLP Coach specializing in Executive Career coaching in Charlotte NC. She works with individuals to accelerate their career advancement and organizations to fast track leadership skill development. Her career eBooks What To Do After Being Fired and The Secrets to Successful Job On-Boarding give you a roadmap to DIY. Start your discovery process by contacting her at 704.412.2852 today.


Comments

  1. chelsey says

    I have never worked except for voluntary, on both occasions I was told I’d be hired but was simply led on so that they would have a free worker, on one of the occasions though the employer was inappropriate and sexually harassed me, I therefore left on bad terms, so as you can imagine I don’t want the employer to be contacted and I’m not sure how to respond to “reason for leaving” for this particular job, any ideas?

    • says

      Chelsey,

      Simply say you decided to leave. You were not an employee or being paid for your services. In fact, you don’t have to list them because there is no paper trail for employment.

  2. Omar Silva says

    Dear Lynn

    I got fired for an alleged misconduct, having an affair with a subordinate. This has put me in a very awkward position financially and as a professional. My friends and colleagues are willing to give references and equally shocked. It’s not true, the alleged person I am having an affair also denies it, it’s retaliation from someone who was mad at me for not hiring her. I will proceed with legal action it might take time and I need to get back to work.

    I am really having a hard time, trying to summarize this in a positive, yet truthful manner.

    Regards,

    Omar

  3. lexus says

    What if i was a cashier and i got fired for being over on my register . Need heelp to put on app reasing for leaving .. can i say i have learn seens then ……………………….. help<<<

    • says

      Lexus,

      You can say you learned a lesson if you did. What would you do differently? That’s what you have to explain and if it sounds like you put some steps in place to do a better job, the new employer may take a chance on hiring you.

  4. Dawn says

    I was terminated for multiple minor things that supposedly I did, but I did not agree with. I was unable to proof that I did these things. The company I worked for is pushing employees with 20+ years out of the company either by retiring, terminating or making us leave & go somewhere else. What is the best approach for my next interview & application?

  5. Molty says

    Hello Lynn,
    I was fired recently for poor performance. I was never warned by employer. Everything was going normal until one day my boss told me to meet him after work and gave me the termination letter. In the termination letter it was stated that I need more mentoring and a big group where people can help me to improve my job skills. My former boss is a very busy man. He is the president of the organization. He said he will give me a reference, didn’t tell me whether it would be positive or negative though. I don’t know what should I put in my job applications. Most of them asks if I have resigned, laid off or discharged from the previous job. They also ask to explain if I was discharged.I am afraid that if I tick the discharged column and explain I was fired due to poor performance I will never get an interview call. It would be great relief if you could give me some advice to deal with this situation successfully.
    Thank you.

    • says

      Molty,

      First of all, based on what you have said your former boss has given you some valuable information about how to be successful. Consider his comment about the type of atmosphere where you will thrive to be a gift because you now know what to look for and what to say when people ask why you left. If want to refine how you say it, I suggest getting my eBook What to Do After Being Fired, it is more cost effective than working in a coaching session with me or someone else on how you present your situation to future employers. Finally, if he or anyone says they will give you a reference, 99% of the time it is positive. How do you know what they will say? I cover that in the eBook too.

  6. evie says

    Dear Lynn,

    I was recently “released” from my employment and when I pressed for a reason, was told that they (the employer) did not need to state a reason since I was still in my probationary period. I was given a positive 6-month review just two months earlier so the whole thing was unexpected, to say the least. I am struggling to figure out what to write on applications since most ask point blank if you had ever been fired and to explain. Saying “I don’t know the reason” sounds weak and fishy, but that’s the truth! I’m sure I’ll also be asked why I was fired if I make it to interviews. Do you have any advice on how best to word my answer on the applications and during interviews?

    • says

      I am not sure why your company had such a long probationary period. Most probationary periods end within three months, six months at a maximum. If you want to figure out why, my eBook goes how to try and find the answer both from the company or by examining your relationship with the company more thoroughly. Absent trying to do the work yourself, I would recommend sitting down with a career coach to craft your message carefully. They would need more information than you have provided to answer you properly. Good luck!

  7. Missy says

    I was working for a company in a receptionist/admin position for a year and was promoted to a manager of a new shows/retail department in marketing and was told I didn’t have to really work weekends/evenings except once a month or so which is the reason I accepted the position, initially I declined it twice as I figured I would have to work weekends and my time is important to me and they told me I would rarely have to.They got me a consultant as I didn’t have a lot of experience in that area. Eventually the consultant said in order for me to do that position I needed to change my work schedule and was trying to force my hand. Thus I spoke with the owners and asked if there were other positions available as it was better for both parties if I was in an operations position. I recommended someone else who I hired and is now working that position.

    The person that took over my reception/admin position was moving to a different position, and I switched back to my old reception/admin position early September. However as the company is growing they were creating departments and pulled away many of my duties and dispensed them between the other departments so I could concentrate on just the phones and input basic information.
    This isn’t what I was expecting thus I went to them and let them know if there were other positions opening up, I would be interested. Then they let me go one week later.
    I felt that my input was no longer needed as I was just expected to do what I was asked.
    It was hard as they were wanting just a receptionist, and after I had learned so much and gained many new skills I felt underutilized.
    I am wondering what would be best to put in the “Reason for Leaving” section.
    I have 4 people that are willing to be a reference and I was told that I should feel that I made effective changes in the company by another manager. Thank you ~

    • says

      Missy,

      It is good that you have four people who are willing to be references. I would suggest you pick up my eBook – What to do After Being Fired, it will help you craft your story for your interviews and help you determine the best alternative for job applications. To be specific to your situation, work with a career coach as there are many more questions to be answered before giving advice online.

      Lynn

  8. Lexy says

    What “better” way should I put I was terminated due to attendance on future applications and in a interview? I’m a good employee, but a few years ago I’ve found myself tardy to work a bit more than usual at,at least two of my previous jobs and let go from another for they considered “falsifying information ” while signing people up with a reward program. What is the best way to word the dreaded words “fired” or “terminated” while being truthful as possible without making myself look bad and look like a hire-able candidate?

    • says

      Khadiji- I believe you contacted me directly for some advice too. I work with people in three ways – 1) directly with clients who want advice from a professional through a 90 Minute Coaching session, 2) you can purchase my any of eBooks to help you work through your problem with some guidance or 3) there are many articles on Elephants at Work that may assist you for free. Good luck!

  9. Elizabeth says

    I was terminated from a correctional facility that I have been working at for over ten years. After an inmate who I had been at my facility for more than six months. We had been talking in those months. But it was just talking. I took my job way to serious to have a personal relationship with an inmate while I was at work. It wasn’t until after he left my facility that we came in contact with each other and the relationship started then. Nine months later my job found out about it though out side sources. The policy is we are not allowed to have contact with an inmate a year after they leave. So I was let go. Only for that reason. My job performance is excellent. But they couldn’t let the broken policy go bye. Now my question is how do I explain this one to new employees. I am really getting tired of saying I fell in love with an inmate. (what I have been telling friends and ex co/workers why I was let go.) Do you have any advice?

    • says

      Elizabeth – One of the hardest things to do is figure out how to tell your story to an prospective employer or the interviewer. It is not something that happens in one try and you have to work at it. Try something, if it does not work then you know you have to change it. In my eBook, What to Do After Being Fired, I walk you through how to construct your story and how to prepare for interviews. I can’t answer your question here because it would take much more time to understand the background and that is what I do with my clients.The eBook will let you do that work more cost effectively, otherwise you should seek out a career coach to help you to get over this hurdle.

  10. somnath says

    Hello Lynn,

    I was terminated from the job just 3 days back, due to some misconduct which is not acceptable and it is involuntary termination with cause.
    I am in a very big trouble, what should I mention on my resume for future employer?
    how should I face an interviewer?
    My manager promise me he will talk to HR, and will take care of the situation that not to affect my career in future.
    HR not understanding me as I already received a Warning letter before for policy violation and this is the second time I did policy violation again.

    Please give me the advice on all these.

    • says

      While you boss may go to HR to plead your case, the fact is that HR will most likely only confirm the information that is in your file. Your boss is not in a position to help your career, if they were, you would not have been let go. I appreciate all your questions and I would be happy to work with you on an individual basis through an career coaching engagement or you can opt to work through my eBook: What to Do After Being Fired where the majority of your questions can be worked through. Cases such as yours demands a closer look at the facts to craft the right story that is truthful and compelling.

  11. somnath says

    Thanks for your prompt reply Lynn,

    My termination is not yet done, it is on hold(as because of weekends). I requested to my boss please do something for me and HR as well but the case is that they don’t believe on me as of my past misbehavior.
    I breached the company policy and misuse of accesses(user id & password sharing policy) which comes under RED category as per HR policy.
    I promise them that I’ll not do or violet any policy in future again; if anything happened then I, myself will go outside of the company as my own.

    This is a compliance issue, hence it is pending to compliance team and as per their recommendation HR will take the necessary action. I am very afraid of the situation as I have only 3 months are remaining to complete 2 years with present employer.

    I already suggest an option please don’t terminate me, I am ready to resign from the job on same day if you say so; but they are saying wait for our response.

    These all situation put me in a big trouble as my professional and personal life is distracted.

      • says

        Please understand that I do not give out free advice on here. I may point you in the right direction, suggest resources (which I did) or make a comment on your situation. As a professional, when I work with clients we go beyond the surface stuff that is shared on here…because the devil and solution is often in the details.

        My suggestion, find someone you trust who can help you work through this. Even if you find your way out of this situation, I would advise you take a closer look at your pattern of behavior and figure out how to break it or else you will probably get sloppy again and find yourself in a more difficult situation. In fact, depending whatever the issue is, if you tell them you are seeking professional assistance to overcome this pattern that may bode well with the organization. Good luck!

  12. Kristina says

    Hello Lynn,
    I was fired and arrested for theft of cash from my previous employer 3 months ago. All in all, no charges were filed since they determined them to be false allegations. At the time I surrendered my professional license and am looking for work in another field but still in customer service. I am currently seeking legal representation to get my name cleared. Even so, the arrest can not be expunged for 3 years.
    My former employer has been telling potential employers that I was fired for Loss Prevention reasons and I am not rehire-able. I have since contacted previous managers who are willing to give me a positive reference. I don’t want to lie on my application though.
    I have been looking for a job for 3 months and have come up with nothing. McDonalds rejected me because I was “over qualified”. I’m super frustrated. After reading your article I think I am being overly honest in telling the interviewers the story. I realize that now. I have been honest in answering on the applications that I have been terminated, and in the reason I’ve been putting “Will discuss in person” This has not been getting me any call backs or interviews. This is a complex situation, and I don’t know how to get around this.
    Do you have any advice? I have exhausted my rainy day fund and need to find employment soon. McDonalds rejected me because I was “over qualified” I’m super frustrated.

    • says

      Kristina,

      You are doing the right things by asking an attorney to clear your name. Unfortunately, the circumstances will make the job search more difficult. Any employer who may have you deal directly will cash will likely not hire you until that arrest is eliminated. When you tell your “story” be very clear about what you are communicating. I do cover how to do that in my eBook – What to Do After Being Fired.
      The most likely way you will find something is through a personal connection or referral. Someone who knows you will knot let your past employer block an opportunity. Additionally, I have over 350 articles on here that may be of assistance to you.

  13. shelly says

    Hello. We’ll I just found this site and I have a serious problem. I have been a CNA for the past 18 years. About 15 years ago I worked for our local hospital. I had a problem w abscenses due to my young child at the time. I was put on probation and a incident happened at work which pretty much was out of my control and they let me go. I was told by several nurses after that it was because I had just filed for a temporary fmla and was approved and since I had been on probation they let me go. I work for another hospital now for 6 years n they love me but the ride is too far. So for the heck of it I applied at my old job and possibly have an interview. So my question now is wth do I say. They have my records so they will see I was fired.

    • says

      Shelly, What the other nurses are telling you does not make sense. I would not bank on what they say nor should you bring it up in an interview. Simply tell them you had childcare issues in the past and that is no longer a problem. Good luck.

  14. Mariah says

    Hello,

    I’ve been terminated recently for theft at my job. i took my overage of $30 from my job it was a financial instuition no charges was brought against me and niether did I get arrested for it and learned my lesson from stealing the $30 but my young 19yrs old and we make stupid mistakes ! what should I say when i go for interviews? what are my chances of getting re-hired

    • says

      Mariah, It is important to know how the company termed your termination in the HR department. Depending on what they coded it as, will determine how you present your background to interviewers and on your application. If you need help with how to do that and what to say afterwards, consider purchasing my eBook – it will walk you through the steps. Good luck!

  15. karina says

    I got fired for “being late too many times”. Well, i caught my boss stealing and he kmew i reported it to corporate so he fired me and his excuse was me being late all the time. I went to unemployment and fought it, i had a hearing with the state and my ex boss and he didnt have proof of course, so they favored on my part and i collected for a year. So how do i explain that in one short sentence for a job application?! Please help! Thank you!

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