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?

About Lynn Dessert (427 Posts)

Lynn Dessert is an ICF trained certified NLP Coach specializing in Executive, Career and Life coaching based in Rochester, N.Y. She works with individuals and organizations to maximize personal effectiveness skills—a cornerstone to career advancement. Lynn is the author of What To Do After Being Fired and The Secerts to Successful Job On-Boarding. Start your discovery process by contacting her at 585.249.5149 today.


  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


      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.



  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


      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.


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