How Much of a Liability Might You Be?
Were you fired? And, why were you fired?
Hopefully, if you were in a position to be fired, you got your most recent organization to lay you off rather than fire you. If there is one small saving grace in an employment recession, it's that layoffs are rampant. When the employment economy is expanding, people don't talk about layoffs quite as much. But when the economy is contracting, layoffs are fairly common and it is much less a stigma to be "laid off." Unless you were fired for a very serious cause, like embezzlement, threatening a co-worker, or sexual harassment, most organizations will be amenable to stating to people that you were laid off. Different companies have different policies regarding what they will tell a prospective employer about why a person was terminated or laid off. The terminology may not be very important to your employer, but it is very important to you.
The difference between being fired and being laid off connotes an adversarial discharge for cause in the former and an involuntary, at least on your part, separation for, usually, economic reasons on the part of the company that let you go. So, you are much better off if you can communicate the idea that you were laid off rather than fired. The truth is that the result is the same. Most companies, rather than create a picture of an adversarial "bad guy," would rather lay you off than fire you.
I do not recommend that you answer this question with something like, "Well, it's the best thing that ever happened to me" or "it was a blessing in disguise" or "the job wasn't working out, anyhow" or "the job just wasn't for me," etc. These kinds of answers have a tendency to come across as flippant and arrogant. The employer thinks, "Well, if getting fired was such a blessing, or the job wasn't working out anyway, or the job wasn't right, why did you keep the job?" This would especially be true if you were at the last job for three years or more. What your comments would communicate is, "This was a really great job until I got fired, then it was a bad job." This is an incongruent idea that most employers will not feel comfortable with.
If the last organization you were with formally states that you were "laid off," rather than terminated, you can honestly look at the interviewing or hiring authority in the eye and say that you were "laid off." It is really important to say something along the lines of, "I really loved that job and the opportunity it afforded me. I really learned a lot from those people and the time I spent there was gratifying. Unfortunately, because of management changes and economic issues, we had to go through a layoff and I happened to be one of the ones who was affected."
If you have been at an organization for three or more years, it is not likely that a prospective employer is going to question your performance or the fact that you might have been fired for cause. It is very rare for an employee to do well in the company for two or three years and then all of a sudden become a "bad" employee. So, the longer you have been on the job that you were ultimately terminated or fired from, the easier it is to say, "I really love that company and I was there for a reasonably long time. I performed well, but there came a time for us (the company and me) to make a change." And then smile in a very friendly way and shut up! Just stop talking and keep looking the interviewer in the eye. You can then quickly follow up with, "And before that, I was at_______ company, where I performed very well."
If you follow the script that I have recommended about the presentation of yourself and the job you had (how you performed and why you left) this question may never come up. But, if it does, you must not communicate any kind of emotion or anger. And whatever you do, don't get into a story of "true confessions." You will absolutely annihilate any chance you have at getting the job if you go on and on and on trying to justify being fired. If there's no way of avoiding having to say that you were fired, simply acknowledge that you were: that you really enjoyed the time you were at that particular organization; that you learned from that organization and appreciated all that they did for you; and that it was simply time to make a change.
Answering this question, when you have no other choice but to admit you were fired, even for cause, takes more practice than probably any answer you will ever give in an interviewing situation. Practice! Practice! Practice!
Where being fired really causes a problem for the organization that let you go is in a reference check. The laws about what can and can't be said in a reference check are so subject to individual interpretation that most companies have resorted to simply confirming the dates of a person's employment, confirming or denying earnings, and confirming or denying whether a person is a "rehirable." Any other comments made in a reference check have the potential of creating a litigious situation between the ex-employee and the employer. Regardless of whether anyone agrees with the state of the situation regarding references, most employers with any brains are only going to confirm or deny these three things: dates of employment, earnings, and eligibility to be rehired.
If you were fired for cause and you're pretty sure that a prospective employer is going to find out that you were fired rather than laid off, the best thing to do is to explain exactly what happened in your opinion. You shouldn't criticize or denigrate your previous employer. Communicate the idea that although you don't agree with the decision, you do respect it. In order to overcome the situation where you were fired with cause (and there is no way around having to talk about it in the interview), you are going to have to "counter" being fired with excellent references. So, you say, "Well, Tony, how can I get good references from a company or individuals that fired me?" Well, you do two things.
First of all, you find some individual at the company that you were fired from who will, on a personal basis, speak to a prospective employer about what you did, how well you did it, and, at least, provide a personal reference that might offset the formal "negative" reference, if that is the case. In other words, you are going to counterbalance and neutralize the negative reference with a positive personal reference.
The second thing that you absolutely have to do is have a plethora of positive, glowing references from previous employers that you worked with before your last job. Being fired, or let go, just doesn't have the same negative impact if it stands alone. But you're going to have to get at least three or four glowing, positive, enthusiastic references from previous employers to offset one negative reference—even if this is an implied negative reference from your most recent employer.