How do I let people know I got screwed without saying I got screwed?
October 8, 2009 10:11 AM   Subscribe

Short version: I was fired for taking parental leave. I am now looking for new work. What do I tell potential future employers about the reason I left my previous job?

I work(ed) in the print industry, in Canada. When my son was born late in 2008, I took 37 weeks of parental leave. My wife was unable to take a leave herself because she is self-employed. This had all been arranged with my employer, who made no indication that there was any issue with my taking a parental leave. It should be noted that in Canada an employer cannot fire an employee for taking a parental leave, nor can they eliminate the person's position or really do anything to penalize a person for taking leave to care for their newborn children.

I returned to work in the summer and was fired within 2 months for very vague, undefined reasons. Though it has not been stated as such, it is pretty clear that the dismissal was a reprisal for having taken leave in the first place. I've consulted with a lawyer and I'm clear on my rights and what action I can take against them (and I WILL be taking action against them). My previous employer provided me with a glowing letter of reference (completely in contradiction of his actions towards me) and has stated that any telephone references would be positive.

That still leaves me with a difficult issue. How do I bring this up to potential employers? I think it would be inappropriate to just say "I was fired for taking parental leave," since that has yet to be proven and even if it was proven it might make me look like a litigious pain. So, is there a way around the truth, that still isn't a lie? Some amorphous, touchy-feely, buzzwordy thing I can say to deflect attention from this hornet's nest of stupidity?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (27 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Just tell the truth - you were fired illegally and are pursuing legal action. In the meantime, the bills need to get paid. Don't get into details and dwell on it though. I don't see how any reasonable employer would hold it against you and they may be legally prohibited from doing so.

In my experience, the reason for leaving your previous job rarely comes up. There are a million reasons to leave a job and most interviewers don't want to know about your personal drama.

At any rate, I don't see a better approach than stating the truth simply and briefly - just don't get into details and start confusing the interviewer with your drinking buddy.
posted by GuyZero at 10:19 AM on October 8, 2009

"I was let go for reasons I'm not at liberty to discuss, but I assure you they will give positive responses regarding my work."
posted by notsnot at 10:19 AM on October 8, 2009 [10 favorites]

I would call it a layoff and leave it at that.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:20 AM on October 8, 2009 [2 favorites]

My experience?

Don't bring it up until as late as you can. I interviewed a guy who couldn't wait to tell him how he was right and his employers were wrong and how he was looking for a new challenge.

Like in dating terms - you leave the details about the bitter and emotional split with your ex until after they've established you're not a psycho.

When you do bring it up, I'd give the air of being forthright. I.e. say something like, it wasn't working out. I had taken some time out for an agreed, but extended parental leave and while away the set up changed and my role became redundant.

I'd make clear that you have glowing reference and would be entirely comfortable with a telephone reference, that you enjoyed working there and are equally looking forward to a new challenge.

I'm guessing you both probably want to settle and your previous employer will, variously, play hardball, filibuster, throw out a low offer and a marginally less worse one and see how far you want to take it and how scary your lawyer is. The glowing reference is certainly a sign that they want you to move onto a shiny new job and lose the will pursue things. It normally isn't in anyone's interests to take it to court and, as long as things stay that way, I don't see why your new employer needs to get the full insight on your ongoing litigation.
posted by MuffinMan at 10:26 AM on October 8, 2009 [6 favorites]

If you launch some sort of action against your former employer, there's no way they will give you a good verbal reference.

There's no way for a prospective employer to tell why your employment ended at your last company just by looking at your resume, and they are not going to call up your last employer before interviewing you.

Your first priority is getting an interview. By the time a prospective employer starts phoning references, they've already decided to hire you. You need to worry more about how to get to that stage of the game.

Were you fired with cause? Are you reporting the employer to the employment standards branch?

If a potential employer asks you "what happened at your last job?" you could say "I was let go. Ultimately, I don't think I was a good fit with the company."

You could then talk about how you've focused on improving your communication style or whatever.

But the important thing is that you don't say negative things about your former employer, and stick to talking about the successes you enjoyed at that job.

You also need to find some strong references who can provide glowing remarks about your performance.

And you need to get to the "closing stage" of a job interview - the point where they are seriously considering hiring you and will contact your references.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:26 AM on October 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think you want to be euphemistically truthful and positive. For example, if technically true you could say: "I left because I needed to spend time with a new baby." Or, "My employer couldn't accommodate my parenting leave." Or, "I was laid off -- the work I was hired to do ended." Or, "I left because it wasn't a good fit. I work hard and got great reviews there but I also value my family."
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 10:35 AM on October 8, 2009 [5 favorites]

Can you just say your position was eliminated? Nicely nonspecific, more or less true, and not something your former employer's likely to dispute. Also not something that would send up red flags with new employers.
posted by katemonster at 10:37 AM on October 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Seconded on wording it in a way that suggests your position was eliminated or you were laid off. Phrases like, "it wasn't a good fit" or "I'm not at liberty to discuss it" scream "I did something bad, and I really don't want to tell you what it was." Volunteering info about the legal action may not be in your favor, either. Nobody wants to hire a liability, and that's how they might see you even though this was completely not your fault and you have every right to take the action you're taking.
posted by katillathehun at 10:44 AM on October 8, 2009 [2 favorites]

As an aside, be sure to get a new job before making the first employer aware that you're taking action against them (though continue to seek advice by all means).
posted by wackybrit at 10:45 AM on October 8, 2009

Ummm... I'd leave it at layoff.

Do *not* tell any potential employers that you are taking legal action against a previous employer. That's like asking to be unemployed FOREVER.
posted by Edubya at 10:56 AM on October 8, 2009 [4 favorites]

I would not mention that you intend to pursue legal action against prev. employer to new employer. No matter how right you are to sue, talking about it in a job interview is an enormous turnoff.

I would say "I was laid off" (in this economy, who hasn't been?). If the place (not the interviewer, the entire company) is very family friendly, I might say "I was laid off after returning from paternity leave."

I would also line up some people from the old company - coworkers, a supportive boss - and ask if they can give you a good reference.
posted by zippy at 10:57 AM on October 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Just tell the truth - you were fired illegally and are pursuing legal action.

My worry is that this would be interpreted as "I am a difficult employee", so I wouldn't be that explicit.
posted by smackfu at 11:22 AM on October 8, 2009 [2 favorites]

Just tell the truth - you were fired illegally and are pursuing legal action.

That is a terrible way to sell yourself to a prospective employer.

Note that anonymous only says it is "pretty clear" he was fired for taking the parental leave. There is a vast chasm between "pretty clear" and "certain."
posted by jayder at 11:33 AM on October 8, 2009

n-thing Do not mention you're litigious. No one wants to hire a potential workplace discrimination case. I wouldn't bring up conflicts with previous employers at all. Make it into something harmless or they'll think you're a 'problem child.' They are more likely to stigmatize you than sympathize with you and it's really none of their business.
posted by Marnie at 11:34 AM on October 8, 2009

"Position eliminated"
"Reduction in workforce"

Choose one and stick with it. Do not, under any circumstance, tell a potential employer that you are suing your previous employer. Unless you just don't want the job, of course.

Do you guys up there really get 37 weeks of parental leave? Boy howdy!
posted by Thorzdad at 11:42 AM on October 8, 2009 [2 favorites]

Another voice saying don't tell them. The dating analogy is a good one- nobody wants to hear about your baggage on the first date. It can't help you land the job, it can only hurt.

On the other hand, I can imagine this scenario happening:

Your employer *tells* you they will give positive references if called. Hey, no hard feelings, we mean it.
Meanwhile, your lawsuit progresses.
They get pissed, and/or are instructed by their lawyers to give non-reference references. Meaning, they abide by the letter of the law and perhaps verify that you did work there, but that they can't say anything more "because of an ongoing legal action" or "because our lawyers told us not to say anything else about this guy". See, they didn't do anything wrong, but they send the message to your prospective employer that you are involved in some kind of trouble. Possibly interpreted as even worse than what really happened.

Now, if you had mentioned something to your prospective employer, they might be willing to take your word for it. But if you hadn't, their red flags will go off and they'll pick someone else.

I would probably work it like this- in my resume packet, have the cover letter, the reference letter and the resume. If it's like in the US, there is usually an official job application that you fill out at some point. In the part where it says "may we contact this employer" say no, or make a note that you will give them their contact info if they request it. If they request it, I'd say something like "you may not get a terribly good reference from them. They gave me an unclear explanation as to why I was laid off, and I'm still trying to figure out what the real reason was. I think I did good work for them, and I'm frankly baffled as to why they decided to let me go." Something that describes it as simply an unfortunate situation that you are looking in to.

(Or, the day before the interview, call your former employer and say "Hi, I'm calling to verify the employment information for [your name]. What can you tell me about this person and their time at your company?" Their answer can guide your decisions...
posted by gjc at 12:16 PM on October 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

I would not mention that you intend to pursue legal action against prev. employer....
That is a terrible way to sell yourself to a prospective employer...
Do not... tell a potential employer that you are suing your previous employer.

Do you folks think employers are all members of some evil yachting club, or what?

I do a lot of hiring (for other firms). I see this as a terrific opportunity for you, the job-hunter, to feel out your new prospective employers. I know that at an interview, I'd have zero, zero, zero problem hearing this explanation for how your previous job ended:

"They fired me for taking a parental leave."

In fact, a good employer in Canada will say "What the heck? They can't do that!", which should be a great sound for your ears. This would also let you say "Yeah, I know, I'm working on figuring that out too, but in the mean time I need a new job..." and be discreet and polite about it.

(Contrarily: if the interviewer says "Hrm..." and scribbles something on his pad of paper, guess what? You really did not want to work there anyway.)

Now, sure, notice I didn't offer or use words like "legal action" and I wouldn't speak them unless pressed with a specific question, but there's nothing wrong with showing that you have a spine in an interview, or that you expect ethical employers.

Understand that so many people lie so blandly in interviews ("Oh, my greatest fault is that I work too hard and care too much, I guess.") that it's down-right refreshing to get a dose of honesty and character sometimes. That would not be a bad way to stand out, especially if you're high-road about it.
posted by rokusan at 12:43 PM on October 8, 2009 [3 favorites]

Do you folks think employers are all members of some evil yachting club, or what?

Employers don't intend to be evil, but the majority of them are of a mentality so deeply entrenched in risk/liability-aversion that, more often than not, their actions end up being evil. "Enlightened" recruiters like rokusan are the exception, not the rule.

Thus, the candidate should assume the worst. I.e. candour in this context is NOT the wise choice.

I went through "career re-alignment" training (i.e. how to get re-hired after being fired) after being fired from my previous job, and I thought their suggested spiel was quite good: "It was a business decision, and in the end I could not continue in that position". Leave it at that. And your excellent references will draw more attention than the undetermined nature of your departure.

Notice that this statement is intentionally vague. Do NOT lie, i.e. do not say you were laid off, there was a workforce reduction, your position was eliminated, etc. Omissions are fine, but anything you concretely lie about would allow you to be fired with cause from your new job.
posted by randomstriker at 1:10 PM on October 8, 2009

Oh and I should add that the real point of being vague about being fired is not to completely conceal the fact that you were fired. A smart recruiter will read between the lines and know exactly what you're saying.

The point is to demonstrate how you talk about difficult subjects. You will not lie. You will not badmouth your former employer. You will not air dirty laundry. You will always discuss your current and previous employers discreetly, respectfully and fairly, regardless of what happened between you and them.
posted by randomstriker at 1:18 PM on October 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

"There was a layoff after I returned from parental leave. I've got really positive references and my employer is happy to speak about the work I did. One of the projects I was proudest about in my X years there was ________________, which allowed me to ___________. I saw in the posting for this position that you're looking for someone who can do ____________ -- can you tell me more about that?"
posted by acoutu at 1:43 PM on October 8, 2009 [2 favorites]

I do a lot of hiring (for other firms). I see this as a terrific opportunity for you, the job-hunter, to feel out your new prospective employers. I know that at an interview, I'd have zero, zero, zero problem hearing this explanation for how your previous job ended: "They fired me for taking a parental leave."

And as someone who occasionally hires people, that same phrase would give me pause. How do I know they're telling me the truth? Should they be telling me that at all? That's a serious accusation. What if they're just disgruntled? I worked with a man once who ended up getting fired because he was giving information to competitors and running a porn site on company time, promoting it with company money. But he'll tell you to this day that he was fired because our boss had a thing for me. I know because after that company folded, I later got a job he also interviewed for (small industry). Guess why he didn't get it? It wasn't because anyone had a thing for me.

So, I tend to think twice when someone volunteers that kind of information. If they're truly the best candidate, I'll probably take that risk. But if there are other candidates who are equally skilled and likable, I'm going to weed out where I can.
posted by katillathehun at 2:03 PM on October 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

I like acoutu's "There was a layoff after I returned from parental leave...."

It just gives known facts, and it avoids putting the employer in the position of asking for more info, which just wastes time about discussing what was wrong with the other job rather than why you are great for this one. I've seen few people successfully avoid swirling down the toilet bowl when addressing a charged conversation in an interview.

.....this includes they fired me because I'm foreign, because I got pregnant, because I'm a woman, because I'm not black (and my boss is), because my boss tried to steal my work and I caught them at it, because my boss is controlling, etc... and the boss/organization didn't support me/ pushed me out.

In every case, I absolutely believed there was some merit to what the person was sharing. But almost every case their ability to discuss it professionally deteriorated after about 3 interview questions on average. I think that's because the person was really invested in having the listener believe their version of events, and often there were too many details and not enough time to really do the explanation justice. Also, they weren't 'clean' around it, as a friend of mine says; they were still deeply hurt or embarrassed or angry and any prodding on that soft spot revealed that, no matter how much they started off insisting that they goal was just to move past it.

So go with what acoutu (and others) suggested. Stay on message, stick to facts, keep it brief and please practice responding to questions like "so why were you fired" and "why did you leave your last job" out loud before your interview. You need to be able to not get derailed:

- so why were you fired?
- Well, there was a layoff after I returned from parental leave.
- Oh, so you don't think it was a performance issue? Anything you could have done differently?
(don't get derailed! those stupid bastards who broke their agreement about your parental leave and put you in the awkward position of having to defend your strong professional reputation and record without facing any consequences on their side.......deep breath and....)

-I don't think so. I've got really positive references and my employer is happy to speak about the work I did. Personally, one of the projects I was proudest about in my X years there was ________________, which allowed me to ___________. Also, I have a number of really incredible colleagues who were made redundant, which has helped me not to take it personally, and focus on only applying to jobs where I think my skills and experience are a good fit. Which is why your systemadmin (or whatever) position caught my eye.

(smooth sailing!)
posted by anitanita at 2:50 PM on October 8, 2009 [2 favorites]

Notice that this statement is intentionally vague. Do NOT lie, i.e. do not say you were laid off, there was a workforce reduction, your position was eliminated, etc.

Agreed. Half of hiring is trying to cut through all the trained textbook lies that applicants tell, and read between the lines. Choosing words well, being diplomatic, resisting value judgments... those are all good approaches.

If an employer really wants to know why you left a previous job, they'll find out without your help. Most don't really care, though, as long as there's no odd pattern, like (for example) being mysteriously laid off from six consecutive positions.

Outright fabrication seldom works, and you'll end up wondering why you never got that callback. It's also really foolish and short-sighted to walk in the door already lying about anything. You're taking a convenient reason for arbitrary termination later and setting it on the table.

"Here, let me start by setting this trap for myself." Dumb.

There are many defecting ways to explain your dismissal if you really need to. "I took a leave to take care of my son, and there was no job when I got back." is one.
posted by rokusan at 3:08 PM on October 8, 2009

"There was a layoff after I returned from parental leave."

Let me emphasize again: claming you were laid off if you were fired is a lie. The difference is obvious. Omit or obfuscate, but do not blatantly lie.
posted by randomstriker at 4:11 PM on October 8, 2009

Pretty much all of the above answers are claiming you should not tell the truth. I was in almost the same position as you are, I told the truth, and I got the job.

I was fired from my previous job after I reported them to the Department of Labor for refusing to pay me overtime I was owed. I was interviewing for a new job within a week of being fired, while the DoL investigation was still ongoing.

The hiring manager asked me why I left my last job. I responded with total honesty, something like this: "To be perfectly honest, I really struggled with what I should say when asked this because I don't want to seem like the kind of employee you have to 'watch out' for, but I decided to just tell the truth. My last job fired me after I reported them to the labor board for not paying me overtime that they owed me. You will still get a good reference about me from my immediate supervisors."

Her response was: "There's nothing wrong with that. Any company who doesn't do anything worth reporting shouldn't have anything to worry about."

That was 1 year ago, and I still have that job today.
posted by srrh at 6:13 PM on October 8, 2009

I take folks point about the different between laid off and fired, so perhaps compromise language could be that anon was 'let go'.

In that vein about the difference between laid off and fired, perhaps part of what anon should weigh is the nature of that 'glowing' recommendation, and the specific language in that document. Often the documents I've seen have actually couched the language not as the person being fired due to their own actions, but due to changes in staffing needs in the position, etc. Particularly as it's the only way the letter can sound 'glowing'. (at least in my experience). So it ends up sounding 'laid-off-ish', not 'fired-ish'. Perhaps anon could review the letter - do they specifically say you were fired, or terminated due to performance issues? Or is it more vague?

Also, another difference between srrh's situation and the poster is that it isn't clear that anon has positive references from immediate supervisors to give credence to his claim. What is clear is that he has a letter.

As I think of it, anon could say that he thought long and hard about it and decided to be honest that he was fired because he took paternity leave. That his evaluations before the leave were stellar, and after were highly critical. In fact, his current letter from the employer is glowing. That he is currently pursuing the matter in court.

But somehow - and it might just be my ears - srrh's experience seems more clean cut for an interviewer that anons. The cause and effect sounds 'cleaner' - he reported them to the labor board because he didn't get paid, they fired him. Somehow that sort of seems like an expected response. Anon's is a bit trickier, because he got permission to do something (paternity leave), and then upon his return they fired him, and he believes it's because of paternity leave - the leave they actually allowed him to take. But they could say that his performance was diminished upon his return, that it has nothing to do with leave, and in fact supported his leave. That they think well of him despite his performance, and wish him well. That feels like it could go either way for the interviewer. While with srrh, it would be hard to give a jaundiced eye to his experience, because the employer was clearly caught out since s/he reported him and THEN they fired him.

All that said, good luck anon - whatever you do.
posted by anitanita at 7:20 PM on October 8, 2009

Randomstriker, I'm not sure where you reside -- I think you are actually in the same city as me, but I'm not sure. Anyway, in Canada, employers usually avoid saying they fired you , since they can wind up in hot water. Here's what fired means here. On the Record of Employment, they might put "dismissal", but that leaves a wide area for interpretation. If you Google "layoff" vs "fired", you'll see that, in many provinces, they are legally the same thing.
posted by acoutu at 8:28 PM on October 8, 2009

« Older Did I permanently break my sweat glands?   |   Etymology & Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.