How do I explain getting fired / managed out
February 4, 2021 12:05 PM   Subscribe

I currently work for a company that has a great reputation in my industry and great financials. People are jealous that I work here. But very soon I will be given the choice of resigning or being fired. This has ever happened to me in my 25 year career. How do I explain this to other people and employers?

What led to this is pretty boring: Several projects in my company were not going well. The project I led was one. Lots of reasons: projects were complicated, no consensus on direction, etc. Broad problems. There was a presentation of the projects with execs, and I got all flustered and just rambled. Some other factors: friction with some leaders as I had been pointing out the problems , and my manager (who was very much on my side) had recently left the company (country acutally). A few days later I was told to start thinking about other options.

I have nothing lined up. I don't have a resume. I never thought I'd have to leave. It's not great.

But the first thing that comes to my mind: How do I talk to people about my situation?

No one would just leave my company and not have a job lined up. Actually very few people ever leave on their own. Whenever there are layoffs, everyone in the biz knows that it was the poor performers who got let go. It's pretty evident that this was involuntary.

I can't say it was because of the commute, the compensation.
If I said it was because I was bored after X years, that sounds fake.
If I said it was because my manager left, it sounds like I'm being too rigid?

How do people explain situations like this?
posted by FlatHill to Work & Money (23 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: It won't be an issue until the interview.

Then it may depend on your industry but I wouldn't lie. I would, however, put the best spin on it.

So something like "I was on a high-profile (if so) project which did not go well, and there was a leadership change, which resulted in my decision to leave/pursue other opportunities [if you resign]. What I learned from that experience is [list of things that you personally can do, all positive, all expressed positively, like 'there was no consensus on direction, and at a key meeting I wasn't able to express [x factors.] What I learned from that is the following information and preparation would have helped, and also how important [XYZ planning thing] is.'"

I've hired people who were fired, albeit in a high-turnover industry, and what I listened for was a) was it a circumstance beyond the person's control or a pretty honest mistake and b) how are they handling that mistake, because everyone has weak moments; I want to know how people deal with theirs.
posted by warriorqueen at 12:15 PM on February 4, 2021 [29 favorites]

Hi! I've been in this position a few times.

You'd be surprised how few people ask. I'm not sure I've ever had someone ask why I've left a company, regardless of my time there. People usually assume you wanted to leave.

Right now, coronavirus is a perfect excuse. So many things are getting turned on their heads. If it were me, I would just say, "yeah, corona changed things up at (old company) and that's when I chose to start looking for new work as I watched the company transform". Easy peasy!
posted by bbqturtle at 12:16 PM on February 4, 2021 [19 favorites]

Best answer: Yeah, "there was a change in leadership and it seemed like a good time to move on" is the sort of thing people won't really bat an eye at. Especially when you can (I assume) give the former manager who liked you as a reference.
posted by restless_nomad at 12:18 PM on February 4, 2021 [50 favorites]

Best answer: Agreed with the previous answers. I’ve rarely been directly asked about why I left previous positions. I’ve really only had to speak about those circumstances when I wasn’t strategic about my own speaking and accidentally led the conversation there. As long as you concentrate on why you want the new position, it should be fine.
posted by Pacrand at 12:23 PM on February 4, 2021

Best answer: Firstly, I'm sorry this is happening, it sounds like a sucky situation.

But it's not all bad news. If you've got 25 years' experience you must have a lot of skills. People who can lead projects are valuable, and there are literally thousands of companies out there who need experienced people to lead projects. So don't worry about that part, you sound pretty employable.

"No one would just leave my company and not have a job lined up" but you've had a significant management change, friction with some leaders, and we're in the middle of a global pandemic. Everything is different for everyone.

If they specifically ask why you left your old job - which is pretty unlikely in my experience - then "major changes due to issues caused by the pandemic" covers all bases. More likely they'll ask why you want to work for your prospective employer, so do your research on them as you would for any interview and sell yourself.

Don't worry, you've got this.
posted by underclocked at 12:25 PM on February 4, 2021 [8 favorites]

Best answer: In my experience, your biggest problem will be people gleefully trying to get gossip out of you, because everybody knows the place with the big reputation has to have some issues.

If you're asked about why you're looking/leaving, I think you can easily and gracefully refer to the change in leadership and the pandemic and after some soul-searching you decided to make a change. If you have already left the previous employer and there is a gap that is remarked on, you can just say there was a natural stopping point that you took instead of staying and getting involved in something new you knew you would shortly be abandoning.

Maybe nobody used to leave without something lined up, but that was before the pandemic.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:34 PM on February 4, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I would definitely emphasize the departure of your manager as the triggering event. Most people can understand how not having 'air cover' could suddenly make your life difficult. I'd emphasize that you had a good relationship with this person, and they chose to leave the company/country/whatever. (Assuming the "good relationship" part is true, which it sounds like it was.)

Second, depending on how small your industry is and how well-known it is that the project you were working on failed, I might not use that word, exactly. Assuming it wasn't a really public and catastrophic failure, you can always say something like "the company leadership decided not to continue funding the project I was assigned to lead."

Putting this together, you could say something like: "my manager, who I had a great working relationship with, decided to leave the country. The new leadership decided not to fund the project I was assigned to lead, and I decided it was time to move on." I think most people will understand that.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:40 PM on February 4, 2021 [12 favorites]

Best answer: There's a difference between the decisions / actions you take, and the result. In most situations the result is not entirely in your control. You could make good decisions, good actions, and still get a bad result. You have to play the hand you're dealt. Hopefully enough people who are considering hiring you understand that, and aren't hiring purely on apparent results (which might be attributed to luck and not the person's ability) without digging deeper and trying to tease apart the luck vs skill components of the result.

I interview people (mainly individual contributors, but occasionally senior people with management experience leading projects / orgs) for a huge bureaucracy. Some of the things we look for during interviews:

1. we might ask you to talk about a specific example when you did something that didn't go well, or that failed. It'd be a red flag if you worked in the industry for a number of years and claimed that nothing you'd done had ever gone wrong! Yeah right. We're looking for some response where you demonstrate ability to be self-reflective and identify a weakness, demonstrate that you can take some of the responsibility for a bad outcome (assuming you had control over it), identify if there were decisions or actions that you took that could be improved, and what you would do differently in similar circumstances to increase the odds of a better outcome (e.g. engage stakeholders X,Y,Z earlier and get them to align on whatever, get the project team to start doing process Z to control the risk of whatever, ..). I.e. we want people who can self-identify mistakes, admit them and learn from them (or can at least _appear_ to be capable of doing this in the artificial setting of an interview).

2. we might ask you to talk about specific examples of where you e.g. influenced others and convinced them to change their mind, or you took initiative to improve a bad situation and produce some positive result. But if we don't specifically dig for it, you get to pick the example to talk to, you don't have to talk about your last project in it's entirety. Talk about something else! Perhaps you could even pick a specific situation from an earlier phase or subset of this project where you successfully demonstrated evidence of the ability we're digging for, and talk about that instead.
posted by are-coral-made at 12:44 PM on February 4, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: This isn't your question, but I will mention to be careful about accepting the option to voluntarily leave the company. You will have a much harder time getting unemployment if you quit voluntarily. Unemployment isn't much, but it will last a very long time. Your severance (if any) will be a one-time event, and when it runs out, it's done. Also, at least at a couple companies I've been at, the company offered the same severance to people who are fired versus the people who are asked to quit. As a practical matter, the biggest reason for severance is to avoid you suing the company, which is the same risk either way. Yes, there's a slight improvement to unemployment insurance rates if you voluntarily quit, but it's not much of a difference (especially for large companies).

I would caution against being vague about reasons for being terminated in interviews. If you simply say "pandemic issues" at a large company that's doing well, I will expect you to be lying, which isn't a good sign. If you talk about how the project failed, talk about what you learned, and talk about your other successes at the company, then I probably will not only disregard the termination, I'll probably view it as a minor benefit in your favor - as a practical matter, those lessons are valuable, and your previous company put a significant amount of money towards teaching them to you!

Different companies work better or worse for different people. Failing at one project (over 25 years!) at one company does not mean you are non-functional at every other company. Recognizing what you are strong at, and the sort of corporate environment you succeed in, is a really valuable skill. I've seen people go from mediocre employees at one company, with no obvious path for promotion or success, to being exceptional employees at another company - and vice versa. A single termination, over 25 years, doesn't really mean a lot to me. Basically, to me, it means I have a potential employee who is willing to start quickly, will probably not require extensive salary negotiation, and just learned a lot about how to manage projects successfully - honestly, those are all in your favor.
posted by saeculorum at 12:44 PM on February 4, 2021 [12 favorites]

Best answer: Respectfully, I think you are wrong about why you are being asked to resign or get fired. Your failed project is a symptom, not a cause.

If you had a long-term positive and mentoring relationship with that boss, and your boss left, that is why you are ultimately leaving your job (whether it is resigning or being let go). Good managers keep teams for decades. You were on a project that didn't go well, but plenty of projects don't go well. The difference was that without a top flight manager, executive leadership didn't understand all the nuance around what your team learns from unsuccessful projects and how you are still valuable to your company. Ultimately you ended up with an issue of fit - your best qualities weren't being recognized, no one was there to help you or your team work through your challenges. Morale matters, and without that leader, it's not surprising someone would leave.

After all... you're looking for an incredible leader that you can follow for the next 25 years, right?
posted by juniperesque at 1:15 PM on February 4, 2021 [12 favorites]

Best answer: As someone who does a lot of hiring, I wouldn't bat an eye if you say that your manager left, the project you were working on was discontinued (you could even say it wasn't going well and be prepared to discuss why, what you learned etc) and so you decided to leave. That all sounds reasonable and, given all the upheaval caused by the pandemic, could definitely contribute to an understandable decision to move on.

The only part where I'd recommend treading carefully is the friction with others over pointing out problems. Although your story sounds very positive, and we're all supposed to want employees who speak truth to power, the truth is that it is easy to come across as somebody who would be a pain in the butt if you highlight things like that in an interview. In that setting, you really want to present yourself as somebody who is easy to get along with. That's doubly true In These Times, when everyone, including management, is super-stressed.

I'm sorry this happened to you. It sounds like very unfair treatment after 25 years of loyalty and good performance.
posted by rpfields at 1:19 PM on February 4, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: First, I would talk to an employment lawyer. I agree resigning vs being fired is something you have to weigh (will they provide you with a positive reference and is that even necessary if your former manager is willing to do that for you anyway?)

Next, this is a year where a lot of people are re-evaluating their priorities in life (and many are disappointed in how their organization has handled the pandemic) so interest in why you left won't be as high as you think. Can you start a volunteer or educational course right now that is relevant to what you want to do next as a bridge (and later a plausible reason why you left) - "I started a tea-pot throwing class after putting it off for years and realized that the skills I have build up over 25 years translates perfectly into tea-pot throwing so I decided to transition away from my current role into something that is a passion, which I see your company specialises in."
posted by saucysault at 1:23 PM on February 4, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I’m just going to add to the chorus and say that you are misunderstanding what happened here. (Sorry: that sounds harsh! I don’t mean it to be harsh!) You are in a little bit of shock which is totally understandable. But I’ll tell you: it is SUPER normal for people to be invited to leave after their boss goes. It really really is. And that’s what happened here, I am pretty sure.

It’s not about the project, it’s not about you getting flustered or rambling. I’m guessing that after your boss left maybe things started to go a bit sour for you. People listened to you less, maybe you felt a little out of favour. You didn’t know it, but your days were numbered. You are a casualty, really, of a war you may not have even been fully aware was happening. Your boss was losing the war and so they left, and from that moment it was just a matter or time before you were invited to leave too. It’s not personal and it’s not performance-related.

This is really normal and it doesn’t have much to do with you. It’s just a thing that happens. And what you can basically say to people is that you really loved your boss, and after they left you started to feel like maybe it was time for you to move on too. Nobody will probe past that, and nobody is going to blame you or think less of you. Remember that this is a much bigger deal to you than anyone else: people will accept what you tell them.
posted by Susan PG at 1:37 PM on February 4, 2021 [8 favorites]

"There was a change of leadership and my project was no longer a priority."
posted by caek at 1:44 PM on February 4, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Obviously without knowing the specifics of the company and industry I can't say for sure, but be careful about convincing yourself that it's harder than it actually is. I've worked for some very name brand "prestige" organizations in a couple of prestige fields, and I've never encountered one where nobody ever leaves willingly. Every company has issues, no company is a perfect fit for every person, and every company has some voluntary turnover. I'm not suggesting you lie about the situation, but just encouraging you to make sure you're clear-eyed in your evaluation of how unbelievable any particular spin on it would be...
posted by primethyme at 1:48 PM on February 4, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: IMHO, there's no need to tell anything other than the truth: the company is moving in a direction that you are no longer compatible with.

It's a bit like police or courtroom interrogation: answer truthfully, but don't offer more unless specifically asked. No need to talk badly about your soon-to-be-ex employer.

On the other hand, it can't be that "only" the bad performers are let go, since performance reviews are written by people, and there are ALWAYS biases for one reason or another. Metrics are not a true measure of performance and vice versa.

I think it's important NOT to fall into the trap of PRESUMING that people will assume you are low-performing just because the company SUPPOSEDLY fired the low-performers prior to COVID years.
posted by kschang at 1:51 PM on February 4, 2021 [1 favorite]

One possible spin: there was a change in leadership, and downsizing so I elected to take a package for a mini sabbatical and now I’m back!

Makes it much more proactive looking.

Who wouldn’t want a package and a break after 25 years!
posted by St. Peepsburg at 2:54 PM on February 4, 2021 [2 favorites]

Oh and also totally ok to say you got bored after X years.
I mean word it a bit nicer but that’s basically what “looking for new challenges” means.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 2:57 PM on February 4, 2021

The only thing I don’t think anyone has mentioned is that you might want to acknowledge that you left without lining something up first, especially in his economy. I might add, to whatever explanation, “...and I was lucky to be able to leave without having to line something up in advance,” implying that you didn’t quit without considering it. You don’t want to seem like you quit thoughtlessly.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 3:45 PM on February 4, 2021 [1 favorite]

This feels So Bad. There are great answers here. Spend time reviewing your considerable skills, training, experience, talent. While you're still there, list all your training, projects, get documents, etc. Line up references. It's all easier while you're there. Also, ask people if they know anyone who's hiring.

You are FlatHill from XYZ Corp and you are an absolute bonus to any other employer. Really, might not feel that way now, but you have loads to offer.
posted by theora55 at 4:01 PM on February 4, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm in a different field, but great people do get burnt out and decide to go on a world tour or something like that all the time.
posted by slidell at 4:17 PM on February 4, 2021 [3 favorites]

I would not bat an eye over someone being let go from a big company, but I would be amazed that anyone worked at the same place for 25 years and thought there was no chance of getting laid off.

Agreed about being honest and learning lessons about what not to do next time. When we hear weird vague excuses for termination we assume the worst and it puts a big question mark over the candidate.
posted by benzenedream at 12:35 AM on February 5, 2021

Best answer: The primary answer is well-covered here but I came to second the "be careful with resigning" bit, particularly if you will get a package if they have to term you.

In many states (check yours, of course), a severance package does not preclude or even affect unemployment benefits, but a "voluntary" resignation does. And if you are highly-comped a severance offer might be worth more than the entirety of the UI benefits in any event.

The resignation is not likely to change much in the job search process: (a) many (most?) companies have a "first and last dates of employment" policy where they don't even share the reason why an employee left, so resigning vs. termination is not likely to come up, (b) people who are calling your employer for that info have typically already decided to hire you, and (c) as the good answers above have noted, you have a good story to tell about why things changed there.

Good luck. I've been unexpectedly out of work and it can be hard. But there is light on the other side.
posted by AgentRocket at 11:49 AM on February 5, 2021

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