How can I spin my upcoming job interview?
April 20, 2007 9:53 AM   Subscribe

I was fired almost 8 months ago, now I've got an interview. Help me spin this to my advantage.

Okay, here we go.

I was fired almost 8 months ago after working very hard and consistently moving up the ladder (such as it was) for 6 years. The "official reason" was being on the internet too much, although I know for a fact that wasn't the true reason - many others were on it a LOT more than I was. I had no warning, no notices of problems with my work. In fact, just three months prior to my "termination" I was chosen by my manager and director to represent my entire department (of 120+ people) at a nationwide conference. Anyway, I've been doing freelancing since being fired, but it's beginning to become difficult to pay the bills, so now I'm looking for a job.

I have an interview on Monday (4/23) with a company that I think I'd really enjoy working for. I've been thinking about how to spin my "termination" to my advantage and I cannot come up with a final decision, even after consulting my family and friends for their opinions; so this is where you come in.

I'm fairly certain that I do not want to lie. But I don't want to totally divulge the "reason" because I think it makes me look lazy, which I'm definitely not.

What should I say (or not say) if/when they ask why I was terminated? I want to impress them with my answer to this, if at all possible. Any ideas you may have will be unbelievably appreciated, so thank you in advance. If you'd like to email me, use
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (13 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Well, you can't really be totally honest without saying that you were fired. Even "I was let go because of bla bla bla..." is still basically "I got fired." And, you never really have to give a reason, even if the question kind of forces you to.

Also, maybe your old company really just couldn't afford you anymore, and rather than being honest and decent and laying you off with some kind of severance, they were like, "whatever! S/he was online a lot, screw him/her." I know it sounds nuts, but I've worked with managers/owners like that in the past. Whatever the true reason, you were let go, and you can't change that.

Why not just tell them that you decided to leave your last job to concentrate on freelancing (technically, not a lie* - you decided to stop going there because they stopped paying you), but you're finding that, financially, it's tougher than you expected/you're looking for a new challenge/decided that freelancing is not for you?

Also - don't putz around online at work if you have stuff to do!

*Ok, ok, I know. Its pretty much a lie.
posted by AlisonM at 10:47 AM on April 20, 2007

Unfortunately, you've got to tell a prospective employer the same thing that your previous employer will tell them if they call HR. In fact, it is worth calling the HR department to find out what they will be saying, so you get your language straight. Don't lie. The HR terminology will probably be pretty vague (to protect them from liability), which gives you the opportunity to follow up the "I was let go..." with an explanation that, primarily, shows that you've learned from the experience and moved on emotionally.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 10:59 AM on April 20, 2007

First, they won't ask if you have references. And if they do, you can say that you don't know why you were really fired (true), that they claimed to fire you for performance reasons (true), which were obviously false if you were regularly promoted and had stared to take on a leadership role (also true).
posted by cotterpin at 10:59 AM on April 20, 2007 [2 favorites]

Wow.. you must be my twin.. ;)

I was fired from my company for "lying to the client", which while technically true (on the small situation).. it was a larger situation of mis-management that led to my being grossly overworked into a situation where I was forced to do things I normally wouldnt do. (the contract I was assigned to was my companies #1 client, mostly becuase of my exceptional dedication and hard work, so much hard work in fact that it nearly (literally) killed me several times)

So now I'm freelancing,..which (while I LOVE it).. isnt paying the bills (well, it would be if I wasnt in so much debt), so I'm having to consider taking multiple other jobs to try to make ends meets.

When prospective employers ask me why I left my last job, I tell them the truth. (that I was worked into the ground). If they want specifics..I tell them specifics, but I anchor the conversation with enough details to make them understand that alot of the major choices made werent under my control. (or alternatively, sometimes I tell them that I was to creative, resourceful and unconventional for the management above me)

There are PRO's and CON's to this... it makes it harder to find a job (alot of employers may not like someone so driven, creative and unconventional)... BUT.. when you do find the one employer who is looking for that, then its an easy "in".

So far I've filled in some of my time volunteering at non-profits and playing around with some design/code ideas I've had for a while but never had time to work on . Sadly my CC bills are due and I cant pay them, so I might have to work (multiple) jobs I dont like for a while to pay the bills.
posted by jmnugent at 11:15 AM on April 20, 2007

"Well, you can't really be totally honest without saying that you were fired. Even "I was let go because of bla bla bla..." is still basically "I got fired." And, you never really have to give a reason, even if the question kind of forces you to."

Um, no. This is not the same thing. Suggesting you were laid off when you were fired is a lie that you could get caught on. If you were technically laid off (meaning you could get unemployment) then definitely say that rather than I was terminated or I was fired. Use a term like "I was let go" or even "I was workforce transitioned". If this is the case. However, it sounds like you were terminated.

The one question an HR person is legally allowed to answer during background checks is "was this person terminated for performance reasons". It sounds like the answer in this case will be yes, unfortunately, but just to let you know, they aren't going to delve into your background more than that.

You should preface with:

(A) I loved working for the company, being terminated was a complete surprise to me, because you had won many awards, were chosen to represent your company, etc.

You should not say you were looking for freelance gigs and were sick of the job. Think about it....

Then follow up with:

(B) The official reason was productivity, but the real reason, frankly, was that my manager and I simply weren't getting along (or something). Follow it up with saying you never had any other personal problems of any kind during your 6 year tenure and that your director, who is your reference, will tell them what great work you do.

Use as your personal reference whomever will give you the best review, probably a friend you had there. Talk to them beforehand, even if it's just an email and confirm they are comfortable with giving you a great review. The trick here is that you must state a reason, because if you say "I don't konw the real reason" they may think it must be something really, really bad, whereas everyone understands that sometimes personalities simply do not mesh. In the interview, do not say the given reason was "looking at the internet all day". The reason was performance.

Consider contacting your old HR and asking them what the official stated reason for your termination was. It's hard to believe that the reason they would list would be "looking at the internet too much". More likely, they listed "No reason", in which case you should say they didn't give you a reason, but that you felt it was personal, even though you had never detected any serious personal friction with your manager.

If you were let go, not terminated, then that's great. Simply state that they were consolidating their workforce to improve operational efficiency and that the layoffs were random and a surprise to all. Say that you knew great people who were laid off, some of the best in the company, etc. If they ask for a supervisor's contact info, well, you probably worked on a lot of different projects in your time and I'm sure you can think of a "supervisor" who would give you a great review.

Sorry man. These things suck, and by terminating rather than laying you off (if that's what happened) your old company was really cold to you. 6 years of good, loyal work followed by a termination is mindboggling.
posted by xammerboy at 11:47 AM on April 20, 2007 [2 favorites]

First, your former company will likely say nothing more than, "Yes, Anonymous worked here from date1 to date2." They won't say anything more.

Second, be completely honest in your answer, but brief. Answer only if they ask, specifically, don't volunteer it.

Something like:

"After working there for six years, the politics started to get a little intense, and I ended up getting terminated. I've enjoyed freelancing since then, but want to get back into a full time role with more challenges."

That answers the direct question with the truth, but then redirects from the past to the future.

If they push, state you don't like "when office politics get ugly" and like "staying focused on the job at hand". The idea is a brief, truthful answer, but one that tries to redirect back to the interview at hand.
posted by Argyle at 12:19 PM on April 20, 2007

Actually, yeah. Forget what I originally said. Apologies about that, for reals. I've been in the same situation, and what I did/wish I would have done isn't necessarily what I should have done. Upon reflection, xammmerboy and Argyle are right, IMHO.

That said, still don't putz around at work when you have things/actual work you should be doing :)
posted by AlisonM at 12:44 PM on April 20, 2007

The one question an HR person is legally allowed to answer during background checks is "was this person terminated for performance reasons".

xammerboy is full of shit. There's no legal restriction saying they can't honestly answer whatever questions they are asked. If someone calls and asks if you smelled bad while working there, they can answer. Now, most companies won't give out much information, but that's because of a fear of liability for libel if you disagree with their assessment (and to a certain extent a lack of desire to help competitors identify poor candidates) rather than any legal restriction on their ability to answer.
posted by raf at 2:22 PM on April 20, 2007

(IAAL, but I do not practice employment law and this is not legal advice. Consult competent counsel.)
posted by raf at 2:23 PM on April 20, 2007

Let me fix xammer's statement.

The one question an HR person is legally allowed to answer during background checks is "was this person terminated for performance reasons". is any damned thing they want, true or not, so long as they're willing to risk a civil suit for their untrue statements.

Many companies have a policy where they will do nothing more than confirm dates of employment but that's entirely a decision they make themselves out of fear of lawsuit. But with the exception of libel/slander there's no legal constraints on what they can choose to share. Fax over all your employee reviews? Send a copy of that old ID photo where you have a booger hanging from one nostril? They can share with who they like.

That said - I'd just tell these new folks that you were let go and to be honest it was somewhat of a surprise for you. You'd worked there six years, received no negative performance reviews and were sent as a representative to a national conference just three months prior. If you like you can say they claimed performance issues when you were let go and was the first and last time it was raised with you.

Honestly, I wouldn't worry excessively about it - they kept you on staff for SIX YEARS. That doesn't communicate "crappy worker" by any stretch. A paranoid person might wonder if you had a chemical problem but if you have references for the freelance work you've been doing since then I don't think that's much of a worry.
posted by phearlez at 2:48 PM on April 20, 2007

Cotterpin FTW.
posted by davejay at 3:25 PM on April 20, 2007

Do you have a guess as to what the real reason you were fired might have been? Reading your story, that's the missing piece, and the one that, as a prospective employer, I would be most concerned about. You need to present them with a story (as in, overall portrait, not as in a lie) that they will find plausible if not compelling, and that will fit in their minds with a picture of a candidate they want to hire.

If they ask why you were fired, I would tell them something along the lines of, "I don't honestly know. They told me it was for Internet use, and it's true that I accessed the Internet from work, but they never warned me about it, or disciplined any of my coworkers who I know did the same." Then tell them what it was that you think might have been the real reason, or say that it was really inexplicable and very frustrating and upsetting.

Do not compare your Internet use to your former coworkers' -- it will sound defensive, no matter how you say it, and it will also get them thinking about how much you did or didn't use the Internet at work, when you want them to be thinking about you being fired for no reason.

Anything positive you can point to about your tenure at that company, including representing the department at the nationwide conference, are things to make sure you talk about before this ever comes up, and then just repeat them in this context as yet more reason for why it was so inexplicable. If you haven't been able to do that before it comes up, then definitely do it then, though.
posted by mattpfeff at 3:42 PM on April 20, 2007

What xammerboy said.
posted by Count Ziggurat at 7:57 PM on April 20, 2007

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