How to Explain a Termination

While never fun, almost every employee is likely to go through at least one firing or termination event during the course of his or her career — and will then be called on the carpet and asked to explain this development during the interview process with a new prospective employer.

Unlike layoffs and downsizing events, however, which can be couched in euphemisms such as “my position was eliminated” or “I was caught up in a restructuring effort”, there’s no easy way to spin an actual termination without risking serious consequences during a reference check.  And if you state that you were laid off, but your previous employer than contradicts this when called for a background check, your credibility will instantly be called into question — and you’ll very likely lose the job offer!

As a result, we thought we’d offer a few suggestions on how best to approach this issue, just in case some of you out there are wrestling with this difficult communications challenge.  Over the years, we’ve typically advised people to build their response to this issue around one of three possible angles:

•   The “Bad Fit”Approach: “To be honest, it was pretty clear that the job wasn’t a good fit right from the outset and it became obvious early on that certain aspects of the position had been misrepresented or oversold in the initial interview.  So while I realize now that I should have asked better questions going in, and I tried my best to tough it out, the duties I was being asked to perform simply had nothing to with the original job description I had accepted — and my manager and I were never quite able to get past this issue or see eye-to-eye.  So ultimately, to nobody’s great surprise, I was eventually let go.  In hindsight, it was probably for the best, although it was still an odd situation to go through — since I’ve never been fired in my life and have had nothing but exemplary reviews in all of my past positions.”

•   The “Political Scapegoat” Approach: “You know, as strange as it sounds, I’m not 100% sure why my previous supervisor decided to let me go.  It all happened pretty suddenly and as best as I can tell, it was a political move, likely due to the fact that I had been with the organization for quite some time and my new boss was brand new and likely looking to bring in his (or her) own team.  To some extent, I can understand this desire, but I still think things could have been handled better and I know that there were tons of people in the organization who were shocked to see me go.  At any rate, I don’t hold any hard feelings.  I had a great run with the company, picked up a lot of new skills, and have zero regrets about the time I spent there.  When these things happen, all you can do is dust yourself off and move on!”

•   The “Mea Culpa” Approach: “Well, that’s a good question, and as much as I hate to admit it and would love to spin it a different way, there’s no getting around the fact that I was essentially fired in this role by my manager.  I was going through a difficult time in my life at that point, dealing with a tough medical issue and some family turbulence, and I let these things affect the quality of my work — to the point that I wasn’t hitting the performance targets that had been set.  So ultimately, my manager decided to let me go, and I can’t really say I blame her.  The good news, however, is that all of the issues I had been facing have now been successfully resolved and I’m back to my old self and in a great frame of mind to get back to work.  So I’m hoping there will be at least one employer out there who will let ‘bygones be bygones’ and be willing to give me a second chance.  I’ll work my butt off to prove I’m worth it!”

Again, these scenarios are the absolute toughest to “spin” given the emotions involved and the instant concerns that prospective employers will have when they learn you were fired for cause, as opposed to being let go as part of a larger reduction-in-force event.  With some careful planning, however, and some judicious borrowing from the scripts above, even these situations can be successfully addressed!


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