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Thursday, September 25, 2008

answering "have you ever been fired?" in an interview

A reader writes:

I was in a job interview the other day and everything was going well, until I was asked if I had ever been fired, and if so what were the reasons. Having never been asked that question before, my initial reaction was to feel that my privacy was being invaded and that this was an inappropriate question. Additionally, I was asked to sign a statement that I had not answered this question honestly, or it would be used as a reason for dismissal.

Since that interview, I have learned that this is a common question. The idea behind that question is that whatever happened before will happen again. (This was also said in the interview and not "may," but "will.")

I was indeed fired from a job about 10 years ago. I did the job well, I contributed to the organization, but my relationship with my supervisor was not good (this really can happen). Since then I ensure that I do both -- I do the job well and work at my working relationships.

So my question is, how can I answer this question honestly? Is it a trick question?

It's not a trick question. It's exactly what it seems to be -- a genuine desire to know if you have ever been fired before and, if so, why. If you put yourself in the employer's shoes, you'll probably understand why an interviewer would want to know this. It's not that no one who has been fired could ever be the right fit at a different job -- but it certainly does provide useful information about problems that the candidate has run into in the past (even if only personality conflicts). And perhaps most importantly, there's a lot to be gleaned from the way the candidate discusses it now. Do they just seem bitter and angry about it? Have they learned from the experience? How has it changed how they conduct business? And so forth.

It's hard to tell you how you yourself should answer this question without knowing more specifics, but one option might be talking about how you ended up in that situation, what you learned from it, and what you do differently now as a result.


Anonymous said...

10 years ago is a long time. If you have good references and a solid work history since that job, I can't imagine it would be a deal breaker. I would try to find out exactly what information is being released about your termination by the company. Chances are pretty good your supervisor isn't there anymore so a potential employer may only be able to get basic info. My company only gives last title and dates of employment - nothing more.

I was in a similar situation to yours and had the same problem while interviewing for other jobs. It turned out that "Have you ever been terminated or asked to resign?" is a very common question. When I first started interviewing I was bitter about it and I'm sure it showed. After I made peace with it and acknowledged to myself that I screwed up, I was able to calmly discuss it in interviews. I discussed it in about 15 or so interviews and only had one person really push hard for more details (and we didn't hit it off in general). I carefully rehearsed my answer but found that how I said it was much more important than what I said.

Rachel - former HR blogger said...

This is like the "what are your weaknesses" question.

Answer it honestly. Don't tell the worst of it. Tell how you've changed.

humanbeing said...

This question is easier to answer if the reason one was fired was circumstantial and not related to performance or integrity. However, its a great opportunity to showcase ones character by answering it honestly, focussing on how it has changed you / your perspectives for the better. There is no telling how the interviewer will react but if they dont appreciate your response then its probably not where you want to work anyway.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the tenor of the post and comments here. I've been fired. It wasn't fun, but most prospective employers want to know two things:

* How and what have you learned from the experience?
* Judging by how you address the firing, have you put it behind you and moved on?

Anonymous said...

10 years is a long time. How about 2 months ago, without warning, after working 9 days on the job? And how about this: if you are wrongfully terminated (have the evidence of such, had an adjudicator from the state determine as much), when you are then asked what was learned from the firing, you can't honestly tell them much of anything because any lessons learned (after making peace with it) will be a hit against your chances to get hired. I've discussed this concern during a potential future interview with many friends and there's no question: the answer to this difficult question really depends on how much you know about what they know and experienced with wrongful terminations in their past. Unfortunately, there's a lot you don't know, will never know, and don't want to know about this topic, and while lots of people experience firings, very few have experienced every which way it can go down.

Anonymous said...

I was wrongfully terminated 3 months ago. I filed my claim with the Commission on Human Rights. I was the HR Manager with an organization and refused to violate employment law and for that I was retaliated against by being terminated. I am also pursing my claim through state and federal court. I am a professional in my field. Part of my job description was to abide by employment law. I refused to go against the law, by professional ethics and the rights of the employees. What the organization did not realize, I was also protecting them against lawsuits that employees can file against them when they violate the law. They are finding that out now. I am searching for a new job while pursing my case. I don't intend to mention my case in an interview. I will mention briefly what happened, there is not much I could do differently. I will answer any questions the prospective employer may ask from there. An HR Manager knows how important employment law is and the cost of violating it. They should understand my position.

humanbeing said...

Its avoidable information to share. I think you dont volunteer such information. Dont lie if asked but certainly share this information strictly on a need to know basis.

Que said...

I was a successful manager for 15 years. I was fired because I made the mistake of trusting someone. That person committed a malice act that cost the company thousands, under my login. Throughout my career if you talked to any of my supervisors they will tell you that I am a trustworthy, loyal and dedicated worker, including the one who reluctantly let me go. This one mistake has tarnished my reputation. Right after I went on several interviews, and when asked the question, I was honest, and told them what I had learned. I was even a little emotional because it was new and the person I trusted was a mentor of mine and her act changed me and my family's lives. Needless to say, I was not hired and have been on unemployment for a year and 2 months. I have since been attending school for a career change and pray that when I look for a job after graduation that the same thing does not happen. I will continue to be honest if asked the question because it is the right thing to do.