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What Do I Say When I've Been Fired?

Q: "I was fired from my last job. How do I handle this in a job interview?"

A: First, let's talk about what you mean when you say, "I got fired." In today's fast-paced, unforgiving economy, your company may decide to terminate you because of a merger or acquisition, reorganization or stockholder unrest. All of these situations are beyond your control and have little to do with your job performance. Recruiters know this and will rarely hold it against you. In fact, many of your interviewers probably have found themselves in your shoes.

A bona fide firing occurs when an individual has done something illegal or unethical, is clearly falling below her job's requirements or can't get along with colleagues, especially her manager. While explaining your termination under these circumstances can be awkward, it's doable.

Unless you've done something truly awful, your former employer will want to facilitate your moving quickly into a new position. To make this easier, seek her involvement in developing a mutually agreeable reason for your leaving. This conversation will save your obsessing over the specter of a poor recommendation and help you get on with your life. And, should your interviewer want to know why you left your last job, you'll have an answer ready to go.

Whatever you say, keep it short, then move on to the next subject. Long, excruciating explanations focus your interviewer's attention on a subject you don't want to emphasize. Any of the following reasons sound truthful and non-defensive. "I left XYZ company as part of a company-wide downsizing which eliminated my department." "My division was acquired and the new CEO wanted to bring in his own team." "My position was realigned. Both my manager and I realized my job no longer matched my skills or interests." "I had done what I set out to and was ready for a new challenge."

A word of warning: never make disparaging remarks about your former company or management. It's only human for a potential boss to identify more with them than you. No one likes a complainer.

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