What to Say in an Interview if You Were Fired From a Previous Job 

Updated Nov 24, 20213 min
What to Say in an Interview if You Were Fired From a Previous Job 

What to Say in an Interview if You Were Fired From a Previous Job 

Caroline BantonUpdated Nov 24, 20213 min
What to Say in an Interview if You Were Fired From a Previous Job 

Getting fired can shake your confidence, particularly when job hunting. It can then be doubly difficult to perform well in a job interview when you are anticipating the question "Why did you leave your last job?" You could give an answer that skirts the issue, but you'll probably dig yourself into a bigger hole. The best way to answer this question is to be open and honest.

This article will show you how to ace an interview when you were fired or laid off from your last job. It will show you how to be forthcoming and confident. It provides sample answers to common interview questions and tips on how to wow a hiring manager by easing any concerns they may have about your performance in your last job.

Why Honesty Is the Best Policy

There’s no getting around the fact that you were fired, and this will be of concern to a hiring manager because no organization will fire an employee without good reason. 

The good news is that if you have made it to the interview stage in your job search, you have an opportunity to explain the circumstances and even draw attention to your positive attributes in the process. Still, it won’t be a cakewalk because the hiring manager will be on the lookout for red flags concerning your potential as a job candidate.

How to Handle the Question “Why Did You Leave Your Last Job?”

When the subject of being fired comes up, there are ways to handle it. If you are not asked directly, "Why were you fired?" you could be asked, “Why did you leave your last job?” Here’s what to do when that question arises.

Lay Your Cards on the Table

Sure, you could say that you wanted to pursue other possibilities or something to that effect, but the risk is that the recruiter could find out later that you were fired through a background check, or it might come out in the reference checking phase. If that happens, it will look like you were not being entirely forthcoming and jeopardize any job offer they might have extended.

It’s far better to take the bull by the horns and tell the hiring manager of the new job that you were fired. You can then deliver a prepared explanation where you explain the circumstances and why you are now a more valuable commodity because of what happened and what you have learned.

Avoid Seeming Like the Victim

Nothing is more unbecoming than a complainer. So, don’t tell a story that paints you as a victim in a toxic work environment. That could well be the truth, but you will seem a much more confident and even charismatic person if you explain that you were able to turn a bad situation into a good one. Whatever the circumstances, show that you took action to remedy things.

Don’t Go to Bitter Land

How you speak about your past employer will strike a note with your potential employer. So, never speak negatively of them or shift the blame. If you do harbor resentment, practice having a conversation with a trusted mentor or career coach before the interview so that you can avoid veering off into bitter land.

The most important thing is to give a brief but assertive answer to the question that will shut down the topic rather than lead to more questions and answers. Then, you can go on to focus on why you are of value to the hiring company.

The circumstances of your firing will have a substantial effect on how you explain them. Were you fired, or were you let go? It’s important that you determine how your previous employer characterizes your exit because there is a big difference as far as a new employer is concerned.

If You Were Let Go

Being let go is different from being fired. If you were let go, it is not a reflection of your performance. Companies let people go typically for financial reasons. They might not be able to maintain the full complement of staff, or they might need to reduce overheads. If you were “let go,” here is an example of a response to the question, “Why did you leave your last job?”

"I was with my previous employer for five years. I believe they were severely affected by the pandemic, and they had to go into liquidation. I was grateful that they kept us on for as long as they did."

This answer is concise, and the prospective employer will not need to ask any follow-up questions. It is also a good answer because the candidate shows an appreciation for their employer rather than bitterness.

If you were fired for reasons of performance and not a layoff, that’s a bit trickier.

If You Were Fired for Poor Performance 

Here’s where you need to show your strength of character. Were you habitually late for work? Did you really just not care about your past job? Was your attitude less than stellar? Whatever the reason, there’s a way to own it and to show that you are the best candidate for the new job because of your past missteps.

Here’s an example of how to explain the circumstances of a firing and charm the interviewers of your next job.

"I am sorry to say that I was fired from my previous position. My expectations were not realistic, and I faced a steep learning curve that I hadn’t anticipated. I was frustrated, and my performance slipped. After I was fired, I took a Microsoft certification course in engineering to build my confidence and skill set so that I could feel that I would be of more value to an employer. I feel better equipped now and in a better state of mind.”

This answer shows that the candidate has taken ownership of the situation and has taken steps to change it. The answer shows the presence of mind and maturity.

It could be a good idea to contact your former employer to ask them how they interpret the context of your firing. That will help you formulate an answer that might alleviate any concerns your hiring manager has, assuming that they know that you were fired.

Hopefully, you were not fired from your last position for any egregious behavior. However, it happens, and you need to take ownership of that too. Put it down to a moment of bad judgment or a period of personal struggle in your work history; just don’t try to conceal it or place the blame elsewhere. Here’s an example answer that shows contrition for questionable behavior

"When I applied for my previous position, I was struggling with some personal issues. I made mistakes that I believe were necessary for me to learn how to better manage my professional growth. The experience has given me a better perspective, and this position appeals to me because I believe it could be an opportunity for me to show my worth. It has also made me realize that we all go through difficult times at some point in our lives. The important thing is to learn and become a better person.”

Being honest during the interview process will go a long way to being hired.

Why It is Important to be Transparent

Employers are curious about why you were fired because they want to know if it reflects on your character. They also want to see how you coped with the situation and what steps you took afterward. Being honest and taking responsibility for the situation is admirable and shows a level of professionalism that many lacks. Find the positive in your circumstances by accepting responsibility and moving on to new opportunities.

In closing, here are some interview tips for job seekers who want to explain why they were fired.

  • Own your mistakes and be honest about your firing

  • Frame the firing as a learning experience

  • Briefly explain the circumstances, and close the subject if you can

  • Don't badmouth your past employer

  • If follow-up questions ensue, emphasize why you are of value to the new employer

Caroline Banton
Expert on career acceleration and business topics with vast experience writing for globally-recognized publications

Grow your career with a coach

Find my coach