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How to Explain Being Fired on a Job Application: Tips and Strategies

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Jun 2, 2023 6 min read

Talking about why you left your previous job when you were actually fired is obviously no easy thing.

You need to be mindful of the language you use, even if you’re still angry at your previous employer. You also need to show there was a lesson for you to learn from that situation, and that you are now stronger than ever.

But let’s take a step back. Should you even mention you were fired on your resume?

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The short answer is no.

The long answer is no, because your resume is the place to showcase your skills, talk about your achievements, and prove you’re the best candidate.

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But what if the application asks you to provide a reason for leaving your previous job?

Something more - what if the hiring manager asks ‘Why did you leave your previous job?’ during the interview?

Should you just brush it off and say you’d rather not discuss this?

No.

Instead, you should have an answer that shows your positive attitude and readiness to keep on growing.

Sounds complicated on the surface, but we’re here to help!

In this article you’ll learn:

  • Why it’s important to be honest when faced with the ‘Why did you leave your previous job?’ question
  • How to explain the situation in a clear yet concise manner
  • How to emphasize the positives of being fired (yes, there are positives!!)

Let’s get started!

Be honest, but strategic

Lying in a job application is never a good idea.

Mainly because if you lie to your prospective employer once, the risk of falling into a rabbit hole and telling more lies is huge. And you can’t build a successful partnership based on dishonesty.

But also because hiring managers might want to hear the other side of the story and connect with your previous employer.

In both cases, being honest is your safest bet.

However, this doesn’t mean getting into too much detail about your previous manager, your former colleagues’ work ethics, or the things you didn’t put much effort into.

After all, you want to be strategic, right? And being strategic means presenting things in a way that benefits you.

So instead of explaining what made your old job a nightmare, focus on the lessons you learned.

For instance, let’s say you were part of the digital marketing team of a medium-sized company. You were able to take on lots of work and always got the job done perfectly.

That’s probably why other teammates and your manager were asking you to do things you weren’t supposed to and put an unbelievable amount of pressure on you.

You didn’t know how to say no, which led you to the verge of burnout. You got into a fight with your manager, called them incompetent and lazy, and got fired.

Now, we advise you to skip the name-calling part. Remember what we said about being strategic?

An excellent way to phrase this in a more positive way is to say that the workload and lack of clear processes and structure put huge pressure on you.

You could also say you didn’t get your manager’s support when you expected and needed it the most.

And then you’d need to focus on the lesson - to propose process changes when you see the opportunity to do so and to be more assertive when asking for help.

See the difference? That’s what we call honest but strategic!

In this case, you’ll present yourself as a strong, open-minded individual, who is not afraid to ask for support when they need it. What a dream!

But what should you do if the reason that got you fired was actually a mistake or a performance issue?

Well, it’s important to state that as well. But also to show you’ve taken the necessary steps to fill your knowledge gaps and gain new skills.

In addition, keep in mind that it’s always best to avoid blaming others. Even if they really were to blame.

Instead, we advise you to take responsibility for your actions (or lack thereof, actually).

If you feel like it, you could also share your thoughts on how you expect moving on from this past situation to help you deal with challenges in the future.

But don’t let yourself get into a loop of providing too many unnecessary details. Let’s see why!

Be brief and to the point

Your future employer doesn’t need to know all the details.

In fact, we advise you to discuss the reason for being fired only if you’re asked.

Avoid the words ‘I was fired’, use more neutral phrases such as ‘let go’, ‘role termination’, or even ‘mutual separation’ if relevant to your situation.

This will help you manage the negative connotation often associated with the word ‘fired’.

What’s more, it will elevate the tone of the conversation to a more formal one.

And being concise and to the point is the perfect way to lead a formal conversation.

So, share the reason why you were terminated from your job (e.g. bad culture fit) and summarize the experience you had in one sentence. Then, talk about the lesson you learned.

Here’s an example to better illustrate this:

Let’s say the reason why you were fired was linked to underperformance.

You weren’t motivated to do well and struggled to meet targets because the job was fully remote, and your kids were at home most of the time, which meant you couldn’t concentrate.

Now, instead of making excuses and blaming your kids or the company’s work-from-home policy, you could simply state:

My previous job wasn’t a good fit because I had to work from home. I am a passionate team player who is much more productive when sharing my workspace with like-minded individuals.

See how this explanation gives enough context without overcomplicating things? If the job you’re applying for is not remote, this can work miracles.

But don’t expect to come up with a response like this one on the spot.

Even if you’re a natural, it’s always better to practice. Maybe even consider rehearsing this exact interview question with a friend or a mentor.

Why? Because you should be well-prepared for this stressful question in order to tackle it in the best way possible.

There are also certain techniques that you could use before the interview to make sure you’ll remain calm, confident, and professional… even when faced with the ‘why’ question.

Some examples include meditation, breath work, visualization, or even sweating the stress out with a short run.

You decide! Just remember that being well-prepared minimizes the possibility of stress and poor performance.

Key takeaways: Explaining you were fired on a job application

Let’s face it - if you don’t have any expert advice to turn to, being fired in the past can ruin your job application.

But with the right kind of help, you can make the reason for leaving your previous workplace work in your favor.

Just remember to be:

  • Honest
  • Strategic
  • Brief and to the point

There’s no point in lying. And yet, your potential boss doesn’t need to know all details. Otherwise, you risk appearing as someone who lacks professionalism.

And one last thing - having a good answer to the ‘Why?’ question prepared in advance is crucial.

You can rehearse with a friend, a mentor, or yourself in front of the mirror. Plenty of options!

If you feel like it, you can always count on our career counselors for expert guidance. Reach out to them if you need help crafting a job-winning resume or prepping for the next interview.

And don’t forget - you can use any experience to your advantage!

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Volen Vulkov
Volen Vulkov is a resume expert and the co-founder of Enhancv. He applies his deep knowledge and experience to write about a career change, development, and how to stand out in the job application process.
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