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How to Avoid Saying: “I Was Fired”

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Something about the words “I was fired” makes prospective managers’ blood run cold. If you left your last job on less-than-sensational terms, there’s got to be a way to address that issue positively, right? Longtime HR director Liz Ryan, writing for Bloomberg’s Businessweek.com, says there definitely is.

“There is zero requirement ever to tell a hiring manager or HR person that your previous employer let you go,” she writes.

Job seekers who know what they bring—who know the business problem they solve, in other words—don’t have to over-explain. Job seekers who have identified a hiring manager’s chief problems and have already come up with ways to link their experience to the manager’s “business pain” don’t have to please anyone in order to get a job offer.

How to Spin It

You don’t owe a prospective employer the details about what happened when you left your last job. But you have to find a way to explain why you left. Ryan offers some possibilities:

Option No. 1: The Learning Was Done

“It was a fantastic learning opportunity for me—I credit those folks with teaching me everything I know about X-Y-Z, for instance, but it was time for me to go, and we agreed on that just as I was getting interested in social marketing.”

The “we agreed on it” is key, Ryan says. “If the “agreement” took place only in your own mind as the security guard escorted you out of the building, that’s fine.”

Option No. 2: My Interests Shifted

“I got to do so many fantastic projects at Acme Explosives, but my focus was shifting into project management, and the opportunities for that were very limited at Acme. I didn’t know what I would do next exactly, but my friend from college was starting a consulting practice, and I decided to collaborate with her on that as I shifted to the next thing.”

Option No. 3: We Went in Different Directions

“When I got to Acme Explosives, the mission had everything to do with building the brand fast, and we had great results on that front. Two years later, I was becoming a zealot for branding and customer evangelism, but Acme was moving more into OEM work, where the branding piece was almost nonexistent. It wasn’t a great fit for me anymore, and we decided to move apart.”

“Whatever you tell a prospective employer,” Ryan says, “focus on that employer’s need and your own tremendous talents in solving similar needs in the past.”