You’re Fired – How to handle interviews after the hammer falls

Fired – Now what do I do?

Ah, the stigma of being fired. It cripples self confidence, generates hours of gossip and in no way changes the fact that your credentials remain exactly as they were ten minutes prior to hearing those devastating words.

That’s right. If your credentials are strong and your successes can be described with metrics and outcomes, being fired is not a long term career impediment. How you relate to that experience, how you manage the message are the issues, not the fact of it. You’d be surprised to learn most all executives were fired at some point in their career. Focus on that.

The downside of being fired is the damage done by all that anger. Self esteem drops and the very thing that makes you a desirable candidate, your confidence, vanishes. Don’t let them win twice; once by firing you and second by undermining your chances for another job. Remember, the best revenge is living well.

First things first. You must move on. You can not go back in time to correct or vent. I am the first to say, anger doesn’t die because you bury it. It must be confronted, dealt with and vanquished. Try these steps first.

  1. Write it all down. Use those four letter words and indulge in angry outbursts. Call names, accuse and rant. Leave nothing out no matter how many pages it takes. Once you have done this, never utter another word about the experience. I know, hard to do, but it is a must. You argue, “But I have to explain to potential employers.” You don’t. We will get there.
  2. Stay away from people who want to pick at your scab. Former colleagues and team members draw great satisfaction venting with you. It does no one any good and is not, no matter how good it feels short term, a benefit to you or a bonding event with your people.
  3. Redo your resume with all the accomplishments and metrics. Gloat. No one and no experience can change your history.
  4. Now, for the fun part. Gather all the trash and treasures, reports and papers from your former employer. Print that rant you created in step one. Invite your favorite person to join you, share a bottle of your favorite libation and get some matches. Put all the issue from your former employer onto the BBQ or fire pit. Light it up and as it becomes ashes, celebrate moving on from your past employer. Toast to the future. Let the “You’re fired” go.
  5. Avoid the Internet. The temptation to Google, “Fired,” is strong. Don’t. There is so much bad advice out there it’s a wonder anyone gets rehired. Most of it is written by people with no executive experience and who have no business giving any job search advice, much less about such a critical issue. Some sites use the tags to attract victims to whom they can sell unnecessary services.
  6. Going forward, when folks inquire and want to dwell, respond with positive vignettes on your job search. “I connected with five prospective contacts just this week,” “Seems like there is a big need for finance people like me who have turned around a failing department,” or some other job search related accomplishment.
  7. Resist the temptation to tell a prospective employer in any detail about what happened. They really don’t care. All they want to know is if hiring you will be a liability. That’s where your understanding of their needs and how your credentials map to them come in. When you spend more than two sentences on your answer, you burn up valuable time when talking about your credentials is important.

Now that you have the negative aspects under control, time to work on the answer to the dreaded, “Why did you leave your last job.” This is not an invitation to vent against your employer or solicit compassion. This is an interview and all the employer wants to know about is how your experience maps to their needs. It is especially important to phrase the answer to this question carefully if you have been unemployed more than three months.

Example: Ray commiserated with a few just-fired team members and called the boss an “ass puppet.” That information was relayed to the employer and Ray was immediately fired. (Do you need another example/reason not to gossip with your colleagues?) Ray had been job hunting for ten months when he invited my support.

I let him vent, tell the whole story and twenty minutes later, I suggested all of the above listed steps. Once he checked them off, we reconnected. I helped him see, with his new resume, that his credentials were not tainted by his ill-conceived behavior. Here’s what we practiced:

Employer: Ray, why did you leave your last job?

Ray: Said with humor, “ You won’t believe this, I called my boss an ass puppet. Boy, did I learn something important there. No matter what I think of my boss, my job is my job and I have no business blurting my feelings. And even less commiserating with fellow employees about their own negative opinions. I know I won’t make that mistake again.”

The template: First acknowledge your part in the ordeal if there is one. Then state what you learned. Move on to the next topic.

Example: Craig was convinced he was fired because the VP sales demanded he fire someone on his team and Craig refused. Three months later, he was fired. While it is always true that sales executives making their numbers have a lot of power and often misuse it, the fact that the sales executive was fired three months after Craig’s dismissal suggested there were other variables. When the CEO was terminated and the Chairman of the Board took on that role, it was clear Craig was fired because the company was bleeding, not because he did not capitulate to the sales exec’s demands.

In his protracted job search, he had related his difficulty with the sales exec and not once did he make it to the next interview. Companies require their operations executives get along with the sales team. Once Craig understood the pattern during the three months after his firing, he could tell prospective employers, “The company was bleeding and I was the first of four executives asked to leave in a three month period. I am especially proud of saving the company 5X on manufacturing during my time with them.”

Reading the situation for a different perspective often reveals the real reasons for firing.

Most states have an at-will law for employers. Just as you need no reason to quit, they are not required to give a reason to fire you. Since no reason is required, often the terminated executive has no idea why they are let go. In need of an answer, they go to their weakness… my age, my gender, I was out ill, I was pregnant, I didn’t kowtow to my boss, my boss was jealous, they thought I was too fat, too beautiful or I was so good, I made my boss look bad…and any other possibility. Truth is, unless you are fired for cause, you rarely know the real reason you are fired. It is also true, when firing you, your manager will tell you what ever is easiest for her to say. It is rarely the truth.

In the end it doesn’t matter. You are fired. In order for it not to become an obstacle, handle the issue up front. Which is not to say lead with it. Never bring it up. Only talk about it if you are asked.

Example: Thomas was fired and given no reason. He was confused, angry and weakened by the experience. When prospective employers were asked why he had left his employer, he said he had no idea why he’d been fired. True as that is, it is not an excellent interview response. The person on the other side of the desks assumes you are a hiring risk.

One approach Thomas used was to invite a friend to call HR to verify employment. He was told Thomas was not eligible for rehire and no details offered. When asked, HR declined any further explanation (their right) but did volunteer it was not for cause.

He might have said, “My previous employer didn’t share a reason for letting me go. Since my performance and reviews were always good, I surmise I was part of an unannounced, strategic downsizing. A number of others were let go over a three month period without explanation. I can share my outstanding performance reviews for the past several years. Would that be of interest?”

Or, “For four years I loved my job and contributed over expectations. In the final months, a new manager was brought in. I’m not sure why, but we didn’t connect. I did my best to support him, but nothing seemed to work. Eventually, I was let go but not told why. Since my performance continued to be excellent, I had hoped that would be enough. It wasn’t. My biggest accomplishment was xxxxx and I hope to leverage that with a new employer.”

Notice the above comments do not bad-mouth the employer. They talk about possible reasons and end with an accomplishment which changes the subject to the positive and how your experience maps to the prospective employer’s job description.

Claudia is about to be fired, all the signs are there. Much of her critical path responsibility is being shifted to others, she is no longer invited to important meetings and she isn’t copied on emails important to her job. Her boss won’t establish eye contact and no longer inquires about projects. She has no idea why this is happening. She meets her deadlines, gets things done no one asked her to do and collaborates with stakeholders.

She can’t go to Human Resources, they won’t tell her anything since that is not their role. She refuses to consult with her internal champion because she needs her as a reference when the hammer falls. She feels miserable at the end of each day regardless of what she has accomplished. A ship lost at sea, her only recourse is to quit before being fired. This is important to her track record, self esteem and internal credibility. She postpones in the belief somehow things will turn around. Magical thinking never helps a career.

Once fired, she is invited by HR to discuss her employment and sign a release form. Guess what? She is required to do neither. There is no power, no advantage to Claudia to attend that meeting. And the employer cannot force her to sign anything. Typically that form is to dissolve any prospective legal issues and extract a promise not to poach employees. Don’t sign anything. If your compensation or stock is said to be contingent on signing, they are misrepresenting. It is illegal to withhold anything based on signing any document that absolves the employer of wrong doing.

You believe the meeting is an opportunity to vent, to let them have it? Bad move. Not only will no good come of it, no changes will occur regardless of how vehement you are.  The only result is you have destroyed your references. Keep in mind the people with whom you currently work, including HR, will work in other companies. Do you want to taint future interactions? Then keep silent, skip the meeting and move on.

Be especially conscientious of how you relate to recruiters. They are friendly because friendliness lubricates the business relationship. They are not your friends. They are not to be conspired with about that evil employer. They are the gatekeepers to your next career opportunity. Treat them as such.

Refrain from any digital venting. Don’t use Facebook or other social networking sites to mention your disenchantment or outrage. And stay away from sites like GlassDoor. There are companies doing a huge business on behalf of employers who find everything they can about your digital presence. Most HR professionals vet candidates online before following up. You will never know why you were not considered for a job and it is not illegal to refrain from interviewing someone because the employer didn’t like what you said online. So don’t do it.

Taking too long. If your search is taking overly long, employers will notice. Your value goes down for every month your search takes. For example, offers will be lower and employers will postpone decisions believing you will be around as they take their time. They also devalue you as a prospect because there is no competition. While this is not fair, but it is true.

“What have you been up to during these last ten months?” The answer I hear the most is, “I took some time off to get my bearings and now, it is hard to uncover leads.” While this may be true, the statement takes you out of contention immediately.

A professional, eager for work and ready to contribute never takes time off before doing a job search. They do the job search and make the start date out to take that ‘time off.’ And it is never wise to complain that there are no leads. If you are a hot property, there are leads.

So, how do you handle the reality of an extended search? A better answer is, “It was time for a structured reassessment of my goals and next steps for my career. I spent time researching companies, industries and learned where my credentials would make the biggest impact in a company that met my requirements. I invested time targeting key connections to learn about companies, players and opportunities. That’s one reason I am here today. I like Nutzo because 1, 2, 3, reasons, all top priorities for me because xxx is in my wheelhouse. I have [clear metric of an accomplishment that fits that box] and feel Nutzo might make a good home for my talents.”

Another approach, “I am being highly selective in the opportunities I will pursue. I am interested in Nutzo because my success with xxx may be of interest. But primarily because Nutzo is funded by sturdy investors and the management team has a history of success. That’s the sort of team I want to be part of.”

A way to ward off the affects of the extended job search is to communicate why the employer should have a sense of urgency. “I am interested in Nutzo because [substantive reason about what you can contribute] and it remains in my top three target companies. If asked about the other two, mention the industry but not the name.

If your job search was delayed on purpose, say so. “I was taking care of my parents who were in hospice.” “I went back to school to xxx.” “I stayed home during a critical time for my children.” “I was in prison.” Ok, not the last one.

Regardless of the reasons, the way to mitigate ill affects is to demonstrate with examples how your experience maps to the priorities for the job. This, and a strategic introduction by someone respected by the hiring manager will bridge any unemployment/fired gap. This is where excellent networking comes into play and is not a behavior to activate just because you need it now. It should be an ongoing professional activity.

The preceding is a chapter from “Job Search Debugged” available as a PDF download for $20. Contact me if you’d like a copy.

If you are faltering and feel overwhelmed, I can help. Let’s see if job search coaching is the right solution for you. Contact me and we can see if Executive Coaching makes sense.

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