11/15/2011 01:27 pm ET | Updated Jan 15, 2012

Getting Past "I Was Fired" on a Job Interview

A fellow called me from New Hampshire, where he worked in a tech startup. "I was in the first wave of people hired after we got funded," he said. "We built the product spec and worked out the major technical issues. The prototype was a huge success. As we got deeper into product development, though, philosophical differences really started causing problems."

"What happened?" I asked him. "I made a couple of stands, nothing too outrageous, just speaking pretty forthrightly in product meetings about the dangers of the path we were on," he said. "Our CTO was okay with it and actually encouraged me to keep agitating for a better design process. The CEO couldn't deal, and they let me go two weeks ago."

"And so, now that you're on the job market... " I continued. "Now that I'm on the job market, there's no way to avoid telling employers that I was fired," he said. "How would I explain leaving a company halfway through the product development process? I'm not going to say I lost interest in the product, because it isn't true, but also because if I had lost interest, I still would have stuck around to get the product out the door. My integrity is at stake."

"So, what have you been doing as you've talked with headhunters or employers?" I asked, and the fellow said "I've been telling them I got fired, and you should hear the silence on the other end of the line."

Telling an employer you were fired from the last job is dropping a bombshell like no other. Once-fired job-seekers are Kryptonite to lots of organizations. It's hard for them to shake the notion that if one employer didn't find you to its liking, you're a bad egg all around. It's harder yet for them to imagine that someone who tells the truth at work could be just the employee they need.

I totally support the New Hampshire guy in sharing the story about his experience at the startup company. As he said, his integrity is at stake. He's not going to make up some feeble tale for a prospective employer's sake. Still, he's got to expect to have conversations like this one between now and his next offer:

THEM: So, you were at Axis Systems? What are they working on?
HIM: It's a next-generation crammel fortis protector with optical resonance imaging, zircon-encrusted tweezers and symbiotic plasma.
THEM: That's right -- I read about them in Obscure Technology Weekly. So, you ran the software group?
HIM: Yeah, I was employee number seven, so we went through a lot together. We had a big win with the prototype, but I left before the product launched -- creative differences.
THEM: How so?
HIM: They were going down the path of using panstochastic reasoning for the user interface, which would have put them into a dangerous trick bag -- well, that's still the direction, so that's a problem they'll face down the road. I was fairly verbal about my disagreement with that direction, and we decided to call it quits.
THEM: They let you go?
HIM: Most definitely -- there was no way for us to continue working together. Great learning for me, but I need to feel good about the software direction if my name is on it, of course.
THEM: Er -- OK. Would you say you were terminated?
HIM: No doubt about it.
THEM: Let me get back to you.

Lots of employers are non-negotiable on the "I was fired" front. If you have a job termination in your recent past, it's in your best interest to figure out which employers won't touch a terminated applicant with a ten-foot pole, and which ones have the guts to hear your story and decide whether your brand of truth-telling works for them.

As a practical matter, a person whose job-search story includes the phrase "I was fired" shouldn't waste time with Black Hole recruiting systems of the type "Please upload your resume, fill out seventeen pages of personal data, and wait to hear from us." The correlation between Black Hole-type recruiting systems and intolerance for independent thought is strong. If you got fired for speaking too bluntly about your last emperor's threadbare duds, you may as well approach prospective hiring managers directly and tell them your story. (You can find the name of your hiring manager in about two seconds on LinkedIn, unless the employer is IBM or another gargantuan firm.) You can write to them and talk about what you think about what they're doing. You don't have to get into your "I was fired" story in that first communication -- you can delve into that if the hiring manager is interested enough to start an email correspondence, call you on the phone or invite you to over for a chat.

Of course, not everyone gets fired for his convictions. Lots of people get fired for slacking and other petty offenses. In retrospect, we can say "The universe didn't want me in that job," and after five years or so we might be able to share the story with a prospective employer, chuckling at the memory. That's fine if the five years have already elapsed, but what do you do if you're three months out from the "pack your sh*t" incident, and you need a job?

You don't have to tell an employer you were let go. There are few to no employers who will spill those beans in an employment-verification process, unless you did something so far outside the employee handbook that your employer prosecuted you for it.

You can say "It was time to leave; I learned a ton at that place, but I had reached the point where there wasn't going to be much, if any, more learning in that job."

You can say "My boss and I agreed to part ways, as I was particularly interested in X, which had become less of a priority for the company over time."

We put way too much weight on the idea that the employer spoke first, saying "Hit the bricks." We make a big, stupid distinction between an employee taking a hike, and an employer saying "We're done." When we make that unexamined value judgment (quitting is OK; getting fired is not) we essentially say to all working people, "If things aren't going well at work, it's your duty to resign." That's insanity. Why should a person have to quit his job in order to avoid the deadly fate of being fired? S/he shouldn't.

We all know there are wonderful employers and scared, evil, people-hating ones. It's no shame to say "I picked the wrong employer" or "My first boss was an amazing mentor, and my second boss was not someone I could work with and vice versa." It's no shame to admit that there are mismatches between people and other people, cultures and values and styles and priorities, every day. A mismatch doesn't mean that one person is right and the other one is wrong. It doesn't mean that people who get fired are useless and unworthy.

While the earth hurtles around the sun enough times for us to all grow up and figure out that getting fired can be a huge learning experience and that a fired job-seeker is no more to be feared and hated than a scared-to-speak-up, wouldn't-dream-of-making-a-stand one, you have a choice. You can proclaim your status ("Oh yeah, they told me to hit the road -- and how!") or keep it to yourself. You've got no more obligation to share the details of your departure from the last gig than the employer has to tell you about the people dramas playing out in its halls and boardrooms and stairwells right now. Everyone involved gets to keep his or her counsel.

By the way, if you haven't been fired yet, I should let you know that it's very liberating. I got fired twice, early in my career, and those experiences innoculated me against the shame and guilt I've heard one is supposed to feel when the boss says "You're history." My take nowadays (and yours, too, I hope) is: "What's that you say -- I'm not your cup of tea? Cool!" Employers have just one tiny, pathetic stick to wield -- the one called "We could fire your ass" -- and the more we keep in mind that that is really a very small lever in the scheme of things the better off we'll be.