How to Talk About Being Fired in a Job Interview

11/30/2016 12:40 pm ET Updated Jan 17, 2017

It’s a classic job interview question: “Why did you leave your last job?” If you were fired, the standard inquiry may strike fear into your job-seeking heart.

This is a good time for a little perspective. The truth is people get fired on a daily basis for a variety of reasons. They generally bounce back and go on to work again. While answering this question well requires some thought, it is possible to address it and still leave a favorable impression that will keep you in the running for the position.

Here are nine tips for successfully articulating your response.

1. Think it over. Before you talk to any prospective employers, it’s imperative to mentally process what happened to help you explain it in a professional setting. Chances are you’ve done some soul searching, and that’s a good start. Consider how you may have unwittingly contributed to the situation that led to your dismissal. Sort through your explanations enough to develop an objective, brief description of what happened.

2. Offer references only when asked. Avoid including references on your resume. Instead, provide them if your interviewer requests them. This allows you to tell your story your way in the interview instead of letting your former boss share their point of view beforehand. After the interview, be ready to provide information, preferably former supervisors or clients who can attest to your best qualities. Steer clear from giving out names of friends and family members as valid mentions.

3. Own it. Don’t attempt to dodge, downplay or gloss over the subject if it comes up. Omitting a briefly-held job from your resume may be alright if you were there for a month or so. But if you were there for any longer, it will be hard to explain the gap in your employment history, and you will come across as disingenuous if (or when) it’s discovered.

4. Make honesty your top priority. Be truthful and deal with the question in a straightforward manner. If you lie about your exit, you will be haunted by the possibility that your secret will be discovered after you’ve accepted the job, with adverse consequences. Most often the industries we work in consist of fairly small circles; we all have connections with colleagues at other organizations who talk to each other. Assume that the word is out and focus on the next tip.

5. Stick to your talking points. Be ready with a brief explanation of what happened and why. Going into great detail is not only unhelpful, but places an unnecessary focus on your firing. You are not there to overshare, rather to show them that you are an ideal job candidate with good judgment and professionalism.

6. Practice your delivery. Draft a script to prepare for discussing your previous job. Before the interview, rehearse your answer with a friend or a video camera. Remember that the hiring manager will not only pay attention to what you say, but will also pick up on your body language, tone and expression. Practice answering the question until you can do so comfortably and without defensiveness.

7. Take responsibility. Acknowledging your role, whether it was poor communication or not having a grasp of your boss’s expectations, shows integrity, confidence and an ability to learn from mistakes. It also shows future employers that you can handle discussing difficult subjects in a professional, composed way. Even if you feel you were unjustly let go, never disparage your former boss or the company; it makes you look like a complainer and a finger-pointer.

8. Explain how you are a better employee. Whatever the reason, getting fired has one positive outcome: it invariably teaches us something that can help us improve in our next job. No matter why you were let go, from a change in management to an unfortunate mistake, you have undoubtedly learned some life skills and lessons that will help you in your next role. Be ready to explain your takeaways from the experience.

9. Accentuate the positive. Remember that you are there because you have skills that the hiring manager is looking for. Emphasize those. Reference any accomplishments and accolades you've earned on your career path. Be ready to explain what makes you the ideal candidate for the opening. At the end of the interview, recap the most important things that the hiring manager needs to remember about you, along with your interest in the moving into the next phase of your career.

For more of Diane’s etiquette tips, visit her blog, connect with her here on The Huffington Post, “like” The Protocol School of Texas on Facebook, or follow her on Pinterest, Instagram and Twitter.

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