By Rebecca Knight
Harvard Business Review, December 8, 2017 —
After you’ve been fired, getting back into the job market can be difficult. How should your résumé reference the previous position, or should you even include it? What should you say in an interview? And how can you go into the application process feeling positive about your prospects?
What the Experts Say
Looking for a job is never easy, and it can be even more nerve-wracking after your confidence has been through the wringer. It’s natural to feel slightly paranoid, says John Lees, UK-based career strategist and author of The Success Code. “You have no idea how much information about you and your circumstances is out there beyond what you’re broadcasting,” he says. And you might fret that others will perceive your firing as a stain on your record, says Claudio Fernández-Aráoz, a senior adviser at global executive search firm Egon Zehnder and the author of It’s Not the How or the What but the Who: Succeed by Surrounding Yourself with the Best. “You worry that everyone will immediately assume it’s your problem,” he says. Getting over your job loss and finding new employment is a challenge — but when you come out on the other side, “you’ll be a much better worker” in the long run, he says. Here are some strategies to employ.
Understand what happened
Before you start your job search, understand why your previous employer fired you in the first place. Doing so helps you “figure out how big a problem you’re facing” and what you’ll need to overcome in the job market, says Lees. It also enables you to consider possible ways “to finesse and shape” the firing as you move forward. Perhaps you didn’t fit in with the company’s culture, or you and your boss didn’t see eye to eye. Maybe you made errors in judgment. Lees recommends some “careful checking” with former colleagues or “trusted mentors” who have knowledge of “the situation and the organization.” Your goal is to get “an objective view” of how much of the firing “was about you and how much of it was about external factors.” It may also be worthwhile to speak with members of your former employer’s HR department, says Fernández-Aráoz. After you “sign all the documents that need to be signed” and let “your emotions” cool, “schedule a meeting to debrief,” he says. “Good HR people can help you understand what types of jobs might be a good fit in the future.”
“Candidates don’t want to hear this, but often they go into the market too soon,” says Lees. He warns that there is a real cost to applying to jobs before you’re emotionally ready. If you put yourself in front of high-level decision-makers before you get the sadness, anger, and bitterness out of your system, you risk “leaking emotional information” that could damage your reputation, he says. “You have a golden moment in your job search where you’re operating at peak confidence and energy. You don’t want to use up your best contacts at a time when you’re not there yet.” Allow yourself time to heal and before you start networking in earnest, Fernández-Aráoz recommends asking an “insightful friend—someone who knows you well and has your back,” if you’re ready.
Look for the right fit
Once you’ve given yourself time, reflect on “what you’ve learned” about yourself in light of the firing, says Fernández-Aráoz. Say, for instance, your dismissal was due to a personality clash with your manager or a mismatched cultural fit. Consider what that means about the kind of colleagues you’d like to work with and the environment you need to thrive. “There are no bad personalities,” says Fernández-Aráoz. “It’s always a matter of circumstances.” If you’re aggressive and competitive, you may not fit in at an organization that takes a more collaborative approach. But there are plenty of places where you’d be considered an asset. You need to “understand what type of company will work for you,” he adds. If you were fired because of something quite serious — “you were accused of lying or stealing,” for example — you need to “be strategic” in your search. “Look for companies that might be open to candidates in your situation,” he says. He suggests researching workplaces that partner with nonprofits that help “convicts reinsert themselves” in the workforce. While you may not have a criminal record, these same companies might also be more amenable to hiring someone with your background.
Reach out to your network
Before you begin actively applying for jobs, you need to “make a list of people who can offer great references for you,” says Fernández-Aráoz. Your “credibility” will be “extremely important for HR.” Cast a wide net. “Think about people who may not be in your inner circle but who have known you professionally for a long time” and can vouch for you. This exercise will also likely provide job leads, he says. “Most people find jobs through informal personal connections,” says Fernández-Aráoz. Think about “former bosses and colleagues” as well as “advisors, accountants, lawyers, management consultants, and search consultants,” you’ve worked with over the course of your career. Perhaps they have “clients they could introduce you to.” When people understand what you’re looking for, they’re better able to help.
In writing, focus on the positive
It’s unwise to omit your previous job from your CV and cover letter because you “don’t want to leave a gap” in your employment, says Lees. Still, you ought to “focus on what you want in the foreground” of your résumé. Play up your “skill sets, responsibilities you’ve had, or other areas of your work history where you’ve done exceptionally well.” Your cover letter needn’t dwell on your prior job either, according to Fernández-Aráoz. “Of course you need to state your previous position,” but then quickly follow up with the fact that you’re “actively looking for new opportunities,” he says.
Prepare your story
Interviews will definitely require a bit more care and forethought than they did before. “Don’t put your head in the sand and hope the issue doesn’t come up,” says Lees. “You need to prepare for how you’re going to handle direct questions.” A good rule to live by is “don’t deceive, but don’t volunteer.” Fernández-Aráoz recommends “practicing in low-risk situations” with friends or even with hiring managers at “companies that are not the top of your list.” The goal is to “be secure and comfortable telling your story.” Keep it short and upbeat. Here are some possible scripts.
- Showcase what you learned from the experience. If you were fired for “failure to achieve objectives,” your best strategy is “absolute searing honesty,” says Lees. Say, “This is what happened. I processed it. I’ve learned from it. And here’s what I would do differently if I were in that situation again.” Your objective is to “bring the conversation back to the present. People respect that everyone gets into trouble from time to time.” And after all, it might not have been your fault. You shouldn’t pass blame to others but you might note that “you failed to hit your target in an environment where few people do.”
- Take responsibility. If you were fired for something more severe, you need to demonstrate that you’ve “taken responsibility” for your actions and describe “how you’ve changed.” This tactic is “attractive and appealing” to hiring managers. “It says, we’re not hiring a problem, we’re hiring someone who has a great deal to offer because of what he has been through.” After you explain what you’ve learned from the experience, Fernández-Aráoz recommends following up quickly with a comment about “the wonderful references you can provide” to demonstrate your trustworthiness.
- Be gracious. If you were fired because of a personality clash with your boss or coworker, do not, under any circumstances, complain to your interviewer. Instead Lees suggests saying something like, “We saw the world differently. We had different views about how the organization should move forward. And one of us had to go.” Framing it this way “demonstrates good, clear decision-making,” he says. “Be gracious and show respect” your former colleagues. The hiring manager will likely read between the lines. Just about “everybody has worked with someone difficult.”
- Describe your last job as a project. You could also use the short-term nature of your prior position to your advantage by designating it “as a project” instead of a job. You never want to lie but you can frame the experience in a more positive way. For example, Lees suggests saying something like, “I knew when I was hired that I wouldn’t be there long. The organization was dealing with a specific challenge, and I was brought in to help.” That is a succinct explanation for why you were there for only seven months.
When you’re face to face with a hiring manager, Fernández-Aráoz recommends “taking control of the interview” right away by “saying what you’re looking for and by showing you have what it takes.” This is a particularly sound strategy when you have a topic you’d rather avoid. “Research shows that interviewers make up their mind within three to five minutes of meeting someone; anything that follows is a rationalization,” he says. After you’ve recited your story, Lees suggests moving the conversation along. “Many interviewers are perfectly willing to leave well enough alone if you show you dealt with it positively.” Whatever you do, “don’t get bogged down in the past,” he says. “Otherwise all you’re doing is reinforcing the idea that you’re unemployable.”
You can reduce the stress of finding a new position after a job loss by making sure you’re eating well, exercising, and getting plenty of sleep. Surround yourself with friends and stay busy. “It’s important to be positively engaged in something else when you’re looking for a job,” says Fernández-Aráoz, adding that “volunteer work or a favorite hobby” can do wonders for your soul. It’s not a bad idea to add to your résumé by freelancing or consulting during your search, adds Lees. “Evidence of activity is always preferable.”
Principles to Remember
- Reflect on what you’ve learned about yourself in light of the firing and what it means about the kind of environment in which you thrive.
- Reach out to people with whom you’ve worked in the past for job leads and to serve as references.
- Plan how you’re going to handle direct questions about why you left your last job by preparing a short, upbeat explanation.
- Discount talking to your former HR department about the firing. Let your emotions cool, and then schedule a meeting to debrief.
- Omit your previous job from your CV and cover letter. But don’t draw attention to it either.
- Be negative about your prospects. During your search, surround yourself with friends and take good care of yourself.
Case Study #1: Devise a plan for talking about your old job and what you want out of your next
Kimberly Evans* had been working as a digital media lead at a small marketing, design, and PR firm for nine months when she was fired. “A few weeks before it happened I had a gut feeling that something was wrong,” says Kimberly. “I had already started to get my résumé ready.”
In the immediate aftermath, Kimberly reflected on what had happened. She was relatively new in her career, and she and her former boss didn’t have a good relationship. In fact, her old boss had recently brought in a new web director that Kimberly was supposed to report to — a move that didn’t sit well with her.
Kimberly had discreetly talked to a former coworker about the situation to get a read. “My colleague told me she had also struggled in the beginning with our boss,” she recalls. “In the end, I realized that she didn’t understand how much time certain tasks took to complete. And I didn’t do a good job communicating that to her. It went both ways.”
Once she was let go, Kimberly wasted no time in reaching out to her network. She emailed a former supervisor from an internship as well as people who worked at the local chapter of an industry body where she used to volunteer. “I asked for job-seeking advice; I asked for informational interviews; I wanted to let them know I was looking,” she says.
Kimberly also got in in touch with a former professor who’d helped her get the job in the first place. “I said, ‘I’m not sure how quickly word travels, but I wanted to let you know what happened, and to thank you for helping me get this experience.’ My professor emailed me back right away and asked, ‘How can I help?’”
In addition, she got to work on her cover letter. “I positioned myself as someone who wanted to transition from agency work to corporate PR,” she says. “That way I was able to talk about what I wanted next, rather than my previous job.”
To get ready for interviews, Kimberly prepared “two scripts” for different scenarios. “If it never came up, my plan was to talk about the transition I wanted to make,” she says. “If it did come up, I planned to say that there had been a change in management — which was true — and that there was no longer a need for me.”
Kimberly says she was able to stay positive because she never lost momentum. “I was always making calls, sending emails, sending applications, and networking,” she says. “I felt productive, and that kept me going.”
With help from her former professor, Kimberly landed a new position only three weeks after she’d been fired. She is much happier at her new company. “No matter how upset I was about what happened, I don’t regret that job. I learned a lot from the experience.”
Case Study #2: Reflect on what you learned from the experience and pace yourself in the early days of networking
Derrick Meade* had worked as a vice president of product for an ad tech group for about a year before the company was sold to a private equity firm. Not long after that, Derrick was fired.
“I didn’t spend a lot of time ruminating on the reason why,” he says. “I was eager to turn the page.”
That said, he did think about what he learned from the experience — both about himself and what he wanted out of his career. “When I was hired, the company said it had a desire to shift its strategy toward mobile and digital. But many people didn’t want to change, which created an unsavory political climate,” he says. “I promised myself that in future hiring situations, I would spend more time exploring the company’s commitment to change before I committed to the company.”
Derrick says that in the first few weeks after he was fired, he focused mainly on “informal networking” over beers. “I made a list of friends, former bosses and colleagues, and close acquaintances, and I worked my way methodically down the list,” he says. “I was able to be more candid with those people because they asked about my situation from a place of care and concern.”
Talking to friends who “had [his] back,” helped him get over any residual anger he felt toward his previous employer. “We spent time talking about opportunities that were out there for people like me. As a result, I got better at talking about what I’m interested in. I sharpened my interview skills before I was actually doing any interviews. And my network provided me with many job leads and introductions.”
Those early conversations also helped him create a “credible story” about his current circumstances. When he eventually found himself in interviews with headhunters and hiring managers, he had a story to tell. “My framing was this: ‘The company was sold and the new private equity firm had a different view of where the company should go.’ I wanted to get across that this wasn’t necessarily a bad outcome for me.”
Within two months, Derrick had interviewed for several jobs. “Very few interviewers wanted to dwell on the reasons why I was no longer at my prior company,” he says. “It wasn’t until I became a serious candidate that my prospective boss needed to poke a little to understand why I was where I was.”
When that time came, Derrick was confident and self-assured. “I wasn’t nervous about talking about it. I was very clear in my answer, which helped me sell my story.”
He found a new job within three months.
* Names have been changed
Rebecca Knight is a freelance journalist in Boston and a lecturer at Wesleyan University.