What to tell your next employer about the job you were fired from

What to tell your next employer about the job you were fired from

—Name Withheld, Hartsburg, Missouri.

Welcome to a club with thousands upon thousands of members—virtually none of them card-carrying.

After all, who wants to admit: “I was asked to leave because I was in over my head and couldn’t deliver?" Or: “I jumped before I was pushed because my boss and I just couldn’t get along?" Or: “They told me I was never going to be promoted and gave me six months to look around?"

The facts are: irreconcilable differences happen at work all the time, but most people want to act as if they never happen to them. And so, when they get out there in the job market, their impulse is to answer the inevitable “What happened?" question with make-nice mumbo jumbo about bad fit or a burning desire for new challenges.

Now, such “excuses" may have an element of truth to them. Sometimes a boss or company situation is so untenable you just have to get out, and sometimes a job is too small for the person who holds it, or is the wrong skills fit. And, of course, no one wants to burn bridges, so a certain ambiguity around why you left may seem like the only approach.

Most prospective employers, however, hear vague, generic departure stories for what they can be. They hear warning bells that say a candidate is hard to get along with, an inveterate underperformer or a career dilettante.

There is a much better way out of the common hiring bind you find yourself in: full ownership.

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b0551258-d319-11dd-9a5c-000b5dabf636.flvYou need to say, “Here’s why I left and here’s how I was responsible for the breach." Don’t pass blame. And, just as important, don’t play the victim. You need to say, “Here’s what I learnt from the experience that will make me a better employee for you." Make no mistake. We’re not suggesting you pour out every detail of your job implosion. We’re just promoting a perhaps counterintuitive level of specificity.

We have a friend who, after 12 years with the same company, was asked to move on because he couldn’t deal effectively with direct reports who weren’t delivering. Additionally, he just couldn’t cut costs in his operations, even in the middle of a downturn.

Here’s the interesting twist: Our friend didn’t respond to his firing quite the way you would expect. Most people in his position become defensive and depressed. They enter a state we call the “vortex of defeat", in which lack of self-confidence feeds upon itself in a downward spiral.

By contrast, our friend took full accountability for what occurred. He told prospective employers, “I’m sitting here with you because I didn’t have the guts to move out employees who couldn’t meet their numbers and I tweaked costs instead of taking the full-bore approach that was necessary. But I can assure you, those mistakes won’t happen again. Let me prove it to you."

Within weeks, someone did.

And chances are someone will for you too—with full ownership. Granted, your “history" will not vanish. It is risky to hire someone who, for all intents and purposes, was fired. Worse, it’s hard to explain upstairs! But your candour and self-awareness will be the counterbalance. Maybe not on your first job interview, but eventually—when you bump into one of the legions of people who have been there, just like you.

Q: What do you think of executive search consultants?

—Bill Bryan, New York

Ideally, a company has a training programme, consistent coaching and succession planning. As a result, it primarily promotes from within. What better way to give employees a sense of opportunity, not to mention to foster speedier, more successful job transitions?

Reality, of course, doesn’t work that way.

Many companies consider management development more of a chore than the priority it should be. Still other companies just don’t have enough talent. They’re expanding into new businesses where they have no expertise, or they’re too small to have a bench or their boards have been sleeping and can't come up with a slate of internal chief executive candidates.

And so it happens. They need help looking for help. That’s why executive search consultants exist. Yes, they are expensive, slow down the hiring process and can too easily become a crutch. And, yes, internal promotions should always be the first line of defence.

But given the competitiveness of business today, there’s no reason to give up a good offence too. Executive search consultants can give you just that.


Write to Jack & Suzy

Jack and Suzy are eager to hear about your career dilemmas and challenges at work, and look forward to answering some of your questions in future columns. Jack and Suzy Welch are the authors of the international best-seller, Winning. Campaign readers can email them questions at winning@livemint.com Please include your name, occupation and city. Only select questions will be answered.