There are several articles out there about how to deal with being fired from a previous job when you’re in a job interview. But what if you’re weren’t technically fired? That’s what today’s reader question is all about:
Hi Sharlyn. I love your blog. You share insights into HR best practices with intelligence, practicality and kindness. Good stuff, especially for those of us not in the profession.
My question for you is this: I recently was forced out of a position and am now job hunting. I was not fired; I left of my own volition, but it was clear my boss wanted me to go. It got very rough and I was having panic attacks. It’s best that I’ve moved on and I’m being pretty successful at looking at this as a learning experience.
One question I have difficulty navigating in interviews is why I left. Best practices say that you should never trash talk a former employer and I wholeheartedly agree. Recently, I was grilled during a phone screening by a VP HR where he clearly was not satisfied with my responses. (My tactic has been to focus on what I’m looking for, to keep the tone positive, and to keep the emphasis on my next steps.) He kept pressing me until I ran out of things to say and simply had to tell him I didn’t have anything else to add. Far from a winning response, but I really did not want to talk about the toxicity of my former workplace.
Do you have any suggestions on how to deal with this in the future? I don’t want to lie about leaving for family reasons or any other manufactured response. I’ll never regret working for my former employer, although I’m glad I moved on. While it was a difficult situation, I was paid well for the hard work I did, gained valuable experience and made new contacts and friends. I’d really appreciate any suggestions you might have.
First off, this is not an unusual situation. In my experience, plenty of people are given the option to resign their position because things are just not working out. The employee knows it and the company knows it. Both parties accept responsibility for the disconnect. Neither want to get into a fight because the business world is just too small.
To offer some insight about the best way to respond, I reached out to friends Lisa Rangel and Chris Fields. Lisa is president of Chameleon Resumes and a LinkedIn Job Seeker Premium Group Moderator. Chris is a human resources consultant and expert resume writer.
Chris and Lisa, should the candidate tell a prospective employer when they’ve been forced out? If so, why?
[Chris] Yes, but be tactful. Say things like ‘I stepped down because I was not comfortable with the direction the company was headed in.’ or ‘I resigned for personal family reasons.’ also ‘I decided it was time for me to make a change in career.’
[Lisa] I think the first approach the reader used, the diplomatic, keep-it-positive approach is a sound one. Some interviewers will not go further than that initial question. If the messy information is offered from the beginning of the questioning, it can come across defensive and give off the impression that there really IS more to the story.
If a candidate shares that they weren’t a good fit for a past position, employers could think the candidate isn’t a team player or worse. What should a candidate keep in mind when they share details about situations where they’ve been fired, reprimanded, disciplined, or asked to leave?
[Lisa] Every candidate should keep in mind that a hiring manager/recruiter goes into the interview with the following perspective: Everything a candidate says is one side of the story. With every story there are two sides of the story and somewhere in the middle is the truth. Additionally, knowing this fact, an interview is a test on how you handle diplomacy, communicating conflict, and respecting coworkers, no matter who is right/wrong in a situation. It is from these mindsets, that a candidate should communicate information pertaining to the job release.
With that said, never communicate information from the perspective that you are right and they are wrong. I suggest communicating the information in a way a police officer gives a public update—just the objective facts with emotion and interpretation removed from the description of the events. Think ‘Just The Facts’ when describing what happened.
Here are diplomatic and not-so diplomatic examples of how to answer the ‘What happened at your last employer that caused you to not work there anymore?’
Diplomatic Answer: “My manager and I often discussed different ways of approaching a situation. I executed the decision in the way he saw fit, even though I disagreed. I learned from the situation how to still support someone that I did not agree with to present a unified departmental front. Ultimately, we decided to part ways where he could find someone in alignment with his approach and I could find a work situation that was more in alignment with what I needed over the long-term.”
Not-so diplomatic answer: “My manager and I often discussed different ways to approach a situation. I did my best to see his side of things, but ultimately, it was tough to continue to support his way of thinking when I consistently disagreed. He decided that we should part ways where we could each find opportunities that were more in alignment with what we needed.”
The second option is not abrasive or angry, but it is more emotional and personal, with a twinge of defensiveness. If I were a hiring manager, I would want to delve a little more into that answer. The first one acknowledges a conflict occurred and how the person accepted it and worked through it in the short term. The first answer seems more mature in nature and less dramatic.
I know candidates don’t want to trash talk a former employer. But let’s face it – some employers are just downright awful. How can a candidate convey that working conditions were less than ideal without speaking negatively about their past employers?
Bad companies have bad reputations and that stuff travels fast through the community. Often times a perspective employer has already heard about the problems at another company and they understand why you are leaving. One more piece of advice here, if the interviewer says something like ‘I hear that is a terrible place to work!’ you can say, ‘Well it definitely had its challenges.’
In this note, the reader mentions “running out of things to say” when pressed during the phone screening. Should a candidate bring this up in their post-interview follow-up? If so, what tips can you offer for explaining the situation?
[Lisa] For any problem situation you have in your background, i.e. a client lost, a difficult boss, an unexpected market turn, or failed project, make a list of what you learned about business, about yourself or about how to handle things differently for each of those challenges. Acknowledging it was difficult, but outlining how you learned from it will satisfy most hiring managers and will prevent you from running out of things to say. However, if a hiring manager seems overly focused on getting the dirt from you, I suggest choosing simply to not play that game and realize that may not be the right company for you. If they are gossiping during the interview, they will most likely be a gossip culture on the job…stay away!
[Chris] Something tells me that VP of HR is savvy and was looking for a specific answer which is why they pressed the candidate. This is tricky because you are not sure if the interviewer just wants you to be honest with them, or if they are checking to see if you will dog (bad mouth) your employer.
So what do you say, if you are running out of answers? I would simply say, point blank, ‘I prefer to stay positive about the situation and would like to show them professional courtesy, obviously it was not the best situation and that’s why I am looking for better opportunities.’ And if they continue to press you I would politely say, ‘It’s not my intention to bad mouth my former employer, we had a good run but it was time for me to move on.’
Last question, the reader didn’t ask this but when an employee is faced with a situation where they are being asked to resign, is there anything they should do to help their future job search opportunities (i.e. ask for a reference, etc.)?
[Chris] If you’re negotiating a separation package or exit strategy, I would suggest asking for a non-disclosure agreement so the reason for the resignation never comes out. This way the employee can create the narrative that best fits them as they look for new work.
[Lisa] Proactively seek out references from indirect managers, key project leaders, clients, vendors, prior employers, etc…shore up supporters proactively to verbally endorse your performance. Acquire LinkedIn recommendations from these same individuals as well, early on, so you always have the documentation online. Additionally, document your achievements and speak to your accomplishments specifically and confidently. Your confidence in conveying your work will go a long way with a hiring manager.
My thanks to Chris and Lisa for sharing their knowledge and expertise with us. If you want to get more of their advice, be sure to follow @LisaRangel and @New_Resource on Twitter. Chris and Lisa offer lots of tips to job seekers. Always good info to have and share.
Image courtesy of HR Bartender3