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How to Tell an Interviewer You Were Fired? Spin to Win

The interview is going splendidly. You seem to have exactly the background they're looking for. You've built a good rapport with your interviewers, and you have a good feeling about the corporate culture. Then comes the question you've been dreading. "Why did you leave your last job?" The short answer is that you were fired. To this day, it still hurts to even think about it. But you have to answer the question. Your challenge lies in how to "spin" the answer to avoid coming off as a whiner.

Tempting as it may be, you know you can't lie because, as interviewing expert Michael Neece says, "Experienced interviewers have well-developed BS detectors."

The truth is: Your old employer let you go because you and your boss didn't see things eye to eye. It was a case of mutual frustration, and in the end, they felt you were the expendable one.

This is where the concept of "spin" comes in handy. Put simply, "spin" is a way of explaining something negative so that it enhances, rather than detracts from, your objectives.

So, pretend you're a hiring manager and you've just asked the candidate: "Why did you leave your last job?" Below are two possible answers. Notice how the first sounds negative, emotional, and whiny, while the second sounds positive, factual, and professional. That's the wonderful world of spin.

Negative, Emotional, Whiny

It was a really hard job, and I got a new manager who didn't really like me. I was doing my best but he just kept criticizing my work. The frustration kept mounting and he knew it, but did he do anything about it? Nope. Then the business had a bad quarter, so all departments had to make budget cuts. He took the easy way out and canned me.

See how this lays most of the blame on the boss? Note especially the phrases "didn't really like me" and "took the easy way out." It doesn't say how the job seeker might have been proactive and tried to correct the situation. Such a negative answer might leave the hiring manager seeing this person as a malcontent who likes to complain.

Here's the answer with the positive spin:

Positive, Factual, Professional

Well, I worked very hard at the job I was doing and I was working with a new manager. I checked in with him every couple days to be sure I was meeting his expectations and that we were on the same page. But it seemed that objectives for me and my department were never well defined. One day, not long after the quarterly revenue reports showed companywide losses and management had ordered each department to make budget cuts, he pulled me into his office and told me things weren't working out, so the company was letting me go. I was upset, of course, but as it turned out, the time off has allowed me to assess what happened, what kind of company I want to work for, and what I needed to change within myself to achieve success going forward.

In this example, the job seeker doesn't disparage the ex-boss, and recounts the firing through the use of objective facts (" … he pulled me into his office and told me things weren't working out, so the company was letting me go … "). Then it gets better. The job seeker explains how he looked within himself during the time out of work to make personal improvements that would apply in future professional roles.

The Lesson

When you're presenting your credentials to a would-be employer, you are your own salesperson. You need to emphasize the positive stuff and minimize the negative as a way to stay on your chief message: that you are the one who can solve the hiring manager's problems.

If you can put a positive spin on an otherwise negative answer, the employer just might conclude that you not only have the right skills, you have a positive attitude, which is something just about every organization wants throughout its ranks.

Have you handled a similar situation in your work life? Tell us about it!

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