How to answer ‘Why were you fired?’ in an interview

Have you just had the sack from a company? What do you do about it? What are you going to say to the interviewer when they ask you, “Why were you fired?”.

You could obviously circumvent the problem by just lying on your application form but you will get caught and the consequences can be far more severe than just getting the sack again. Depending upon the employer and the nature of the job, you may even be prosecuted – and don’t think that can’t happen, it already has.

The only thing to do with fear is to confront it head on. You need to grasp the nettle and decide that you are going to tell the interviewer the truth although the way in which you do it is key.

The first step towards recovering from getting fired is by asking your employer for a written reason for your dismissal. If you have had one year or more of continuous service your former employer is obliged to provide one on request. Note that on request does not mean automatically – you have to ask, either in writing or over the phone. They also have 14 days to provide it in so ask for it the second you know you’re going.

When you’ve cooled off and are sitting at home, think about your former colleagues and especially the more senior ones. If you feel you can, give them a call and ask them if they would be prepared to say anything favourable about you to a new company. Make it clear to them that they will only be approached informally by another organisation (and NOT a tribunal) and they will only be asked about what they have directly observed. If you don’t do that they will almost certainly cry off in the fear of being dragged into some legal proceedings which will only get them into deep trouble.

Then, if you can, get someone you know and trust to grill you as if they were an interviewer.

They need to address:

If you were dismissed for poor performance

  • Why did you fail to achieve the level or standard required?
  • Did your colleagues manage to attain it?
  • What was different about you?
  • What specifically did you have to do?
  • If you are likely to be doing the same sort of work, what assistance or training will you need to prevent a recurrence?
    … and any other relevant questions

If you were dismissed for disciplinary reasons

  • Why were you dismissed?
  • What exactly happened and how often?
  • What is your side of the story?
  • Was anyone else dismissed alongside you?
  • How can this be prevented from recurring?

Your pretend ‘interviewer’ needs to be brutal because only by being so can they really help you. Make notes or, better still, record the session with a webcam and then review it noting where you failed to be convincing. Look also at your body language – is it closed (defensive) or open (honest). Do you keep using the same phrases? Are you pleading too much?
Whatever you do, do not blame your old company unless you have some hard evidence to support it. Your interviewer may well feel so uncomfortable at your bad-mouthing of your former employer that he or she tips them off. You have enough problems without a snotty letter threatening you with slander dropping through the letterbox.

Once you have sorted out your responses, memorise them.

In the interview, try to adopt ‘open’ and ‘frank’ body positioning. If you can, pre-empt the interviewer’s question by saying you’d like to talk about your dismissal. It will give you the upper hand and let you steer the awkward bits in the way that best suits you. Keep cool, no matter how unjust your dismissal was – losing your rag will only serve to increase the interviewer’s doubt regarding the veracity of what you are saying as well as worrying them about your temper.

It is never going to be easy, overcoming a sacking, but it can be done. If you are prepared, professional and polite – the 3P’s – you stand your best chance.

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