How to Explain Past Terminations to Hiring Managers

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With an economy entering recovery mode, the job market can start to hire back millions of recently laid-off employees.   

Candidates need to prove themselves capable and motivated throughout the application process. That can be especially difficult to do when your employment record may include a recent termination.

To find out how to handle explaining past terminations to hiring managers, we asked Aerotek Account Manager Peter Tu for advice. He has regular conversations with dozens of employers, and knows what they do and don’t want to hear during a job interview.

Tu recommends the following:

Keep your cool

When the job market is competitive, candidates tend to become overeager. They promise the moon and stars. They explain potential issues that nobody asked them to explain. 

This perfectly understandable side effect of needing a job can work against you. 

“When a hiring manager senses desperation,” says Tu, “they’re likely to either pass on you or bring you in to perform menial tasks nobody else wants to do.” 

Confidence will always help you in a job interview setting. Take a few deep breaths, try to stay calm and enter into every discussion in a relaxed state of mind. 

And if you have a past termination to explain, wait for your prospective employer to bring it up.

Be honest, professional and accountable

If and when a job interview brings up a position you were fired from, be ready with an honest, professional response that focuses more on your actions than who did what to whom. 

No matter the exact circumstances of your past termination, says Tu, “Hiring managers need to see that you’ve at least accepted the fact that you were terminated.” 

Phrase your initial explanation as a statement about what you did rather than what happened to you.

Try the following:

  • “I had difficulty seeing eye to eye with my manager” instead of “my manager was difficult”
  • “I struggled to arrive on time” instead of “their attendance policy was too strict”
  • “I had ethical concerns about the business” instead of “they were horrible”

Keep in mind that hiring managers will call past employers for a reference check. And although best practice for past employers is to only confirm position held and dates of employment, your honesty would proactively address your perspective should a past employer disclose that your termination was not on the best terms. 

Emphasize the positive

Remember that your termination is in the past, and prospective employers will be hiring who you are now. 

Hiring managers want to bring on people who treat setbacks as opportunities for growth. So along with your honest, professional and accountable description of your termination, you’ll also want to highlight the positive. 

Talk about what you learned, what you’ve done to address the underlying issue, and how you’ve grown as an employee and a person. There’s always a positive side you can emphasize.

“Even if the truth is that you were fired for being late every day,” says Tu, “talk about how you learned from that experience, and how you changed your habits and priorities to streamline your schedule.”

Lean on your recruiter

Due to their relationship as an intermediary for employers, your recruiter knows more about the qualities of an ideal candidate than you can find out on your own from a job posting.

A good recruiting partner can use that insider knowledge to help you explain past terminations in two key ways: 

  1. They can coach you on interview techniques such as how to highlight qualities — such as confidence, honesty, accountability, professionalism and positivity — that are most valued by the individual hiring manager for each position
  2. They can guide you to apply to positions that are the best possible fit for your background

“When you lean on a recruiter, you can tell that person who you are and the real, unfiltered reasons for your termination,” says Tu. “And we can use that information to put you in a position to succeed.”

Most of all, don’t get down on yourself. 

Just remember that you’re worth it, and you wouldn’t thrive somewhere that couldn’t accept your value as an employee. Be diligent and determined. Keep on practicing honesty, professionalism, accountability and positivity. The rest will take care of itself.

And if panic sets in, try your best to stay calm and, as Tu says, “Remember that hiring managers are people too, and they understand what you’re going through.”

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