April 17, 2012 at 1:49 PM

How Do I Tell People I was Fired?

"When your job application asks your reason for leaving, you need to come up with a neutral – and truthful – explanation..."

By Patty Armstrong

Where’s My Great Career?

Patty Armstrong is a career counselor and educator on a mission to help people of all ages find careers they enjoy.

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Being fired is a mortifying experience. I know. I’ve been fired twice. The first time was because I was too embarrassed to tell anyone why I was making mistakes. I was young. My mother told me to go back to my boss, explain what happened and ask for my job back. I followed her instructions and it worked. (Thanks, Mom.)

But when I was fired as a mature professional, after more than 13 roller coaster years at a crazy and wonderful place, I was furious. How dare that dysfunctional jerk, that incompetent poser of a new, executive director who ordered my friend and mentor to dump me, take away my income, my health insurance, put my food and housing at risk and jeopardize my well-cultivated professional reputation in the community because I could see that the threatened emperor had no clothes?! (It was such a profound experience that I can still access those feelings after 14 years!)

You can tell your family and friends – and your job counselor. But your rage, however justifiable, needs to be contained and you need to work at letting it go as you search for new work. A negative or excusing attitude will get you passed over to another candidate without baggage.

When your job application asks your reason for leaving, you need to come up with a neutral – and truthful – explanation that answers the question and gives no hint of the turmoil of your departure. In my case, I said someone with more seniority was given the position after his project ended. Completely true, and employers didn’t ask further.

Despite your best intentions, as your job search drags out the rage still festers -- and the shame. Most people, especially good and conscientious workers, feel extremely embarrassed and are afraid that this one bad experience will label and follow them for life. True, your immediate circle of colleagues may find out and may not be sure whether they can support you, especially if they need to keep their job with the same employer. So you will probably have to expand your search and networking to employers outside of your immediate circle of connections.

You may also want to consider whether this is the time to re-career and find a new direction. After a couple frustrating months of searching in a good job market, I started working with career counselors to improve my self-marketing and broaden my search. My job club leader eventually helped me get a job in a field that used many of my old social work and youth work skills; career development facilitation.

It didn’t take me long to realize that my old boss did me a great favor, shoving me out of a place I needed to leave anyway and launching me on the career path that I have loved ever since. Soon, I started telling clients who’d been fired that I’d been fired, too. It became one of my assets, giving me credibility to help others let go and move on.

So, no. Don’t tell potential new employers that you’ve been fired. There’s usually a neutral answer that will fill in that tiny blank on the job application form, and you wouldn’t want to use the boss who fired you as a reference anyway. But you might want to consider telling other folks who’ve been fired that you were too, to help them get over it, to let go of the rage and shame and move on to even better things.

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