“I don’t know how to answer ‘Why were you terminated?’”

Question: I was unfortunate to receive a termination letter from my company. In spite of working very long for them, with a completely clean record, I was not given any chance to appeal their decision. 

I am trying to apply to the same field but I fear having an interview. I am not sure what answer I can give them when they ask me “Why were you terminated after 13 years of service in a very large company?”

Manila, Philippines

Answer: Dear Jaemond, The anxiety you feel about what to say in an interview is extremely common. Here’s a few thoughts that I hope will help:

a. If you were given a reason, and it is not hurtful, simply tell the truth. For example, if you worked in the company’s corporate headquarters, and they were moving the headquarters to Norway, that would be a fine reason to explain your departure.

b. If you were given a reason, and it is hurtful – such as an allegation of misconduct – you face something of an ethical dilemma. In this circumstance, the significant issue is this: Do you agree that the reason offered is the REAL reason? Don’t forget – sometimes people make mistakes; many people are arrested for crimes and are found “not guilty.” Sometimes employers – just like us all – make mistakes, or even do things intentionally hurtful to good people.

If you have good reason to believe the “hurtful” reason is not the “real” reason – such as when a person is either scapegoated for someone else’s “sins,” or is the only person against whom a rule is selectively enforced – I think you may be entirely justified in responding, “Personality conflict with a new supervisor,” or “New captain of our department decided to bring in her own ‘crew,’ and the rest of us ‘walked the plank.’”

c. If you were not given a reason by your employer, don’t be afraid to say just that. From your letter, I can’t tell if you were given a reason for your termination. Most people are not; most employers do not offer a reason. If this is the case, don’t be afraid to say so. And don’t be afraid to say, right after that, “but I had a completely clean work record, without any complaints of poor performance or misconduct.”

d. In any event, you might consider stressing the “circumstances” when asked for a “reason.” Imagine the following question and response:  “Why were you terminated?” “It was after a period of very slow sales and position eliminations.” While the answer does not express the reason you were chosen for termination, it surely implies a reason. I think many – if not most – interviewers would accept that as a proper response.

e. Some of our clients ask for a “Departure Statement” for this very reason. We have coined the term “Departure Statement” for this very purpose. We encourage our clients who are asked to depart their employment to ask for a letter – that they offer to draft – that provides a good reason for the employee’s departure. It is not a reference or recommendation, but simply a “reason for departure” that assists the employee during interviews. If you have one of these, at your interviews you can simply take a copy out of your briefcase, and leave it with each interviewer.

To obtain a Model Letter to help you in requesting a “Departure Statement” [click here].

 f. In other circumstances, you may use one of our “25 Neutral Reasons.” For all other circumstances, you might review our list of “Our Top 25 Neutral Reasons to Explain Why You Left Your Old Job” if you [click here]. Many of our blog visitors have found one or more on our list that has suited their purposes. 

Jaemond, with a little effort and forethought to the problem you face, I think you have a good chance of coming up with a very satisfactory solution to your problem, one that should alleviate your anxiety. You know, when a job applicant portrays confidence during an interview, it is very attractive to an interviewer. Being ready for the question you fear should give you that confidence.  Good Luck!!

And, thanks for writing in all the way from Manila. I hope you will share with your friends and colleagues the value of our blogsite to the improvement of your life.  

          Best, Al Sklover   

We offer “50 Good Reasons to Explain Your Last Departure.” To obtain a copy, just [click here.] Delivered Instantly – By Email.

We also offer several helpful Model Letters, Memos and Checklists to help you get a New Job. To review a list of those that are available, just [click here.]

© 2011 Alan L. Sklover, All Rights Reserved.

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