should you say you were fired?

by Ask a Manager on February 1, 2008

A reader writes:

I worked successfully for a year as a “software designer,” but really acted as a project manager/technical writer. After a year, the entire department was shuffled (all but one of the supervisors left), my job duties were switched to actual software design, and I was made responsible for all sorts of technical things I really wasn’t qualified to be making decisions on yet. I knew I was floundering, and so did my brand new supervisor, but nothing was explicitly communicated and before the quarter was out, I was terminated.

I know I can explain to a potential employer that I was a successful project manager and tech writer at my old position, and my old supervisor has agreed to be a reference for me, as I’m aiming for tech writing and administrative positions now. But — how do I get to an interview when job applications ask for the reason for leaving my previous job? I’ve read that I should avoid using negative language like “fired” or “terminated” and should instead say something that sounds neutral, like “involuntary separation.”

I think that sounds like a terrible idea. I’ve heard that “Will explain in interview” is just as bad.

Is a cover letter a good place to explain my situation? Or should I not bring it up at all, as that might rule me out from the get-go? What do you think? What would cause you to give a terminee a shot?

(I am operating with the understanding that the process usually goes as follows: send resume/cover letter, fill out job application, attend series of interviews….) Thanks for any advice you can sling my way!

A good way to explain this is to say that the entire department was reorganized and you left soon after that. You don’t need to explicitly say that you were terminated unless they specifically ask if you were. And if they do, it’s okay to say, “As part of the reorganization, the company moved me from project management and tech writing to software design, which is definitely not my strength, so we ended up mutually agreeing it didn’t make sense for me.” And if they push further and demand to know if it was a firing or not, you can acknowledge that it was, but put a good spin on it — “I’d fire myself too, at software design; it’s not what I do, and I agreed with the decision!” However, many (if not most) interviews won’t even get to that — you’ll explain that there was a reorganization, and many interviewers won’t question it further.

So basically, you wait to see if you even need to get into it. Definitely don’t talk about it in the cover letter or volunteer the info, because you might be able to get away with avoiding it altogether. If you need to fill out an application that asks your reason for leaving the job, simply write “reorganization” (assuming that happened close enough to the time of your departure — like, within a few months that it’s reasonably true).

Good luck!

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HR Wench February 2, 2008 at 9:56 pm

AAM has given excellent advice here as usual. Do not let a termination get you down. Although not everyone admits to it, most people have experienced at least one involuntary termination in their life. People can and do go on to great jobs afterwards. Don’t think you have to go into desparation mode (on the outside or the inside) to get another job.

hank September 27, 2008 at 11:52 pm

Position Eliminated

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