answering “have you ever been fired?” in an interview

A reader writes:

I was in a job interview the other day and everything was going well, until I was asked if I had ever been fired, and if so what were the reasons. Having never been asked that question before, my initial reaction was to feel that my privacy was being invaded and that this was an inappropriate question. Additionally, I was asked to sign a statement that I had not answered this question honestly, or it would be used as a reason for dismissal.

Since that interview, I have learned that this is a common question. The idea behind that question is that whatever happened before will happen again. (This was also said in the interview and not “may,” but “will.”)

I was indeed fired from a job about 10 years ago. I did the job well, I contributed to the organization, but my relationship with my supervisor was not good (this really can happen). Since then I ensure that I do both — I do the job well and work at my working relationships.

So my question is, how can I answer this question honestly? Is it a trick question?

It’s not a trick question. It’s exactly what it seems to be — a genuine desire to know if you have ever been fired before and, if so, why. If you put yourself in the employer’s shoes, you’ll probably understand why an interviewer would want to know this. It’s not that no one who has been fired could ever be the right fit at a different job — but it certainly does provide useful information about problems that the candidate has run into in the past (even if only personality conflicts). And perhaps most importantly, there’s a lot to be gleaned from the way the candidate discusses it now. Do they just seem bitter and angry about it? Have they learned from the experience? How has it changed how they conduct business? And so forth.

It’s hard to tell you how you yourself should answer this question without knowing more specifics, but one option might be talking about how you ended up in that situation, what you learned from it, and what you do differently now as a result.

{ 21 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    10 years ago is a long time. If you have good references and a solid work history since that job, I can’t imagine it would be a deal breaker. I would try to find out exactly what information is being released about your termination by the company. Chances are pretty good your supervisor isn’t there anymore so a potential employer may only be able to get basic info. My company only gives last title and dates of employment – nothing more.

    I was in a similar situation to yours and had the same problem while interviewing for other jobs. It turned out that “Have you ever been terminated or asked to resign?” is a very common question. When I first started interviewing I was bitter about it and I’m sure it showed. After I made peace with it and acknowledged to myself that I screwed up, I was able to calmly discuss it in interviews. I discussed it in about 15 or so interviews and only had one person really push hard for more details (and we didn’t hit it off in general). I carefully rehearsed my answer but found that how I said it was much more important than what I said.

  2. Rachel - I Hate HR*

    This is like the “what are your weaknesses” question.

    Answer it honestly. Don’t tell the worst of it. Tell how you’ve changed.

  3. P-NUT*

    This question is easier to answer if the reason one was fired was circumstantial and not related to performance or integrity. However, its a great opportunity to showcase ones character by answering it honestly, focussing on how it has changed you / your perspectives for the better. There is no telling how the interviewer will react but if they dont appreciate your response then its probably not where you want to work anyway.

  4. Rick*

    I agree with the tenor of the post and comments here. I’ve been fired. It wasn’t fun, but most prospective employers want to know two things:

    * How and what have you learned from the experience?
    * Judging by how you address the firing, have you put it behind you and moved on?

  5. Anonymous*

    10 years is a long time. How about 2 months ago, without warning, after working 9 days on the job? And how about this: if you are wrongfully terminated (have the evidence of such, had an adjudicator from the state determine as much), when you are then asked what was learned from the firing, you can't honestly tell them much of anything because any lessons learned (after making peace with it) will be a hit against your chances to get hired. I've discussed this concern during a potential future interview with many friends and there's no question: the answer to this difficult question really depends on how much you know about what they know and experienced with wrongful terminations in their past. Unfortunately, there's a lot you don't know, will never know, and don't want to know about this topic, and while lots of people experience firings, very few have experienced every which way it can go down.

    1. Anonymous*

      If you were on the job for 9 days I wouldn’t mention it. That was a release because the job wasn’t a good fit. Most jobs have a three to six months trial period and if it doesn’t work out you are released.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        There isn’t a real difference between released and fired, but I really don’t think you need to mention a job you did for nine days. Erase it from your mind!

  6. Anonymous*

    I was wrongfully terminated 3 months ago. I filed my claim with the Commission on Human Rights. I was the HR Manager with an organization and refused to violate employment law and for that I was retaliated against by being terminated. I am also pursing my claim through state and federal court. I am a professional in my field. Part of my job description was to abide by employment law. I refused to go against the law, by professional ethics and the rights of the employees. What the organization did not realize, I was also protecting them against lawsuits that employees can file against them when they violate the law. They are finding that out now. I am searching for a new job while pursing my case. I don't intend to mention my case in an interview. I will mention briefly what happened, there is not much I could do differently. I will answer any questions the prospective employer may ask from there. An HR Manager knows how important employment law is and the cost of violating it. They should understand my position.

  7. P-NUT*

    Its avoidable information to share. I think you dont volunteer such information. Dont lie if asked but certainly share this information strictly on a need to know basis.

  8. Que*

    I was a successful manager for 15 years. I was fired because I made the mistake of trusting someone. That person committed a malice act that cost the company thousands, under my login. Throughout my career if you talked to any of my supervisors they will tell you that I am a trustworthy, loyal and dedicated worker, including the one who reluctantly let me go. This one mistake has tarnished my reputation. Right after I went on several interviews, and when asked the question, I was honest, and told them what I had learned. I was even a little emotional because it was new and the person I trusted was a mentor of mine and her act changed me and my family's lives. Needless to say, I was not hired and have been on unemployment for a year and 2 months. I have since been attending school for a career change and pray that when I look for a job after graduation that the same thing does not happen. I will continue to be honest if asked the question because it is the right thing to do.

    1. Anonymous*

      Well I personally think that’s all one can do, But you still did’nt just lay down and feel sorry for youself. No, you went back to school not a bad thing to do wou’t you agree (say yes,smile) Anyway Good Luck.

  9. Philip Moseman*

    I have been fired for various reasons: coming in late to work, not shaving, taking money and food, sleeping, harassing coworkers, bad mouthing customers, infuriating the boss, being incompetent and slow.
    What have I learned?
    You pay me to do a job. Why ask me to lie and sign my name because you fail to see my nature. The name on that paper is a tool and the sooner this interview is over and you get out of my face the quicker I can get home and sit on the couch in the midst of a self-loathing money worshipping slack-happy society.
    You want the truth about as much as a worm wants hot cocoa. You just want to perceive myself as part of the room we are in, a stain on your shoe that cleans off easily. A model airplane in your likeness.

  10. Anonymous*

    Right out of college I was fired after two weeks at a nation wide company. It just wasn’t a good fit. I did not have the skills this company needed. In time I became a career temp. Seven years after getting fired I was assigned to do a temp job at this company in another city. Well guess what? Not knowing my history, they wanted to hire me permanently. I told them that I didn’t think I’d be eligible because I was a former employee who had gotten fired. They didn’t care–they asked me my maiden name and went back and pulled up my old employee number and put me on the payroll. I was with that company for five years.

  11. Anonymous*

    I had an ambiguous termination about 2 years ago. First off, the company I worked for was not managed well. It was a small law firm and the office manager was basically a child with an ego issue (I’m not resentful its just true). She behaved in a very immature fashion and I was currently job searching because I knew this was not the place for me. Anyways, the office manager did not like me because I wasn’t playing to her game like she wanted. I’m going to behave professionally even if my coworkers won’t was my general mantra each day.

    Anyways, I messed up on something small. A client didn’t disclose they had an additional bank account and we were handling their tax liabilities and an additional bank account would make a difference when you’re being audited. So once I discovered this I brought it to my boss’s attention. It was in no way my responsibility to vet the clients and get all their information. I was a number pusher and had a mainly administrative job where I filed things and would go through bank statements and place them in Excel. Once I told my boss the client had an additional unheard of bank account it was all of a sudden my fault that I hadn’t known about it… this is ridiculous, it was never my job to know this kind of stuff.
    So we discussed it and my boss determined that he was in fact in the wrong. Well, the next day, I was called into the office manager’s office and she told me I needed to be let go because the client was upset that we hadn’t had all the information and someone had to take the blame and it couldn’t be the head attorney… They said they would provide me with good references and hope I find work soon etc. Well, later when I’m applying for unemployment with the DOL they claim I was terminated so they wouldn’t have to pay (I found out later they were having serious money problems and since have closed for business). The DOL sided in my favor and I received unemployment. I don’t answer that I was terminated and just say that the company was closing and has since closed because of mismanagement of funds. It may be bending the truth a little, but I’m not comfortable going into detail about the immature office manager and everything that occurred to cause my being “let go/terminated”.

    1. Lawyer*

      I worked at a firm where the boss was egotistical and wanted to micromanage. I was yelled at and belittled frequently. Boss hired on a new partner, who was basically his mini-me and had his own issues. After new partner was there for a month, the boss fired me because apparently neither of them could trust my work. I say on applications that my position was terminated, because there are/were no plans to replace me. The boss frequently said he wasn’t getting enough money in, so I believe it was partially motivated because I wasn’t working on the billable cases, I was given the long-term flat fee cases that weren’t profitable. In interviews, I say there were personnel changes and that it just wasn’t a good fit. I don’t consider it a lie because there were personnel changes, it wasn’t a good fit, it appeared to be financial. I don’t see the need to volunteer details about the specific circumstances. Why are so many horror stories at law firms? Why can’t lawyers just play nice?

  12. Gail*

    Hasn’t everyone been fired? I would imagine that the interviewer has also been fired.

  13. Ljane*

    I worked for Wal-Mart and I was a customer service manager. I was on door duty as I had been injured. A lady came through the doors and set off the alarm I asked if I could run a wand on the out side of her bag and she agreed. I did so, it beeped I asked if she had anything in there she said yes pulled some stuff out I asked if she had a receipt. she said it was from another store and her receipt was in her car. I asked her to get it. she left and drove away. Now the cameras and my cashiers all saw this happen. I was fired because Wal-Mart said they saw me on camera going through her bag with my hands!! when I asked to see the video I was denied. So when asked about this situation what do I say? (oh and I received unemployment also)

  14. Phylicia*

    I was fired last month. It was a seasonal job at first. I was hired variable labor which means I have to go on the computer to find hours. I was told when I got the job that we had to have 16 weekday hours and 16 weekend hours but if the hours weren’t there to not worry about it. When I started getting letters stating I missed my commitments I called numerous the numbers on the letter an asked if I could be granted two required days. I even wrote down the time, dates and how long the call lasted just in case. They never returned any of my calls. I was fired because I didn’t get all my commitments in. I filed for unemployment but was denied because they said it was misconduct. I wonder how, when I went to them and asked for required days (which my hiring class and one other did not receive a required day, but all others got at least one). How do I explain this? Also does this sound like misconduct, if I reached out to them to help as they said in the letter they would.

  15. Serin*

    What I particularly hate is when “Have you ever been fired?” is one of the required questions for an online application — all the potential downsides, none of the opportunities to talk about the circumstances!

    On the other hand, I complained about this to some of my co-workers, and they said, “You’ve only been fired ONCE?”

  16. Gail*

    I’ve been fired probably more than the rest of you put together. I was hired at a large company when I was just out of college. I didn’t catch on fast enough I was told. I didn’t either. I had just turned 21 and had great aspirations of going far with this company but I couldn’t learn my job. I was too scared to ask questions and did not learn the job. Seven years later I was in another city and a temporary service sent me to work for this company again. I was married and had a different last name. After working there three weeks I told they wanted to hire someone to do the work I was doing and asked if I would be interested. I told them I didn’t know if I were eligible because I had worked for the company seven years ago in another city and had been fired. I was told that didn’t matter, so I hired on with the company. Everybody gets fired. Chances are even the person you interview with has been fired at one time or another.

  17. Anonymous*

    I think you might want to carefully consider what happens when you put information into an online application. First of all, you want to be aware that anything you say on the Internet is now “out there” and not just for a little while. Forever.

    I’m not familiar with applicant portals, but would suspect that valuable information can be exchanged, perhaps even in a special code language, between various companies that collect applicant information.

    You have now been warned.

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