“What do I say when asked in an interview why I’m not at my last employer anymore?”
That, (and variations on it) could be the most frequently-asked question I get – in my office, via email, and at career events. The reason for most people’s uncertainty is, in my observation, because they’re afraid that the truth (laid off, fired, downsized, or a host of other “negatives”) will work against them, but that telling anything other than the truth makes them rightfully uncomfortable.
So is this a rock-and-a-hard-place dilemma? No, it shouldn’t be, simply because the truth can, if you think this through, work in your favor much more powerfully than it can work against you. The key is to handle it right. Here are some examples.
Sonia has a B.A. in Psychology with a minor in Communications, and was planning a career in corporate training. But she had one problem; she graduated in 2011, the third worst year in memory for college graduates entering the workplace. So ten months after graduation – and still no job – she applied for and got hired as a bank teller, not what she envisioned, but a job. Eighteen months later, with only a promotion to Teller II to show for her hard work, she decided to try again to launch her professional career in a vastly improved job market. Her problem now was that she kept hearing that she had teller experience but nothing in training. In a couple of phone screens, she was even asked why she was a teller, given her degree. The nerve! So after a few months of this frustration, she and I sat down to work out her rebuttal.
What did Sonia say after that? The truth. “Look,” she’d reply, “nearly 70 percent of my graduating class didn’t get the jobs we were hoping for.” And then, without hesitation, “But now I will, would love a shot at this training position, and want to tell why I think I’d be a great fit.” Sonia is now a training coordinator, right where she wanted to be, for a year now. She told the truth.
Michael, a rising sales star, was on his way to his second promotion in a couple of years. He had just posted his best quarter ever with the company, got his biggest bonus check to date, and – if that’s not enough – got his best performance review ever. Six weeks later he was fired.
It was a political hack-job, without question, engineered by a couple of people who were jealous of him, one of whom would benefit immediately from him Michael being there. He was blindsided – big time. Life can be unfair and this was proof.
Anyway, the question was, how does he explain this? Of course, you shouldn’t say anything negative about your past employer, but wouldn’t you have loved to in this case? The answer, though, was simple. We decided that he would wait for the “why aren’t you there” question, look at the interviewer with a puzzled look on his face, and say, “I really don’t know. I had the best quarter, biggest bonus, and best performance review ever, but I got walked out. I have no idea why I’m not there.” Not one word of his carefully crafted answer was negative about his employer (although inferences were dripping all over the place); it was all about refocusing the interviewer on Michael’s accomplishments, not his misfortune. That out of the way, he got face-to-face interviews with ten companies, three of which made exceptional offers. Not one interviewer pushed any further on his answer, which was nothing more than the truth.
Kathleen has spent 23 years in human resources, 18 on the strategic HR side, nine with her most recent employer. For the first seven years there, she got strong performance reviews, but the last two years her review was, in her words, “bad, to put it mildly.” Not surprisingly, the dreaded PIPs (performance improvement plans) went into effect, and sure enough, she was out.
OK, how do you handle that? By telling prospective employers that the company was wrong? Or that you disagreed? Maybe even contested it? All this would knock you out of contention for a job as fast as you can say PIP – and it initially did with Kathleen. But truth will prevail, so it’s not a matter of what you say but how you say it. “In a reorganization, I was kept on but my responsibilities were drastically changed. My function was strategic HR. They even outsourced many of the tactical functions (payroll, benefits administration), so I thought they and I were going in the same direction. Then they decided one person in house had to oversee all the contractors as an administrator, and I would be that person. Exactly the opposite direction I wanted to go, and not where my strengths are, but that was the corporate decision, and they followed through.” Once she started telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, it took exactly four weeks for Kathleen to land her next strategic HR position.
So other than the truth being powerful and compelling, the best thing about telling the truth is…you never have to keep track of what you said.
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