Career Development & Management, Pt. 2: Learning from Your Mistakes

Theme: Instead of hiding negative employment experiences, be honest to prospective employers and instead show them that you learned from your mistakes.

Introduction: Growing as an Employee

You can’t deny it: At some point in your career, you were hired for a job that you were not well-suited for. I know I have. Whether that be because you’re not qualified or you don’t fit the organizational culture—it doesn’t matter. The truth is that at some point in your (career-building) life, you will encounter a job that just doesn’t work out. And the outcome will be clear.

Well, has a career counselor, HR expert, or labor lawyer ever told you not to mention a job you were fired or laid off from to prospective employers? That doesn’t sound like a good idea, especially given that 20+ million people were fired or laid off in 2014. What exactly are those 20+ million to do? They simply don’t tell hiring managers and keep it as quiet as possible? What do we do instead?

Sometimes, career-building experts don’t give the best advice

Source: Ric Merrifield & How Trap Consulting

Mike Petras tells us that “There is no cut and dried answer to this question.” There isn’t. Getting fired or laid off is not a positive experience, but you still need to own up to the experience in some way.

Should I not list it on my résumé? Or should I include it but note to the employer that cannot contact the previous employer for a reference? Or should I list it and that they can contact the previous employer? What’s the best decision?

Making the situation even more complicated is the fact that the laws dictating what a previous employer can tell a prospective employer aren’t clean-cut. There are no established federal guidelines, and states vary widely as to what he or she can say.

In this blog entry, we will explore how you can turn negative employment experiences into positive ones. Who knows if (or when) it will happen, so you should always know how to tackle this situation.

Getting Fired or Laid Off: A Tricky Situation

You were fired 3 months ago, and you’ve been unemployed since. You’re lucky that you get unemployment benefits (not everyone does!), but they won’t last forever, nor do you want them to. Additionally, being unemployed has hurt your self-confidence and -esteem; you want to get back to work and get recognized for your talent.

You’ve searched job boards online, applying via Indeed and Monster. The employers want to know your employment history, and you’re honest: You put down the job you were terminated from and that they can contact the hiring manager. Because you were fired for reasons you don’t believe reflect your qualities, you decided to take the chance. But you also think that not listing the person as a reference may raise eyebrows.

You finally arrive at the interview (congratulations for getting there!), and the interviewer asks you either of the following:

  1. I spoke to a previous employer, who told me that you were terminated from the position a short while ago. Can you expand upon that?
  2. Have you ever been terminated or laid off from a position?

You can’t, and absolutely should not, lie. Let’s see how lying turns out for both questions:

  1. I spoke to a previous employer, who told me that you were terminated from the position a short while ago. Can you expand upon that? — “No, I wasn’t fired. I just had to leave the position because of family issues.”
    • Don’t expect to be hired anytime soon by any employer. What kind of employer will hire an employee that lies? How can they trust you won’t lie in their office!?
  2. Have you ever been terminated or laid off from a position? — “No, I wasn’t fired. I just had to leave the position because of family issues.”
    • Even if you decided not to list the hiring manager as someone the prospective employer can contact, who knows if they will conduct a background check? In the end, they’ll find out you’re lying, and you’ll leave an immediate first impression of being “the liar.”

What if the interviewers find out?

Source: Management Action Programs, Inc.

What you can, and should, do is be honest and show the employer that you’ve learned from your mistakes.

Figuring Out How to Handle the Situation: A Framework

No surprise, but interviewing must be strategically executed on both ends. The interviewer is looking for the best candidate and needs to attack the task with wit. The interviewee is looking for the best job fit and wants to show the interviewer that they’re the best fit as well.

This stain can prevent you from moving forward strategically, but use this framework to help you overcome it.

You want to determine if you should or should not include the job and/or the previous employer on your application. Ask yourself the following questions to determine the answer to those two questions:

  1. Would excluding the job display a large employment gap on your résumé?
    • Yes: Include
    • No: Exclude
      • If you’re concerned that even if you exclude it, they will conduct a background check, then include it.
  2. Can I rely that the previous employer, if contacted, will speak negatively on my behalf?
    • Yes: Exclude
    • No: Include
      • If you’re concerned that excluding them will raise eyebrows, then include them.

There will be situations where there will be no clear-cut answer. At a younger age, you may have made a really bad mistake at work. For example, you were a teenager, and you sexually harassed someone at work. What to do:

  • Exclude both of them? — The prospective employer will find out about it.
  • Exclude the previous employer as a reference? — The prospective employer will question your credibility.
  • Include both of them? — The prospective employer will contact the previous employer as a reference.

There may be a career experience with no clear-cut answer

Source: Peaceful Mind Peaceful Life

That’s why I say it’s probably the best to simply exclude those really terrible experiences unless the employment gap reaches more than 1 year.

Still, getting back to our framework: If you reached “No” to question #2, then now you need to figure out how to tell the interviewer if they ask about it.

How to Tell the Truth

You sit down, stare straight at the interviewer for a good 30 minutes, then one of our 2 questions comes up:

  1. I spoke to a previous employer, who told me that you were terminated from the position a short while ago. Can you expand upon that?
  2. Have you ever been terminated or laid off from a position?

How do you answer the question with confidence, ease, and successfully? I’ll show you how with just a couple of examples:

1) You were fired as a student worker while in college for reasons you don’t understand.

  • Don’t: “Well, I was fired, but it’s something that happened in the past. Whatever happened then won’t happen again.”
  • Do: “Well, yes, I, unfortunately, was removed from the position. Perhaps, there was a difference in opinion, but I think what I learned from that difference in opinion is how important camaraderie and honesty are between an employer and employee. If my employer ever said anything that I had doubts about whether it was in the best interest of the company — I should’ve openly approached them and asked their intentions. Having a close relationship is key, where I can openly and honestly ask them what is right and wrong behavior. I learned that, and I’ll bring that mindset to work.”

2) You were fired as a financial analyst 3 months into the job because you repeatedly came late.

  • Don’t: Well, I, unfortunately, did lose my job, but the reasons as to why vary. Regardless of those reasons, I learned from the experience, and anything wrong I did there won’t happen here.
  • Do: I made some critical mistakes as I learned the ways of the workforce; you can see that from my early times as a financial analyst. However, it made me grow up ‘in a day.’ Before getting the job, I suppose I wasn’t ready to work; I needed an experience where I would make a critical mistake. Otherwise, I would never have known what is right and wrong behavior on the job. I learned the true meaning of work ethic. People think work ethic means “working hard.” However, what I learned is that work ethic is not just someone that maintains the same level of hard work each day. It’s someone that shows persistence under stressful conditions, is loyal to the company under duress, is dedicated to his or her work, and believes in the company’s mission. It means more than just working hard. I would never have learned this without working as a financial analyst those 3 months.

3) What if you were fired from…[Insert random job.]?

It’s redundant to provide a third example because the point still remains: You want to show the interviewer that, whatever you did wrong in that position, you’ve “developed” as an employee and are now a more qualified candidate.

Spin the negative experience into a positive one. Tell the interviewer the truth in a way that will show them that you’ve learned something—and tell them exactly what you learned. Don’t just say you “learned” something without being explicit and detailed.

Conclusion: Will This Overcome All the Hurdles?

The truth is: No. Unfortunately, there is still a(n unwarranted and unfair) stigma associated with being fired or laid off, and it will be difficult to overcome them. It’s not the same as the stigma toward pictures on Instagram, doing drugs at some point in your life, or at some point being imprisoned. However, it’s still a potent one. Gina Shaw was so embarrassed to tell people she was fired from her administrative assistant position at age 23.

The labor world has not overcome this glass ceiling yet

Source: Aspen Valley Vapes

Career Trend explains why that stigma exists though: “A firing may act as a red flag to other employers, since you lost your job through some fault of your own.” However, that’s exactly yet another reason being open to prospective employers and telling them the truth is better than keeping your negative employment history hidden.

You didn’t have control over getting fired. And you don’t have control over whether the prospective employer will find out about it. If you try to hide it, you don’t know how or whether he or she will find out. However, if you tell the prospective employer, you take control over the situation. It gives you the confidence to overcome this hurdle.

If you want to take control of the situation and show how much you’ve grown up since getting fired, be honest and see the results. You’ll find that you’ve established a positive psychological relationship between you and the prospective employer. And this one will last much longer than any previous ones.

Published: 09/05/17, 17:50

Last Revised: 09/06/17, 16:17



Statements made about other people or organizations in this blog post are expressly opinion, and all of them are entirely substantiated by that person’s or organization’s actions or words. No opinion should be misinterpreted as a true representation of him/her or it; instead, it must be interpreted as evidence behind the blog post’s theme.

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