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How to Answer Interview Questions About Your Last Job

Every one of us has had to grapple with how to answer unexpected interview questions.

Most of the queries thrown at us are standard and we learn, in time, how best to answer.

It’s important to prepare ahead – to anticipate questions and to plan how we’ll answer.

With each interview, we become more adept at handling curveballs.

In cases where we are not sure how to answer a query, we can at least extrapolate a bit from one or two answers to similar questions which we’ve prepared.

However, questions like:  “Tell me about yourself.” and “What was the last time you used your skills to overcome a professional obstacle?” pale in comparison to questions about why we left our last job.

Why? It’s bound to (we think) leave a bad taste in the interviewer’s mouth, no matter how we answer.

After all, who likes to be compared?  Surely (again, so goes our line of thought) the truth won’t go over well with the recruiter.   Do I see you nodding your head and smiling in recognition?

Please know, however, that even the toughest queries have answers which will either have your recruiter eager to learn more about his or her potential candidate (you), or will, at the very least, have the effect of  assuring the interviewer that you are not a high-risk candidate.

How can this be done?

For starters, always tell the truth, and build up the positive aspect of the story.

EVERY story-even with an ending that includes a layoff or a firing–has a positive aspect.

An Example

For instance, let’s say you were let go of your last job. You’ve landed an interview that’s right up your alley and would love to make a good impression.

The hiring manager and you are just starting the interview, and you’ve been asked, point blank, if you’ve ever been fired from a job.

Note:  technically, there IS a difference between “fired” and “let go”.  You should know, however, that what the interviewer is usually after is whether or not you’re likely to run afoul of THEIR rules.

The Difference Between “Fired” and “Let Go”

First, the difference between “fired” and “let go”. When an employee is terminated, they are fired. There is precious little chance they will be rehired in the future, for their services or tenure have been found to be unsatisfactory in some way, shape or form.

A person who is let go has been the unwitting victim of a job reduction or other circumstantial happenstance.  Their work load has been diminished and, through no fault of his or her own, the job the person was hired for is no more.

Looked at from the point of view of the employer, it would be a waste of resources to keep the person on staff.  There IS a chance this person will be rehired, if the financial picture improves.

How To Answer If You’ve Been Fired   

If you have been fired from a job for suspected forgery, theft, rudeness to customers, or any other such “hard core” acts, you will have to fess up and promise that the situation will not reoccur. If there were mitigating circumstances, now’s the time to state them.

If You’ve Been Laid Off or Let Go – For Milder Cause

If you’ve been let go for “milder” breaches, such as lateness or inability to meet a sales goal, or the following, you’ll take a different tack.

Let’s go back to the interview scenario:

You’ve been asked if you’ve ever been fired.  The employer is looking at you expectantly.

In reality, you and your last employer parted ways because, three months into the job, your wife was called to take a temporary academic post overseas and you found yourself having to provide primary childcare services, as well as to care for your elderly parents.

There were days when your children were ill and needed you to stay home – you hadn’t yet been at the job long enough to ask for a leave, and your savings didn’t extend to the expense of hiring a sitter.
You might say something along these lines:

“Thanks for asking. I can see why it would matter if I’d been terminated for a reason that would be a deal breaker here, but I want to assure you that I am a responsible, hard-working and ethical employee—my five other former employers will testify to that. At my last job, I was asked to leave due to unforeseen circumstances.  If you would give me a moment, I would be happy to explain.”

At this point, very few hiring managers will stop you and conclude the interview. Why? We all have had the unexpected occur—even hiring managers, who are, after all, human AND who were once on your side of the aisle.

“What Did You Not Like About Your Last Boss?”

Another question about your last job which might prove a bit daunting is:  “What was something about your ex-boss that absolutely drove you bonkers?”

You will have to tread lightly here. You don’t ever want to bad-mouth your employers or your former co-workers.

It’s understood by HR personnel that someone who “puts down” co-workers is capable of finding fault with another company’s boss and fellow staffers.

It’s never a good or gracious response to cast another in a bad light – even if you feel that doing so would “let you off the hook” when explaining why things went wrong in a former job.

Try something along these lines, instead: “Well, as you know, Mr. or Ms. Recruiter, conflict is inevitable in a large group situation, and X Company, my last (or current) employer, was certainly large!

There were times that it seemed that my boss and I were not on the same page when s/he asked me to complete extra tasks before I went home for the evening. I was always glad to put in unpaid overtime – to be a good team player – but there were occasions when I had similarly been asked to work on a Rush project for another Senior Management official, and was at a loss as to how to proceed.

Many times I ended up working until way past closing time.  Looking back, I should have asked my boss to help me prioritize my tasks. In the future – in this job, for instance – I would be glad to chip in and help in any way I can – but I would sit down and discuss priorities with my immediate supervisor.  Does that sound fair?”

Again, very few recruiters would balk at this response. We’ve all been there…overwhelmed by duties and short of time.  This is another case where you are showing your win/win colors.  It will sound as if you are cooperative, flexible, reasonable and hardworking – and you will not have left a bad taste in the recruiter’s mouth by pointing accusing fingers at anyone.

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