Sunday, October 7, 2007

Why Were You Terminated? Page 2

Reader J.H. asked:

”Do you have insight into how to handle the interview question ‘why were you terminated?’ I am 57 and terminated from a 14 year run with a national firm at the end of April. I would never tell a recruiter or future employer that I thought it was ageism, however I want to be open and honest about the unusually high expectations, without sounding defensive.

I would love to hear from you or others that have similar experiences.”

It’s rare when a candidate who was let go from their last job thinks that it was fair. Even if it was fair, who would want to admit that in an interview? Most candidates feel that their layoff, termination, firing or RIF was totally unfair. And their emotions can get the better of them.

This is human nature and tough to escape for even the best poker player.


... Precisely because you feel that it was unfair, most people can’t keep from letting emotions creep into this answer. An emotional answer to this question rarely helps the candidate. An emotional answer can give an perception of mistrust to the interviewer, can bring questions if the candidate may have been at fault, or concerns about what else is there to the candidate’s story.

Even those who try to answer this question openly and honestly almost always do more damage to their candidacy than if they answered in a more guarded way. Why? Emotion creeps into an honest answer ... because you’re upset about it.

How can you answer?

There are a few ways to answer this that can be successful, depending on your personal circumstances. Here are 3 ways I’ve found that can work:
  • The company went through major layoffs. I had good evaluations, but I was one of the ones chosen. Now I’m looking forward to my next challenge.
  • The company went through some strategic changes that I disagreed with. When these changes didn’t work, they went through a reduction in force. I wasn’t surprised that I was on the list. Now I’m looking forward to work with a company more aligned with my own goals.
  • The company went through many rounds of layoffs. In my department, 7 of 8 people were laid off - I was #7. This is a great opportunity to get my career back on track with a growth company (make sure the company is a growth company before using this one!).
  • Keep it short & sweet. Be very brief, then move on to the positive.

About using ageism as the reason ...

Why would you even hint at ageism? Why reinforce any possible perception of ageism? Why even put that idea into the hiring manager’s mind, even indirectly? How could that possibly help you?

The only thing you gain in hinting at ageism as the reason for a layoff is a warped sense of “retribution” towards your past employer - and that’s exactly what an interviewer sees or hears. Who would want to hire a candidate that is still hanging onto that bitterness, when there are many other choices?

Even if you can hold back the bitterness, here’s what you risk ... perpetuating the perception of ageism. Do you think an interviewer could think “Wow, the candidate’s company thought they were too old. I wonder if they just don’t have the energy, drive, or skills of someone younger?” By encouraging that thought process, do you think you are helping your job search?

Or are you shooting yourself in the foot?

Being transparent

Being transparent is a good thing and can help a candidate establish trust. It’s very likely that there were multiple reasons you were let go. It’s also very likely that you really don’t know why you were let go. Due to legal reasons, few employers will tell you that your age was the reason. Saying you don’t know, that you were one of many, that your number came up is the true transparent answer - and it’s the one you know. Most everything else is just a guess, and a guess that isn’t in your best interests to share.

So be transparent - about what you know.

Readers - Can you share some answers you’ve found to be successful to answer “Why were you terminated?”

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Bill said...

Good article on how to answer this. May I use it on my blog with credit to you?

Phil Rosenberg said...

@Bill - Thanks! Please email me at to discuss republication.

sharon said...


I liked answers 1 and 3 but #2 almost makes it sound like the candidate is a disagreeable sort. Frankly, when the layoffs come no one really knows why they ended up on the list. Sometimes it is the candidate's age (companies don't want to pay out that big retirement benefit), sometimes it's performance and layoffs are an easy way to get rid of poor performers, but usually it's because an evaluation of the individual's work reveals that either the function is no longer needed, the function can be outsourced, or the job can effectively be divided up between those remaining. I really don't know why employers even ask this question and have thankfully only run into it a couple of times.

Thanks for continuing to help.

Phil Rosenberg said...

@Sharon - Look at the reader question. Don't you think they sounded angry?