In the January 31, 2012 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader asks what to say in a job interview — if he got fired previously for doing something wrong:
I was fired for a minor policy violation. How much should I tell prospective employers about it? Everyone I've spoken to has agreed that my indiscretion did not warrant being fired, so in interviews do I tell what happened and hope for the best? Or, do I make up a story to cover it up? Should I refuse to speak about it at all? How much can my old employer say, or shouldn't I use them as a reference even though they've agreed to do it?
Here's the short version of my advice: (For the entire column, you need to subscribe to the free newsletter. Don't miss another edition!)
Do not lie if you're asked why you left your last job, and do not offer made-up stories to cover up the past. However, I believe the only ethical responsibility you have is to disclose anything that you believe would materially affect your ability to do the job the way the company wants it done.
Why not just ask your old boss what kind of reference will be given? (The policy violation was not "minor." It was major enough to get you fired. This would be a good time to apologize, if you haven't done so already.) If you know what the company is saying about you, you'll know better how to handle it.
You can also research the reference indirectly. This is an aggressive approach, but if you do it without any misrepresentations, I think it's legit… (This part is only in the newsletter… Don't miss next week's edition. Sign up now! It's free!)
More important, you must line up at least two good references at your old company. Their words will count a lot, even if your ex-boss says something negative.
If you're asked in an interview, respond candidly. Admit you made a mistake but keep it in context. Demonstrate your self-confidence, and make a commitment.
How to Say It
"My references will tell you I'm very good at my work and I'm trustworthy. You're getting a talented, dedicated, hard-working employee who has learned a lesson, rather than someone who has yet to make a mistake. I won't let you down."
That last sentence is a very powerful commitment. You must live up to it.
Some companies will decline to hire you. Others will hire you based on what they see and hear. Then it's up to you to prove they made a good choice.
Have you ever been fired? How did you deal with the facts in a job interview? Did it even come up? If you're an employer, have you ever hired someone who was fired for doing something wrong? Why did you take a chance on the person? How did it work out?
What advice would you give about the situation in today's Q&A?