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What recruiters really think when they interview someone who was fired

It’s not always a deal breaker, but they will do some digging to see if your story matches up.

What recruiters really think when they interview someone who was fired
[Photo: CristiNistor/iStock]

It’s the question that every candidate who has been fired dreads. “So why did you leave your last job?”

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A candidate that does their research before the interview will find many articles telling them to craft a compelling narrative. Fast Company contributor Judith Humphrey previously wrote, “The challenge is to create a story that positions you positively in the eyes of potential employers–yet remains true to the facts.”

But what do recruiters really think about when a candidate does this? After all, if every fired candidate comes in with a rehearsed story, wouldn’t they notice that someone wasn’t telling the entire truth? We spoke to Rowan O’Grady–the president of recruitment firm Hays–about the questions that recruiters ask themselves when they find out that a candidate they’re interviewing had previously been fired from a job.

1. Were you fired for a “good” reason or a “bad” reason?

“I don’t like the term fired. I prefer let go,” O’Grady says. The first thing that comes to a recruiter’s mind when they find out that a candidate’s position was terminated is “why?” There are black and white “good” reasons, and then there are black and white “bad” reasons, O’Grady says. Among those “good reasons” are things like downsizing, restructuring, office relocation, or perhaps moving their function to another city or offshore.

That’s a case of “it’s not you, it’s me,” says O’Grady. It’s not something that the candidate has control over, and it is not a reflection of them as a person or their performance.

The bad reasons include poor performance, lack of professionalism, or being difficult to work with. The problem, according to O’Grady, is that people rarely admit these things. Instead, they often resort to reasons like “I wasn’t able to progress in my career.”

Of course, in-between the black-and-white reasons, you have gray areas that recruiters will assess on a case-by-case basis. O’Grady gave an example of a VP of finance in an organization that changed directions, and the job they held no longer matched their natural affinities, strengths, and skills. If it’s true, this is a valid explanation, O’Grady says. Sometimes people need to leave certain jobs because they’re not suited to it, and recruiters understand that.

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2. Can your story be verified from outside sources?

Of course, even when the candidate gives a good reason, recruiters will take the extra step to verify their story. O’Grady tells Fast Company that he once worked with a candidate who had said that he left his last company due to lack of career opportunities, only to find out later that this candidate had set fire to the building that his company was located in.

When recruiters hear someone say that they didn’t have opportunities to grow, yet the company they worked for is expanding (and are actually hiring for lots of people), it sends them a red flag. In those instances, recruiters will tend to find other people to talk to–whether it’s the employee’s former bosses and coworkers, or other people in the market. “We always investigate whether their story stands up to interrogation and is in line with what their references reveal,” O’Grady says.

3. Are you being honest when you talk about your last job?

Sometimes, recruiters will try and get the real information out of the candidates themselves. At Hays, they ask candidates a series of questions that determine how they made the decision to get to where they are today. Some of these questions include, “What did you like the most about working there?” and “What frustrated you the most about your last company?” For some reason, people are more willing to be honest when they’re asked the latter, says O’Grady.

He goes on to say that sometimes they can glean holes from their application materials. “If they have a job they worked in, maybe they survived six months or a year, sometimes they could disguise that by making it look like they worked there longer, and they disguise it by expanding the dates with the job after that. If people only refer to the years in resume, that could be two full years but it could be one week, ” O’Grady says. For example, they could have been hired on New Year’s Eve, and fired a week later. 

4. Is this a one-off thing, or are there hints that this is a consistent pattern?

Ultimately, recruiters don’t see getting fired as a deal-breaker, if all signs point to the termination as a one-off event. As an interviewer, “past performance is the only indicator of future performance, [and] past behavior is the only indication of future behavior,” O’Grady says.

Take a candidate with a great employment record. Their former managers praised them, they held jobs for several years, and those companies promoted them. But they had one bad instance where their employment was terminated and their explanation for it is “I made a mistake.” Perhaps they discovered that the job didn’t align with their strengths, or they didn’t gel with the company culture. “That’s completely believable,” O’Grady says. However, if they told that story for the last three jobs, recruiters will start to wonder.

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What recruiters ultimately want to know, O’Grady says, is “what’s normal for this person?” If they have a consistent track record, if they’re in a job where they’ve run up against a manager they’re reporting to that they just can’t work with, I think that’s fine, as long as there are more scenarios where they can work for people [and] they can talk [about] the situation in reasonable terms.”

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About the author

Anisa is the Assistant Editor for Fast Company's Work Life section. She covers everything from productivity to the future of work

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