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It's sometimes the most difficult question of the interview. It's tricky knowing what to say about a past employer, especially when your separation was less than for stellar reasons.


I left one of my former employment situations under less than desirable terms. I got fired. What do I say to the interviewer when they ask the inevitable, "Why did you leave your last job?"

Ahh. Those sticky interview questions. The time when you ask yourself, "Should I be totally truthful? I know they're going to check references. That employer will certainly say something about I was fired." More politely, you say something like, "The position was phased out," while you're thinking, "That ogre! What do I do now?"

Some folks want to lie about the reason for leaving. That is definitely a bad move. Not only will background and reference checks reveal the truth, should you get the job, you'll be fired for intentional misrepresentation on your application. In addition to that, you'll then have a reputation as a liar to travel about with you.

One job candidate was discovered when she told the interviewer that she had never been involved in a medical malpractice suit. "The truth about lies: little ones can have big consequences?," Cosmopolitan 01-01-1995, pp 126(4). Author of the article, Susan Jacoby, says her interviewee lost the job.

Don't List the Employer
Ahph!! That's the same as lying my friend! If you intentionally omit an employer for whom you worked for more than three months as a full-time employee, you have, again, made an intentional misrepresentation on your application. Things do get checked. You'll not be on that job very long, if you get it. And there'll be no explanation for your termination.

Interestingly, one woman did lie, got the job and survived. In "The Truth About Lies," Jacoby cites another candidate who "omitted the truth" about a seven-month gap in employment history. Her conscience lives with the weight of the omission although she still has the job.

So let's say lying is not an option and move on.

Skirt the Issue
This is a yes and no.

Be truthful but don't spill your guts that you blew up the factory. The less said, the better. The position changed. You are looking for a different type of work challenge. You want to explore a more focused opportunity (if you were doing a broad range of things) or you want a broader scope of responsibility (if the reverse is true). Give a few words to a tactful description of why you left and then, as in debate and public relations, return to the main product and its selling points. Kenneth Bredemeier, in his "Honesty the Best Policy," The Edmonton Sun, 01/27/01, concurs. Talk about the accomplishments you made at that situation. Discuss the way you quantifiably improved performance or bottomline.

Using the Right Reference
When asked for a reference, be certain that the person you list is a person who had immediate supervision and knowledge of you and your work product. The last phrase is important, "had actual knowledge of you and your work product." If they know neither or very little, the reference they provide will be valueless and a waste of the recruiter's or hiring manager's time. Also, to ask such a person to provide a work product reference about you is unfair because it subjects that person to liability for defamation if they cannot say positive things about you or avoid giving the reference based on their lack of knowledge.

If you were still on the job, it would be good to talk with your supervisor about the type of evaluation they would give of you and your work performance. Based on that conversation, you have a fairly good idea what will be said when they are called upon to provide a work reference.

Another way of determining what a past employer will say is once you've given notice and you are in your exit interview, you discuss the reasons for your leaving and make certain that you are in agreement about what the terms of the separation are.

This is only one side of the picture of references. There is also the matter of the employer who provides the reference and what they should or may say and what they should not say. Then there is the matter of the recruiter who is trying to confirm background and history. Then there is the matter of what they may ask during the interview and of the past employer in order to ascertain what type of candidate they have.

You have enough of the icing on the past references cake for now. We'll visit this subject again very soon in addition to addressing the other two perspectives.

For now, just remember to be honest and focus on the positive attributes that your presentation has to offer.

Originally published February 20, 2001

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