Eleana Bowman
Community Specialist
Posted July 2, 2021

How to explain termination in a job interview: 10 steps

Learn all about how to answer questions about a previous termination in a job interview using 10 simple steps.
Eleana Bowman
Community Specialist
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How to explain termination in a job interview: 10 steps
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The job search can be a pretty intimidating experience, especially for anyone who has been let go from a previous role.

Chances are you’re going to be asked about why you left your previous job in every job interview, and it can often be pretty uncomfortable when someone asks you to describe why you were dismissed.

But, if you can nail down how to answer that dreaded question, you’ll feel a whole lot more confident going into that next interview.

So, we’re here to help. Here are 10 steps that you can use to properly explain termination in an interview. We’ll also throw in a few examples of how you can shape your answers to paint yourself in the best light.

Why do interviewers ask about termination?

The first thing you need to keep in mind is that a significant percentage of workers don’t end up leaving their jobs voluntarily. In fact, 46% of new hires lose their jobs within a year and a half.

Some of these employees are laid off, whereas others have been terminated.

What’s the difference between a layoff and a termination?

A layoff is when a company needs to let staff go due to reasons unrelated to performance. For example, they might be facing financial difficulties or undergoing significant restructuring.

Terminated employees have been let go for reasons related to specific performance issues. Examples include not following company policy, serious misconduct, or excessive time off.

One of the biggest reasons that your hiring manager is likely to ask this question is to determine which case applies to you.

They might also be trying to figure out whether there could be possible issues with your employment in the future. Most importantly, they want to know if and how you’ve learned from the experience.

How to explain termination on a job application

Not all job applications will ask you to state whether you’ve been previously terminated.

If this question isn’t asked on the application, you can save this conversation for an interview. You can then explain the reasons surrounding your termination more clearly with context.

Other applications (especially if you’re applying through a recruiter), will ask this question.

Some will only allow you to give a yes or no answer, in which case you’re just going to have to tell the truth and select the correct option. Others allow you to briefly explain the reasons behind this termination.

In this case, you’ll want to follow the same guidelines you would when answering such a question in an interview, which we’ll discuss now.

How do you answer the interview question about termination?

Determining the best way to explain being fired can be a little tricky, depending on the reasons for your termination.

Here’s how to prepare for the conversation in your next interview.

1. Have a clear understanding of why you were terminated

You’re not going to be able to accurately explain why you were let go from a previous job unless you have a really clear idea of how your last employer came to that decision.

You’ll probably already know the technical reasons you were terminated. Maybe it was because you lacked solid time management skills or perhaps some form of misconduct such as a loud argument with another employee.

For example, what were the steps that led you to get into that argument? Maybe you were going through some personal challenges with anger, and you’ve since undergone a course to manage this.

Having a strong understanding of why your previous employer let you go will allow you to explain how you turned that situation into a learning experience.

2. Secure a positive reference from your terminated job if possible

Just because your employment was terminated doesn’t mean your former employer didn’t necessarily see value in you as a worker while you were there.

More often than not, termination is a result of poor performance in one specific aspect, and that might not be applicable to the new job you’re applying for.

For example, maybe you were let go because you weren’t meeting sales targets. If that’s the only reason, and your former boss appreciated other aspects of your performance such as time management and customer service, you may still be able to obtain a positive reference.

3. Tell the truth

First of all, you don’t want to start your journey by lying to your new employer.

Secondly, recruiters and hiring managers are pretty good at sniffing out lies. They’ll be able to tell if you’re trying to cover up the truth and see it as a major red flag. Plus, they’ll most likely do a reference check anyway, so honesty is the best policy here.

4. Keep your explanation short and to the point

It’s pretty rare that you won’t be able to explain the reasons for your termination in just a few sentences.

Your potential employer will appreciate your ability to summarize the events that led to you losing a job, and they’ll ask follow-up questions if they feel the need to.

If you ramble on and on while trying to explain your termination, the recruiter might get the feeling that you’re trying to cover something up.

At the very least, they will believe that you don’t have a strong understanding of why it happened. That means you also don’t understand how to avoid a repeat performance.

5. Use positive/soft language to describe your termination

Though you do need to make sure you’re speaking truthfully, there are a few ways you can soften your language to describe your termination.

Here are a few examples.

6. Don’t pass the blame

You might feel like your termination wasn’t entirely your fault.

Though this may be true, it’s also likely that your actions played at least some part in your firing.

So, rather than blaming others, seek to understand where you could have done better so you can explain in the interview how you’ve learned from this experience.

7. Aim to speak confidently

Speaking confidently during an interview can be challenging, especially when discussing a previous termination.

However, if you’re able to discuss being let go with confidence, you’ll give your interviewer the impression that you’ve come to grips with the experience and learned something from it.

Check out our article on how to speak more comfortably during an interview to learn more.

8. Don’t speak negatively about your previous employer

Being terminated can often be emotionally difficult and challenging. It’s fair to say that you might still be upset about the matter.

If this is the case, try not to let it show during your interview. The best way to do this is to avoid speaking negatively about your previous employer, regardless of any ill feelings you may have toward them.

Badmouthing your last boss will only give your interviewer the impression that you haven’t yet learned from the experience.

9. Explain what you’ve learned from the experience

Hopefully, you’ve learned something from your termination.

Perhaps you’ve had some deep, insightful revelation, or maybe you’ve just learned something about how to better conduct yourself in the workplace.

Whatever the case, follow up your explanation by describing what you’ve learned from the experience and what you’d do differently next time.

10. Practice your response

Most employers are going to ask you if you’ve been previously terminated. If you have, then you can guarantee they are going to have some follow-up questions.

Prepare yourself by practicing how you’ll respond to these questions, either with a friend or family member or by simply role-playing in front of a mirror or camera.

How to address termination in a job interview - 3 examples

Let’s look at three common reasons for termination, and how to best discuss those reasons in a job interview.

1. Terminated due to misconduct

Perhaps you were let go because you were skimming money from the till.

Instead of saying something like, “I was fired for stealing cash from the till,” say, “I was let go as I was facing some financial difficulties and dealt with them in an inappropriate manner. I’m now in a better place financially and I’ve learned how to deal with a similar situation better in the future.”

2. Dismissed because of your performance

Let’s say you are a sales professional who was let go for failing to meet a quota.

Instead of “They fired me because I wasn’t very good at sales,” say, “I was dismissed because I was a poor fit for the role and wasn’t able to meet the performance standards that were expected of me. As a result, I’ve learned to better assess the required performance standards of a role before I go into it, and to determine whether I’m a good fit or not on that basis.”

3. Let go for taking too much time off

Instead of “My boss fired me because I never came into work,” say, “I was having trouble attending work as regularly as I should have been, so they had to let me go. I have since sharpened my time management skills and discovered techniques that have helped me prioritize and adjust my work-life balance.”

If this was due to a medical, family, or mental health issue that you’ve since received help and support with, feel free to share that if you’re comfortable.

Letting them know the cause of your absence is now dealt with can help reassure them they won’t have to worry about your attendance if they hire you.

Getting back on the horse

Hopefully, you’re feeling more confident now about how to explain termination in an interview.

Let’s recap some of the best ways to approach this kind of situation:

  • Have a clear understanding of why you were let go

  • If possible, get a positive reference from the employer who dismissed you

  • Tell the truth about what happened

  • Keep your explanation brief

  • Don’t pass the blame

  • Speak confidently

  • Don’t badmouth your last boss

  • Explain what you’ve learned

  • Practice your response


Feeling ready to get out there and apply for some jobs? Check out our available roles here.

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Eleana Bowman
Community Specialist
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Nancy Pomplun

I was forced out due to my age. My manager starting asking me 3 months before I turned 65 when I was going to retire. I said I hadn't thought about it and when pressed I said I didn't plan on retiring anytime soon; I was written up 3 times in rapid succession for minor infractions: the ONLY time I was late (by 4 minutes) I called to let them know I was stuck in traffic on the interstate due to an accident; answering the phone on the third ring (deemed "too slow"); and finally told I "couldn't get along with anyone" when another employee yelled at me, to which I made no response. So how do I spin that poitively?

21w
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Libby Lee

Just curious, you listed three great reasons why one might get fired, but you didn't mention another reason for termination....failing a drug test. What's your response for that? Lol

7w
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