How to Get Hired After You’ve Been Fired

Be positive, mount obstacles, and show you've learned from setbacks.

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It's a buyer's market for talent these days—and a few firms are actually hiring. But with so many applicants competing for so few jobs, it's more important than ever to differentiate yourself from everybody else in line. To figure out what companies want—and how they view applicants who have been laid off—I spoke with Bob Damon, president for North America at executive recruiter Korn/Ferry International. Excerpts:

Is there a stigma associated with getting laid off? Or does that include so many people that it's now considered a mainstream experience? I don't think there's a stigma associated with being let go, but it depends on the nature of why somebody ends up on the beach. If it's because of a merger of two companies, I think people understand that. You can see through a merger and tell that some good people end up out there. If a company goes Chapter 11, that's not necessarily a black mark on an executive, either. The individual manager doesn't necessarily bear responsibility for what happened to his company. And there's still a shortage of leadership across all companies.

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Then there are layoffs that occur because you're not really an A player. You are most likely not a top-quartile player if you got laid off. Just think of the Bell curve across the corporate workplace. About 60 percent are B's, 20 percent are A's, and 20 percent are C's. The B's closest to the A's are typically staying. But some companies are now cutting into the muscle, which can include people who are solid players.

What about the C's? We write them off right now. They have to change careers altogether.

How? A lot of people are rethinking their lives. Teach for America, for instance, is getting more applications than ever. They used to recruit people right out of school, but now they're getting a lot of applications from people five, six, or seven years out of school. That's happening all across the not-for-profit world. This is one big thing that's changing. There's a renaissance of interest by people thinking of nonprofits as a career path. That's a positive thing.

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What other kinds of things are people trying? A second area where we're seeing a lot of activity is franchising. There's been a dramatic uptick in companies like McDonald's, Burger King, AAMCO, maid services, all kinds of franchise businesses. People are taking that $200,000 or $400,000 they got when they were laid off and investing it in a franchise. They're running their own business but doing it within the comfort of a brand and an operating manual that tells you how to do it.

The third area of growth is traditional entrepreneurship. Greenfield startups, new ideas, or something somebody has always wanted to do.

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Can failure be an asset? Traditional companies are looking at failure and saying, "We want people who have experienced failure, not people whose whole lives have gone according to plan." Failure means you're taking a risk. If you're not failing, maybe you're not approaching the best way to do something new. I won't recommend somebody for a top job who's never experienced failure. People need to suffer adversity to become good leaders. Like Nietzsche said: "That which does not destroy us makes us stronger."

A lot of companies aren't hiring at all right now. What are some examples of companies that value failure and might be hiring? Some of the partners in the private equity world, looking for CEOs for their portfolio companies. They appreciate the virtues of having a failure at some point in your career. They have a pretty mature view of those kinds of things.

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What about people looking for jobs a few layers below CEO? This is also true for people in strategic positions of a company. But it's becoming more mainstream. Between 2002 and 2007, it was less of an issue, because there wasn't much failure going on. But with all the downsizing, the topic has been elevated in visibility.

What else should job-hunters be doing to stand out from the pack? I believe that attitude is everything. So my advice is maintain a positive attitude and you'll ultimately win out. People want to be around optimistic people. That's appealing.

One of the common characteristics of entrepreneurs is that they're realistic optimists. You have to be optimistic when you're starting something new, because there are so many obstacles. If you let all the roadblocks standing in your way stop you, you'll never succeed. You can apply the same advice to looking for a job.

If you've been laid off, how should you talk about that when you're interviewing for another job? Don't be defensive about the failures you've had or why you were let go. Be transparent and honest about it. That shows you've moved on, and a hiring person wants to know you're capable of moving on. A lot of people get defensive about it, they start stuttering or hesitate. The interviewer can pick up on that. That's the kiss of death.

[Have you bounced back from a career or personal failure? Tell us how: flowchart@usnews.com]

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  • Rick Newman

    Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback to Success and the co-author of two other books. Follow him on Twitter or e-mail him at rnewman@usnews.com.

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