1. First, before you can formulate a good answer for why you were fired, you need to be honest with yourself about what really happened. Try to detach your ego from the firing and ask yourself what really went wrong. Don’t feel defensive or ashamed; try to see it objectively. Do you understand why your boss let you go? Were you even partially at fault?
If you haven’t already, now is the time to take responsibility for what your role was in what happened--even if your employer was also at fault. You need to get genuinely comfortable with this because when you’re comfortable with what happened, you’ll give an answer that will make your interviewer more comfortable, too.
2. Formulate an answer that speaks to how you ended up in that situation, what you've learned from it, and what you do differently now as a result.
3. Make sure your answer is brief and to the point. Most interviewers will only be looking for a couple of sentences and won't expect you to present a detailed account. Definitely no rambling or defensive diatribes.
4. Practice your answer over and over out loud until you can say it calmly. What the interviewer is going to be paying a lot of attention to--almost more than the substance of your answer--is how you talk about it: Do you seem bitter and angry about it? Have you learned from the experience? How has it changed the way you conduct business? You want to really pay attention to how you deliver it.
5. Don’t lie. If the employer uncovers the truth, it’ll destroy your credibility. You’ll show much more integrity by owning up to it.
Here are some examples of what your answer might sound like:
“Actually, I was let go. The workload was very high, and I didn’t speak up about that soon enough. I just tried to keep my head down and get it all done. This wasn’t a realistic strategy, and I ended up making some mistakes because of the volume. It taught me a really valuable lesson about the need to communicate better when the workload is a problem and to figure out ways to make sure we’re on the same page about priorities if we’re in a triage mode. Since then, I’ve put a real premium on keeping lines of communication open so that that never happens again.”
“You know, it was a bad fit. The role really required expertise in software design, which is definitely not my strength, and ultimately we agreed that it didn’t make sense for me.”
“I was fired, actually. The job had a big sales component and I had pretty bad sales numbers. I realized from that experience that I just hate selling and I’m not good at it. They made the right decision, and I realized pretty quickly how relieved I was by it.”
Remember that many, many people have been fired, and they've moved past it. Prepare in advance, follow the tips above, and you should be able to put this to rest.
Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Leader's Guide to Getting Results and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development. She now teaches other managers how to manage for results.