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  • Writer's pictureMatt Chung

How to Explain Being Let Go or Fired from a Job

Updated: Nov 6, 2023



How should you explain being let go from your previous company in the interview?

Being let go can be a tricky subject to discuss during the interview. In this article, I'm going to talk about ways to explain it in such a way so that you can explain what happened in the best light possible.

To start, there are primarily two ways someone can be let go.

One of them is being laid off, which means the employee has lost his/her job due to changes that the company has decided to make on its end usually (though not always) through no fault of the employee. And the other way is being fired, which means that the company considers the employee's actions have caused the termination. In most such cases, there will be a termination letter indicating the same.

We will cover both scenarios in this video.

  1. Being laid off

As I said earlier, being laid off means that you lost your job due to decisions or circumstances of the employer. Examples of this could be restructuring, reorganization, large projects or programs being canceled, companies being merged or acquired, or location strategy change.

For example, if a company decides to move the Asia HQ from one city to another (such as HK, SG, Shanghai) and terminates employees in the previous location, that would be an example of a lay off without any fault of the employee.

So how do you explain being laid off?

First of all, being laid off is quite easy to explain. And you shouldn't worry about it because restructuring, reorg, and plan changes are relatively common and, unfortunately frequent incidents. So treat it like a neutral event. You do not have to feel bad about it. It's not your fault. Just explain what happened in a matter-of-fact way.

The main thing you need to do in a case of a layoff, though, is to explain the reason clearly. If it was due to restructuring, tell them that. Was it because of merger and acquisition? Was it because of the reorg, new management, etc.? Make sure that you explain it clearly so that there is no misunderstanding and the interviewer is aware of the circumstances of the previous employer that led to the layoff that were out of your control.

This is so that they will not think that the layoff had anything to do with you and that it was purely due to circumstances. Sometimes a layoff can be due to the employee's performance so you want to make sure that you communicate that was NOT the case.

Another thing you want to do is to provide some context. What I mean is letting the interviewer know how many people were affected beside you. For example, if there was a major restructuring and 90% of your team was let go, mention it. 90% of your team being let go vs only 10% has opposite implication. If your previous company was merged and 50% of your department was laid off, explain this to the interviewer so that they know you were not the only one affected. This kind of context supports the idea that again, the layoff had nothing to do with you, and that it was because of the previous company that you had little to no control over.

  1. Being fired

If someone is fired, the understanding is that the previous employer considers his or her performance or actions to be the reason for termination.

This one is harder to explain.

Being fired can be a traumatic experience and you may feel like you may never be able to find another job again. But if you're in this situation, I got your back too.

Don't worry too much. There are ways to explain it in the best light.

The important thing to remember is that we all make mistakes one way or another. And there is nothing we can do about what has already happened in the past. The only thing and perhaps the best thing is for you to recognize the mistake, learn from the mistake, and make the necessary changes so that it won't happen again.

And this is what you want to focus on in your response too.

You don't have to sound overly remorseful or guilty. That may only highlight the magnitude of the problem in the employer's mind.

Instead, as you explain the situation,

  1. Talk about your intentions that were not malignant – basically, why you made the mistake you did

  2. Take responsibility for your actions

  3. Set your YOUR FOCUS ON the lessons you learned and how you were able to grow as a result of this incident so that you won't make the same mistake again.

Also, ONE thing you do NOT want to do is to shift blame - blaming the employer or a colleague or the situation.

Of course, you should clearly explain what happened factually, but you should do so in a neutral and professional tone – not with a tone of complaint or blame.

Because this may give the employer the impression that you are someone who does not own up to their mistakes and that you haven't really learned or grown or matured from this experience. Thus, they may feel you are capable of repeating the same mistake again in the future.

Regardless of whether it was your fault or not, whether it's fair or not, there are always things we can take responsibility for and work on.

Again, there is nothing we can do about what already happened in the past, or what others have done to us or against us.

The only part that we can control and do something about is our response.

And that's how truly mature and resilient people respond to challenges and failures.

In the same way, again, what you want to do is to focus what you were able to learn and grow as a result and what you have done to ensure that you don't make the same error again.

Next, here are a few sample answers so you can easily reference them.

Sample answers to explain being laid off

I left my previous company due to restructuring. Because of the firm's decision to reduce their regional investment, around 60% of my team was let go. During which time I was also affected despite my excellent performance review just a few months prior.

My previous employer decided to relocate their regional HQ from HK to Shanghai last year. I had a great relationship with the management, and they offered me an attractive package to move but, in the end, I decided to stay due to personal reasons.

My previous position at ABC was made redundant following the firm's decision to outsource my entire team offshore which is why I am looking for a new opportunity.

The next two sample answers are for the case of being fired. The first is for a junior sales analyst and the next is for an IT engineer. Whether you are in sales or in tech is not the point here as everyone's specific situation will be different. These examples are here so that you can get a sense of how to structure your response and explain what happened in the best light possible, according to what we discussed in the video.

Sample answers for explaining being fired

The first sample is for a junior sales analyst.

My last role at XYZ was my first job in sales. Even though it was my first exposure to sales, I was given challenging goals, and despite my best effort, I could not meet my target at the end of the year leading to my termination.

I have always been hard-working but it's also true that I lacked the necessary skills and knowledge to be successful. I realized that if I wanted to continue my career in sales, I needed to take ownership of my shortcomings and make tangible changes and improvement.

I started reading/studying well-known sales books by industry leaders such as Ziglar, Brian Tracy and Tony Robbins. Through them, I recognized key areas I needed to improve and started working on them including overcoming fear of rejection, staying optimistic, taking ownership of my circumstances, and better time management.

Even though it was a challenging experience, I know that I have become a much stronger and mature salesperson as a result. With my work ethic combined with crucial fundamental sales knowledge, I am eager to prove myself again and make a tangible contribution in my next role.

The next one is a sample answer for an IT engineer:

When I was working at ABC, there was a time when a major incident happened in the middle of the night that severely affected the business. We were under a lot of pressure to fix the issue quickly but were not able to roll out the changes because the person in charge was not reachable.

In my attempt to help the business, I decided to access the production code and fix the problem directly which ended up resolving all the problems right away. However, the next day, I was informed that there will be disciplinary actions because I accessed the production server without permission which eventually led to my termination.

Even though I was just trying to resolve the urgent problem, now I fully understand that it was a mistake on my part. I should have considered the potential negative outcome and that there are very good reasons for the structured processes in place. I recognize what I should have done is to escalate the issue to more senior managers in the firm with higher clearance and do a better job in managing the client's expectation.

Although it was a difficult experience, I believe I am now a more mature engineer as a result who is much better equipped to handle similar high-pressure situation the right way. If given the opportunity, I look forward to adding even more value than before by applying the important lessons I learned.

There are many reasons why someone may be involuntarily terminated. In any case, the employer wants to see how you dealt with a difficult situation and how you grew from the experience.

Being honest and taking responsibility for the situation can turn a potentially major issue into a redemptive story that shows both professionalism and maturity.

Acknowledge your past mistakes, explain how they made you a better person, and transition into describing where you are now.

Most of all, don't allow your past to define who you are. Remaining positive and focusing on your growth is the key in helping the employer recognize your true value.

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