You were just fired — now what?! How to take next steps and answer the question, “Why did you leave?”

You were fired. Maybe you deserved it and maybe you didn’t. Regardless of the circumstances, it’s a horrible feeling. And you are not alone.

Even if leaving the job is a huge blessing in disguise (and it often is, so congratulations!), there is a mixed bag of emotions that can range from relief (good riddance!), to fear, embarrassment, anger, anxiety, and maybe pure exhaustion. All of these feelings are normal, even if they all show up at the same time.

To successfully navigate this experience, your emotional state takes priority. As part of that, you may be wondering, “What the hell am I going to tell people?” And that’s what this post is about: helping you navigate these unfamiliar waters and chart a new course.

You just joined Oprah’s Club.

Getting fired does not define who you are. You are neither a loser nor a bad person. You are not the first (nor the last) person to be fired. Many amazing people have been fired or rejected in their life, including Oprah and Walt Disney. They didn’t let this define them; instead, they used the rejection as fuel to power their next move.

No one is expecting you to be there yet. Just be, for now.

Besides famous people, lots of others like you and me are fired each year. While the exact number isn’t easy to determine (because it isn’t something people like to share at cocktail parties), here are a few stats to consider:

In June 2019 alone, about 1.7 million people were involuntarily terminated in the U.S.; this number includes layoffs and firings. Experts estimate that 1-2% of all involuntary terminations are firings (and after being in HR, my guess is much higher). Taking the low end, that’s 17,000 people fired in just one month.

So, know that you are not alone. Most people, myself included, have been fired at one time or another in their career. It sucks. It doesn’t feel good to be in this club, but it can be another path to success.

What to do the day you get fired.

First, you need to take care of yourself. Do NOT start job searching until you take the necessary self-care steps. It’s a mistake to talk to potential employers when you’re on an emotional rollercoaster state or when you’re angry at your previous employer, because it will show! First, process your emotions and do the following:

  • Spend time with people who will give you empathy and support — not with negative people who will just help you relive the event rather than helping you process it.
  • Get exercise, sleep, and drink lots of water… don’t start numbing emotions with your preferred vice (alcohol, food, drugs, TV).
  • Put yourself on a strict news diet of no more than 30 minutes each day at (if at all).
  • Get outside. Enjoy spending time in nature, around people, or in whatever surroundings are pleasant to you.
  • Make a list of all the good things you’ve done and accomplished. Keep this list handy and re-read and keep growing it.
  • If you feel stuck, see a professional (therapist, coach, counselor) to help you process emotions and help provide guidance in the next step.

After processing your emotions and getting the necessary self-care, now you need to find what’s next.

How to MANAGE the interview question, “Why did you leave?”

Before going on interviews, it will be important to first practice telling your story of what happened with the firing. Start by sharing it verbally with friends and peers, getting as much practice as possible so you can confidently respond to interview questions.

Here are some guidelines.

  • Do not blame or trash-talk — about yourself, or your previous employer.
  • Keep it brief: focus the conversation back on what you can offer and how your strengths can help the organization.
  • Be confident. How you tell your story really matters, so say it with confidence and practice, practice, practice!
  • Do not use the word ‘fired’ (yes, I use it in this post, but don’t use it in referring to yourself during a job interview), instead use a neutral word like ‘separated’.
  • If you have the opportunity to bring the subject up yourself, do so. This puts you in control of the conversation and shows you have nothing to hide (and it builds trust).
  • Take responsibility for your part in the situation with your former job and show that you have learned from the experience and have a positive outlook about your future.

What to SAY to the interview question, “Why did you leave?”

Here are some ways to talk about why you left; these will need to be modified for your situation. After a brief explanation, it’s a good idea to share the lesson you learned. No matter how much the interviewer probes, do not give the nasty details, because you’ll just come across as bitter and unprofessional. Some of these responses can be combined, depending on your particular circumstances:

Part A – What Happened:

  • “When I was originally hired as the [job title], the description and expectations of the job were very different from the job that I actually ended up doing. It was apparent from the start that there were some communication problems and philosophical differences, and I struggled early on.”
  • “It was apparent from the start that we [my boss/bosses] had some communication and philosophical differences, but I was shielded by my supervisor, who later left and that made things a struggle for me.”
  • “I usually hit it off very well with my supervisors, but this was the exception of my good relationship rule. We didn’t get on well and our values were not aligned. It’s really unfortunate, because I loved the work.”
  • “I performed the best that I possibly could in that situation, and many of the employees complimented me on my work ethic and skills. But in the end, it was just too difficult of an environment to overcome.”

Part B – What I Learned:

  • “While it’s not pleasant to have been let go, it was something that helped me reevaluate how I handled my work and will make me a better performer in the future.”
  • “What I’ve learned from that experience is to try to ask more questions, clarify the requirements and expectations, and try to make sure that I have the information I need in order to do a good job.”
  • “I’m sad, because I enjoyed the work, but I’m much wiser and I will not let that happen again. I will communicate early and often to ensure alignment.”
  • “Since then, I’ve done some volunteer work, clarified my own professional goals and expectations, and worked on improving my communication skills.”

When you’re finished sharing your brief response, finish with a question that will redirect the conversation to something else that’s relevant. For example, “Can you tell me what success looks like for this role and what will happen in the first 90 days to help determine if someone is on the right track?”

While this current experience is challenging, it is a great opportunity to reassess both your strengths and weaknesses and the culture you thrive in. With this information, you’ll be equipped to devise a plan, target a new job direction or industry, or work on challenge areas.

Your next job will be an opportunity to rebuild your career reputation, making future job searched much easier.

If you need help with your career transition, confidence in interviewing, or a strategy for your job search, I’m here for you.