Dear J.T. & Dale: I was discharged from my last job because I missed a lot of work due to a lower-back problem. My absenteeism was also due to a difficult time in my life and a co-worker who was creating an uncomfortable working atmosphere. I’ve had a few interviews, and when the interviewer asks about why I left my last job, I have a difficult time. Any advice? How do I explain why I left my last job? — Summer
Dale: Some advisers recommend generic question-ducking maneuvers for explaining getting fired, but the interviewer probably will ask for details, so I say you might as well jump right to the truth — in your case, one of the three truths about why you left. Of those, I’d choose the one about the co-worker, because it’s the least likely to scare off a hiring manager. A typical manager would prefer to deal with internal issues, rather than outside ones, such as your lower back or difficult times.
J.T.: The reality is, Summer, you didn’t meet the expectations of your former employer. And any potential employer is going to want to hear you have learned your lesson and won’t have it happen again. They also want to hear you speak positively about your former place of work. Ultimately, you need to frame your answer in terms of how you have taken responsibility for what happened. Even if you blame the co-worker, the focus has to be on you. Something like this:
“The circumstances around my last job taught me a lot about myself as an employee. It was my first experience with a challenging co-worker. She made the atmosphere uncomfortable, and I struggled to cope with it. Since then, I’ve realized what I can do to deal effectively with a situation like this. Going through that experience was tough, but it has prepared me to be an even better worker.”
Dale: That’s a great answer, especially if you make it true. Spend some time with friends and colleagues going over how you could have handled the situation. By doing so, you’ll be prepared if the hiring manager wants to hear specifics about what you learned. Plus, you’ll have put yourself in a position to welcome the discussion of your last employment, and that will translate into the assurance of an effective job candidate.
Jeanine “J.T.” Tanner O’Donnell is a professional development specialist and founder of CAREEREALISM.com. Dale Dauten’s latest book is “(Great) Employees Only: How Gifted Bosses Hire and De-Hire Their Way to Success” (John Wiley & Sons).
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