firedIn the March 26, 2019 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter a reader gets fired right in the middle of interviewing with another employer.

Question

I started talking to Company B about a new job and after a few interviews things were looking really good. I then got terminated by Company A from my current job. (I didn’t do anything illegal or anything like that, but I was fired, for sure). Now it looks like Company B is ready to make an offer. Should I tell them that I’m no longer employed by Company A? I want to be honest and open but don’t want to throw a wrench in the works.

Nick’s Reply

Would your termination (and the facts surrounding it) at Company A make a material difference in your ability to do the job properly at Company B?

If not, I see no reason to disclose that you’re no longer employed by Company A (or that you were fired) if you prefer not to. One good reason not to disclose is to protect your ability to negotiate. The other, of course, is that some companies have a bias against The Unemployed — and that could throw a wrench into the deal. Why risk it if you don’t have to?

But don’t lie about it if you are asked, including on an application or other forms you are required to fill out and sign your name to. Tell the truth. Once you sign contracts, it gets more complicated and you might need advice from an attorney.

If someone does bring it up at this juncture, I think the best answer is honest and simple and probably goes like this.

How to Say It:

“I started looking for a new job and interviewing with you for several reasons. One is that I didn’t want to work at my old company any more and as of a few days ago — after we started talking — I’m no longer working there. Another reason is that I wanted to join a better company working with better people where I’m encouraged to contribute to the bottom line. That’s why I’m here.”

I doubt it’ll get that far. We don’t need to tell everything as long as we tell what really matters to the people we’re going to work with. What matters is anything that will affect our ability to deliver the work we promise to do. No company has a right to any other part of you or your story — unless you sign a contract to that effect or the law requires it.

The important point is this: Focus the new employer on why you are talking with them, and on what you can do for them if they hire you.

Having said all that, I don’t know any more details than you’ve shared, and I don’t know whether any questions will come up or in what form. My advice is not as important as your own good judgment, so consider all the factors you’re aware of. I hope what I’ve said helps you somehow, and I’d love to know how this turns out. I wish you the best.

Do you have any obligation to disclose getting fired? How about if you got fired after the hiring process started? Is there a difference? How would you handle this situation?

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27 Comments
  1. Don’t tell unless asked. Your new company may need to do a background check, and there you have to be truthful. Consult an attorney to guide you.

    • Can they really see in a background check why you were fired or just that you worked from X date to Y date?

      • @Mona: That’s impossible to know. Even if the check doesn’t reveal it, there’s nothing to stop HR or a manager from quietly using a back channel to ask and find out. My advice is, if you avoid disclosing the information, don’t lie. If you lie and it’s on the record, you can be held accountable for it. Your other option is to decline to answer. (A “background check” might be a search for a criminal record, or it may be a reference check, or both. Make sure you understand what you’re signing permission for.)

  2. I agree with Kevin about not telling unless asked. He also makes a good point that, if a background check is done, you have to be truthful (and I didn’t even think about having an attorney help you out).

    I think telling a hiring manager you got fired might be telling them “This person is bad to work with or incompetent or (anything else that sheds an unfavorable light on your experience and ability to do a good job)”. You sure don’t want to convey that, especially if you’ve got an offer in hand (or if it looks like they’re going to offer you the job).

    • Because it might come up, it’s best to be armed for defense and offense. Keep the defense brief and positiive. Focus on the offense. Have 2-3 excellent references lined up. Best if these are pre-emptive – something foreign to most people:
      https://www.asktheheadhunter.com/1574/the-preemptive-reference

      It’s also best if one of those references will (without being asked) put your firing in context by explaining (assuming it’s true) that your old employer has an unreasonable beef with you and a reputation for being unreasonable and unfair – or that the firing was due to company problems, not real problems with you. You can’t say this, but a reference can. Like I said – this must be true and legit, but fight fire with fire.

  3. If the writer got fired during some sort of a layoff, it might be good to say that once an offer is made. It can be phrased as “I’m ready to start right away.” The bias against hiring the unemployed is worrying why someone unemployed for a long time can’t get a job. I’ve not seen a bias against those just laid off – my company would swoop down to hire people laid off by our competitors.
    If the firing is for cause it is a different matter.

    • Very much the point that I make. There is a difference between being fired and being laid-off. People are fired for individual transgressions, including crimes, violations of company policies, and failure to perform to expectations. Lay-offs, however, generally include groups of employees, and are made due to poor planning or execution of plans by upper management, changes in business conditions, and acquisitions that result in the closing of facilities or termination of product lines. Either way, the stigma attached to being unemployed is difficult to deflect.

      • I was last laid off from a job 13 years ago – I had plenty of notice and landed quickly on my feet. I was never unemployed – I ran my own business during the 6 weeks I was “between jobs.” I actually consulted with some area businesses and helped them turn a project around.

      • Nick, it is my understanding that the following applies. A typical background check is to know if the applicant has a criminal record. In these, the applicant doesn’t fill out any papers except a permission form listing one’s social security number. Employment information would not be on a typical criminal background check. A potential employer may call the applicants former employers for information on hire dates and whether or not the person is eligible to be be rehired. Online portals often have a box that the employee must check giving permission for that employer to be contacted. There have been lawsuits over what information a former employer can give out so most stick to start date, end date, and eligible for rehire. It seems to me that if one started the interview process before being terminated, there is no need to announce this unless they bring you in for a third interview and ask. People who are called for a reference check may be asked various questions but these are people the applicant lists as their references and should have a clue. I have never been asked why someone left the job when I have been a reference. If I am wrong here, please correct me.

        • Criminal background checks can have errors. I found that out when looking for an apartment:

          https://davidhuntpe.wordpress.com/2015/02/07/job-seekers-watch-your-background/

          • Horrible. This is the problem with online background checks: they often aren’t validated. Hard copy background checks cost more, but often never run into this issue because the data is validated by a person. Background checks are also regulated at the federal level by FCRA; some states have their own laws, as well, to help protect against this. But nothing is perfect.

        • Respectfully, you are correct and incorrect: a previous employer can talk as much as they want to talk. It’s not prudent. But they can. And in many states, if the information is true and given without malice, there is a qualified privilege that shields the former employer from liability. So, yes, they can talk. Most good HR departments don’t allow it. But through a backdoor – it’s very possible. I have been asked (and have asked myself) a gazillion times why someone left. You’re correct that a typical background is a criminal check, and for some positions, a credit check as well. However, for some highly sensitive positions, it may go further with an in-depth character and financial check (think about security clearance type positions). All background checks are covered by the federal FCRA, and in some states, there are additional laws.

      • In Silicon Valley many managers have been laid off at least once in their careers, so they understand a lot better than they did say 35 years ago. Especially because today whole divisions get laid off, not just individuals, so there is less a stigma of the laid off person being in the bottom 10 percent or something.
        When a company I worked for closed a project and laid off most of the people working in it, we had an internal job fair where those of us with openings could get some of the laid off people. I hired a good person that way. However a lot of the people laid off got good jobs for more money elsewhere, and so we didn’t get all the people we wanted.
        I don’t know what the situation is in less enlightened areas of the country. :)

      • Be careful: “Fired,” “terminated” and “laid off” are often used interchangeably by employers.

  4. A couple of the previous comments illustrate why it’s insane to voluntarily offer that one has been fired. The bias against the unemployed (whatever the reason one is unemployed) is pervasive, incredibly deep-seated, and the product of irrationality and group-think. In some cases, the bias and extends even further to those who are employed but are actively looking. Google “passive candidate” and you’ll come up with all sorts of blather about how the best candidates are those who aren’t looking.

    Think of the “Extraordinary Delusions of Crowds…” and group-think. More specifically, Rand’s exposition of “second-handers,” because what is typically going on is that somebody is substituting the “thoughts” and opinions presumed to be held by others for one’s own mind and judgement.

    From Rand: “[Second handers]don’t ask: “Is this true?” They ask: “Is this what others think is true?” Not to judge, but to repeat…You don’t think through another’s brain and you don’t work through another’s hands…That’s what stopped me whenever I faced a committee. Men without an ego. Opinion without a rational process…The second-hander acts, but the source of his actions is scattered in every other living person. It’s everywhere and nowhere and you can’t reason with him. He’s not open to reason.”

    Architect Louis Sullivan also referred second-hand thoughts/opinions in discussing the word “taste”–“It is essentially a second-hand word, and can have no place in the working vocabulary of those who demand thought and action at first hand.”

    When you say, “I’m not going to consider anyone is unemployed,” you are substituting the presumed judgement of the HR flunkies at companies you don’t even know for your own. You don’t know what jobs, at which companies, in which locations the candidate has applied for and not been granted or been offered a position, or the idendity of the person who rejected them. That’s a whole lot worse than not interviewing somebody because somebody you know and respect had turned them down, and yet it is the rule these days.

    The same goes for somebody who’s been “fired.” To reject a candidate that you like and your own judgement tells you would be really good because they were fired by somebody you don’t know for a reason you don’t care to even consider, is to suspend your own mind. The idea that anybody who’s been fired must be no good assumes that companies and bosses are always in the right and employees always in the wrong. Even though we know that there are a-hole bosses everywhere, that lousy companies are hardly uncommon, that specific offices of a company can be toxic cesspools the resemble hen houses and ant or bee hives, we throw that all out of our minds and say, “well, there must be something wrong with the guy.” It couldn’t be that he was fired because the new boss wanted to bring in her own cronies, or that she feared the competance of those reporting to her. It couldn’t be because of anti-male sexism (we must, we MUST hire more women!). It couldn’t be because the guy didn’t harrumph! loudly and often enough (Blazing Saddles reference there), told his boss he wasn’t going to engage in fraud, or simply offered unapproved ideas too often.

    No, the hive-mind and propensity for almost everybody to not think independently, exercise their own minds and judgement, and make their own decisions is a rare thing these day.

    • @Bill: Great little dissertation! Do you have a link to those Rand quotes? I’d love to read more.

      “To reject a candidate that you like and your own judgement tells you would be really good because they were fired by somebody you don’t know for a reason you don’t care to even consider, is to suspend your own mind.”

      It’s worth considering the company that judges a job candidate’s value (how much salary they are worth) and why he or she left their last job, based on what their competitor paid them or why they let them go. Think about that. It means the second company feels it has no competitive edge in assessing the value of a job candidate. They’re basing a business decision on another company’s judgment.

      TRANSLATION: The company has no competitive edge! Why would you want to work for them, or be their customer?

      • @Nick: Good point about the salary issue, which you’ve discussed before (especially in reference to divulging salary history or even expectations). While that practice is often just a mercenary ploy to pay as little as possible, there can also be the factor of substituting another party’s judgement for ones own. So if a candidate is currently earning a high salary, they must be worth it, otherwise the current employer wouldn’t be paying it. Or the flipside–if a candidate’s salary is lower than others, it must mean they’re not worth as much. Well said about the implications of a competitive edge (or lack thereof).

        Following below is a link to one source of the Rand quotes. While republished elsewhere, they were originally in the Fountainhead (the working title of which was “Second-Hand Lives”). You’ll note some of it gets much deeper, in the sense of a person’s soul. I’m not saying that people who ignore their own judgement and fall into the hiring traps discussed above are “second-handers of the spirit,” but they are adopting a second-hander approach to some extent.

        The phenomenon of group-think, the emporer’s new clothes, management by buzzword, parroting the latest fads, Teamwork uber Alles, and the glorification of leadership is so strong in business these days it’s really dismaying. It’s pervasive and all-consuming. While a deeper cause is our collectivised society and education (how much “learning” at MBA schools is not done via group projects?), the more immediate cause is the rise of HR and their having seized de facto power. It is HR that must be rooted out and killed.

        Here’s another thought on why people are too inclined to buy into the “she’s got a prior gap,” “he’s unemployed,” or “they were once let go” pitfalls. What is a more powerful motivator–fear of failure or potential for success; the negative or the positive? Better to take the safe, approved route, right? If things don’t work out with a hire, you can’t be blamed.

        http://aynrandlexicon.com/lexicon/second-handers.html

        https://campus.aynrand.org/works/1943/01/01/the-nature-of-the-second-hander

        • @Bill: A leading venture investor I know, Gilman Louie, says that to hire the best people, you can’t look for “the same.” That is, the same people everyone else is recruiting. Which leads to the corollary, ignore what everyone else says and thinks and how they judge workers. Figure it out yourself.

    • Outstanding comment. I’m in HR – and I never reject someone because they are unemployed, or even because they are fired, without first thinking through whether they might be a good fit and if we can overcome any issues that might have occurred. But most HR folks, and most hiring managers, automatically discount someone who is not employed or who has been fired. It’s ludicrous. The same folks who decry the so-called “talent shortage”. It’s self-inflicted in many cases. The hypocrisy…

    • Some employers who were hiring during the worst of the 2008 recession, still wanted only currently employed candidates. They believed that other companies wouldn’t have laid off good employees.

      I wonder if letting bad employees go was actually harder, especially if the companies tolerated their poor performance for a long time. Hard to fire someone for performance reasons when they’ve been kept on for years.

      • @Sue: Very often it’s the mediocre employees who survive layoffs–the arse kissers and those well versed in office politics. Especially when a company is laying off employees not due a broad based recession, but due to the company losing business through its own failings. Think about it–you have a company that is screwing up, and it starts at the top, but those upper people who are screwing up the most are presumed to be able to make good decisions about who to lay off? In the 2008 recession it was really older employees who were most susceptible to layoffs due to ageism and perceptions that “they’re too expensive.” Far too many of those people have never recovered (see the true unemployment/underemployment numbers on Shadowstats) because of the group-think and second-hander fallacies.

  5. I have noticed on a number of job applications that employers are asking for your current supervisor’s name and number and asking if they can contact them or not. Absent a job application, how is Company B going to know to contact your manager at Company A? As a very wise friend reminds me, never lie to HR but do not give them more information than they need as it will be used against you.

  6. Even if fired.. not laid off, apply for unemployment benefits. With 40 years in work force I was never fired. After I turned 60 I was fired twice. Each time I applied for unemployment. Each time the State of Washington determined I was fired “without just cause.” I did nothing wrong. When subject of termination arises, share this information with potential employer.

  7. (I posted the original question)

    Thank you for the wonderful advice Nick.

    I had several more rounds of interviews after “leaving” my old job and had a nice (truthful) story based on your feedback all ready to tell about my departure, but it never came up.

    I did put my actual end date on their background investigation form, but it passed through their system with no problems.

    They offered me a generous compensation package to “entice me away” from my previous employer (little did they know!) and I start in a few weeks.

    To be honest, I felt a little dishonest not saying something, but I’m glad I didn’t.

  8. Here’s the rare situation where I disagree with Nick’s advice. I would pro-actively tell my potential new employer that I was let go from my existing/former employer. It will come out eventually, so better to take charge of the situation.

    I hope my potential new employer (PNE) will give me credit for being honest and transparent. I would even encourage the PNE to go back to my references to get confirmation of my explanation. Being let go is the new ‘normal’ these days – what really matters is how you handle it.

    If the PNE rescinds their offer merely because I was let go, it’s a sign that they’re the wrong organization. Glad I found out early.

  9. I have a friend who was in this exact same situation. This is how he sucessfully handled it. He told the new employer he didn’t want his “current” employer contacted in a reference check. He passed the reference check without problems and started the new job. He thinks the offer would have been withdrawn if they knew he’d been fired. BTW he’s an HR Director.

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