24 February 2016

tl;dr A Forbes.com article Q/A recently stated that job-seekers need to hide the fact that they've ever been fired from a position, because of the stigma associated with such an action. I couldn't disagree more.

First off, as is common for my posts, read the original, so we all know what I'm aruging against. But if you just want the short summary, a reader, "Madelyn", writes to "Liz" (presumably the Forbes equivalent of a Dear Abbey or something), saying

"You advise people to withhold the fact that they've been fired and to make it sound like they left their last job on their own. How can you advise people to be so unprofessional? If someone got fired from a job, they need to say so and they need to explain it."

"Madelyn" goes on:

"Personally, I would never hire anyone who had been fired from a past job. ... Maybe some employers are okay with that, but I wouldn't take a chance on that person. If the person I hired had problems again, I would have to acknowledge that I knowingly hired someone who had already been fired once!"


Why Madelyn is wrong

First of all, it's clear that "Madelyn" is making the fundamental assumption that being fired is a negative thing (a "black mark") on your career history. I really don't agree---the assumption here is that you were fired "for cause", meaning that your manager had a Really Good Reason to terminate you. While that sometimes might be true, that's hardly always the case. Too many times, people are fired (terminated, separated, "let go", or whatever other non-"fired" word HR cares to use) because of personality conflicts with their boss (which are not always the fault of the individual under consideration, that is to say, you), because of personality conflicts with their colleagues (which are not always the fault of the individual), or even because the company simply doesn't need that particular department or the excess capacity in that position (a la a merger or acquisition).

Granted, much of the time, that latter scenario is called being "laid off", and "Madelyn" allows for that as an out: "Maybe they get laid off, but that is a different scenario." But let's be really clear about something---in a classic layoff, a company owes some form of severance pay, and most companies are quite loathe to pay that out, so they will simply terminate instead of "lay off". Case in point: when I worked for Neudesic, I was terminated without severance because the company had taken a huge hit in the form of a client contract termination. There was no "cause", per se---they simply couldn't afford to keep me on given that they'd taken this huge blow to their client portfolio. Should they have paid me severance? Probably, but it was likely a non-starter as a discussion point, and I didn't really feel like arguing with them about it.

In the case that I think "Madelyn" is trying to use as her stalking horse, a company will fire an employee for making a mistake of some monumental proportions. In some scenarios, it's because an employee just keeps making the same mistakes over and over again. In this case, the termination is understandable, and justifiable. (Even then, that doesn't mean that the employee is entirely at risk--if they weren't trained, yet kept being tossed into the pool to drown over and over again, it's hard to blame the employee.)

But in some scenarios, it's because an employee does something that the company doesn't want to be potentially liable for---the case of the fast food employee who chooses to give leftover food to homeless, for example, runs the risk of violating local FDA or health department rules. In order to avoid liability (or accountability) the company terminates that employee--even though in this case it's for doing something that most of us consider to be a good act--"with cause", because it potentially could be termed "theft". If you're that employee, this is really something to be ashamed of? This is really a reason not to hire a candidate---because they chose to act in accordance with a high moral standard (and didn't realize that doing so was creating problems)?

Why it shouldn't matter

But perhaps even more to the point, even if the company calls your previous employer to verify your employment, typically your employer will say nothing more than "He/she worked here from this date to that date" and hang up the phone. They won't say more than this in order to avoid any sort of legal liability. In fact, most employers of any size will demand that any reference check go to their HR department, who will then verify the dates, and if asked a reason, choose not to disclose the reasons for the end of the engagment. (Granted, I suppose it's always possible that your manager could choose to say something "off the record", but such things have a nasty way of somehow making it onto the record, which then leaves the company vulnerable to legal liability again; for that reason, most managers are taught pretty strictly not to say anything.)

Which then brings up the point: Why on earth would you bother telling them?

Seriously, beyond the bare facts of your employment history, you need not disclose facts about your employment past: your manager's name, your colleagues' names, your relationship with either employers or colleagues, your previous hits or misses, your previous salary or benefits, none of it is the interviewing manager's business! They of course may ask, but you are under no legal obligation (that I'm aware of, anyway) to disclose any of it.

And, given "Madelyn"'s rather medieval opinion on how to judge people, I think it's in your best interests not to volunteer anything. After all, the interviewer is expecting you to come into the position with a "clean slate", and not hold any of your previous managers' mistakes against the company---shouldn't you be granted the same "clean slate" in turn?

Why you should hire the fired

Most of all, though, those who have been fired have something valuable that their new employer could really use: experience. It is an old adage that says, "Good decisions come from experience; experience comes from bad decisions." For most people, being fired is not a positive thing, and they will replay the event over and over in their head, looking to learn from it. Personally, I would want the benefit of that experience. What did they learn from it? What can they bring to this position from that prior situation that we can learn from?

If you ever interview with me, let me make it clear: You need not tell me why you were released from that position. (If I forget, and ask that question, you may remind me that you are under no obligation to tell me; quite frankly, you should remind me.) If you choose to tell me that you were fired, I'll of course be interested to know what you learned from the experience, and how we can apply it to here.

But, of course, I may ask you the "what did you learn" question anyway, regardless of whether you were ever fired. Because, again, how you left your last position really shouldn't matter a damn.

"Liz"'s response

... is great. (Yes, she agrees with me.) Some excerpts:

Never tell your prospective employer why you left. Because, again, how you left shouldn't really matter a damn to anyone.

2022 Edit: Caveat

If you were fired for reasons stemming from criminal violations and/or imprisonable offenses that required arrest and/or incarceration, you are (I believe) under legal requirement to disclose that on your employment application. If you're one of those people and you're reading this blog, chances are pretty good you've paid your debt to society and are looking for the clean slate. I, personally, think you are owed the chance to start over, but many big companies have different policies on that. I think your best bet is to identify those companies that have a heart and are willing to give you that chance--but, as I'm sure you're aware, that is really going to be a hit-or-miss proposition. If you're interviewing with me, I'll do what I can, but my hands are likely to be tied by HR policy in that case.

Tags: industry   management  

Last modified 24 February 2016