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12 steps to overcoming a black mark on your resume

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Getting fired or being let go is not the worst thing. 

Often, it is not a reflection of your abilities or work ethic, but more a personality conflict with someone who had more power than you or a situation where you were just not the right fit for the place or position.

If you were in a poisonous atmosphere, getting fired can actually be a blessing because once you get away from the noxious fumes of a bad situation you can see what you want more clearly and reclaim your confidence by focusing on what you can bring to the next job.

Steps to overcoming a termination in your work history:

1) Find out from your former employer what they plan to say about your termination.

According to Alison Doyle on About.com, “There are no federal laws restricting what information an employer can disclose about former employees. If you were fired or terminated from employment, the company can say so. They can also give a reason.” However, she says, “Concern about lawsuits is why most employers only confirm dates of employment, your position, and salary.”

2) If the company intends to say more than your employment dates, position, and salary, ask them to reconsider. Work with them to arrive at a statement that will not unnecessarily hurt your chances at future employment.

3) Whatever their plan, ask that they put it in writing so that you can discuss it with your attorney (even if you don’t have one.)

4) Have someone pose as a potential employer and call the company to see how they respond to their questions about you. If they respond inappropriately per their signed statement, contact them and let them know your concerns, or have your attorney contact them.

5) Once you have confidence about what your former employer will say, focus on how to handle the question of why you were let go rather than fixating on the hurtful details of the firing itself. At the same time, be as graceful as possible in extricating yourself from the company so you will be remembered as a class act.

6) Review what happened in your job situation that led to its unfortunate ending. Learn what lessons you can from the experience, put together an action plan, fix your weaknesses, and then move forward.

7) Write a brief, positive, yet truthful statement about why you were let go that will jive with what your former employer will say. If possible (and truthful), let people know you were part of a multi-person layoff or that you were let go for reasons that had nothing to do with you (such as a downturn in business). Use this statement to fill in application forms that request this information.

If your truthful perspective of why you were let go is markedly different than what the company will say, state both sides. For example, you could say, “I was terminated because I did not catch on to my duties as quickly as was optimum; however, I was hired to be a communicator, for which I was amply skilled, and my position was reclassified as social work, for which I had no experience.”

Sample phrases
  • "I was part of a 25 percent staff reduction (or a multiple employee layoff) due to a downturn in business."
  • "The entire department was eliminated after our company was acquired by another firm."
  • "The company outsourced my position as a cost saving measure."
  • "I was hired to be a salesperson, but the company and I both came to realize that was not my strength."
  • "I survived three rounds of layoffs; however the fourth one included my position."
  • "I was new to food preparation and just was not able to get my speed up to the required level. I have since taken courses to up my speed beyond the required level."
  • "My supervisor wanted to select her own person for the position."
8) If you did something illegal or unethical that caused your dismissal, tell the truth, express your regret, briefly explain how you have moved forward since then, and then segue to how you can use your abilities and experience to help the company.

9) Practice saying your statement out loud until you can say it comfortably and succinctly (and without anger, defensiveness, or sadness). Be sure you are not bad mouthing or blaming the company or boss in your statement. Take ownership of your mistakes, but don’t belabor the details. Wrap up your statement by emphasizing what you learned from the situation, how you have improved since then, and how eager you are to use your enhanced skills to help the potential employer succeed.

10) Have someone ask you why you were let go and have them critique how you responded. Encourage them to point out where you are rambling or where your comments could be perceived as negative against the former company. You can also record your statement and critique yourself.

11) Resolve to portray yourself in person, on social networking, and in your resume, as the picture of a confident, exceptionally qualified person, not as a victim of your former company or as a person who deserved to be fired. By personifying yourself in such a positive way, people will naturally believe it was the company’s loss you are no longer there, not the other way around.

12) Try out your statement in an actual interview. Follow up immediately with power statements about your work ethic and abilities. If the interviewer continues with the same line of questioning or tries to dredge up gossipy details about your former work situation, continue to reiterate your practiced statement. After the interview, reflect on how you did. If it did not come off naturally or didn’t ring true, revise and practice your statement for future interviews.
A good idea if the company won’t play fair
If you worked for a company where they will not speak in a balanced manner about you, seek out a former supervisor or coworker who will represent the company and speak honestly on your behalf. Some companies have a policy against current employees recommending or referring other employees, so if that’s the case, ask another person who has left their employment to vouch for you. Provide the hiring company with his/her contact information, or have the former employee contact the interviewer on your behalf either through a phone call or letter. 

Since my advocate at a particular company was my former supervisor, I included his contact information on application forms concerning that company instead of the HR department.

Choose to move forward
Being let go hurts, but don’t let a bad work experience keep you from your next great opportunity. There are a million ways to lose a job and your reason is likely no worse than anyone else’s who has gone through it. Learn from what happened, put your best foot forward and move on to your next opportunity.

What tips do you have for job seekers overcoming being let go? Or, what questions or comments do you have about the topic? Share your comments!


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