Dear J.T. & Dale: I was working at a startup company. The company wasn’t producing enough revenue, and the investors insisted they cut costs. So, they let me go. But I’m the only one (at this point). How can I explain that to potential employers? I wasn’t part of a huge layoff, so my fear is that it looks like I am to blame. Thoughts? — Jake
J.T.: I find it odd that you are the only person let go. That tells me that out of everyone in the place, you were seen as the most disposable.
Dale: Ouch. That’s grabbing hold of the worst possible interpretation, which isn’t like you.
J.T.: I think it’s important that Jake ask himself, “Why me?” After all, no future employer is going to assume that he had no responsibility in the matter. You need to own the problem, Jake. What did you do to put yourself on the “disposable” list?
Own it and tell hiring managers how you’ve grown from the experience and what you plan to do differently in your next job. That’s what future employers want to hear. It’s not about being fired, but about how you use it to better yourself.
Dale: Well ... I can’t disagree about taking a little time for self-examination. I even might suggest that you go further and visit with some former co-workers to see what you could have done to slide toward “indispensable.”
However, Jake, I have to disagree with J.T. about carrying that thinking into the interview. The company was losing money, and there was a layoff and you were caught up in it. End of story. I doubt too many interviewers will want to go into the details. If they do, you can simply say that you aren’t sure how many people will end up getting laid off, and then you deftly change the subject, saying something like: “That experience has made me more selective about where I work. I want to grow within a company, and I now understand how much easier that is if the company is growing.”
You might be thinking, “Whoa, that would be really stupid to say if it turns out the company is not growing.” That isn’t going to be a problem, though. Why? Because prior to the interview, you will have done your research, and you’re going to interview only with thriving companies ... right?
J.T.: Dale and I agree on one thing: Hiring managers want someone who admits mistakes and who learns and grows because of them. If you can guide the conversation toward the conclusion that your mistake was going with a struggling company, then you might avoid the tougher conversation about your shortcomings. Give it a try, but be prepared for any direction the interview takes.