How to explain past problems in a job interview
In her recent US News article the always spot-on Allison Green of Ask A Manager answers the question “How do I explain in an interview that I was fired?” An example from the article is:
“Actually, I was let go. The workload was very high, and I didn’t speak up about that soon enough. I just tried to keep my head down and get it all done. This wasn’t a realistic strategy, and I ended up making some mistakes because of the volume. It taught me a really valuable lesson about the need to communicate better when the workload is a problem and to figure out ways to make sure we’re on the same page about priorities if we’re in a triage mode. Since then, I’ve put a real premium on keeping lines of communication open so that that never happens again.”
Note how this example is much like answering the classic interview question “Tell me about a project that didn’t go so well, and what you learned from it.” You describe a problem clearly, without rancor, and how you dealt with it. After that, you describe what you’ve learned to improve things going forward.
Another key point that she brings up is that you must not be angry about having been fired. In the article, Allison says:
Practice your answer over and over out loud until you can say it calmly. What the interviewer is going to be paying a lot of attention to–almost more than the substance of your answer–is how you talk about it: Do you seem bitter and angry about it? Have you learned from the experience? How has it changed the way you conduct business? You want to really pay attention to how you deliver it.
This is fantastic advice for your entire interview, too. Are you one of those people who is easily angered? Do you find yourself irritated when talking about people you work with that you may not pull their weight, or perform as well as you? If so, chances are that irritation is coming out when you interview as well, and it doesn’t help you at all.
Every interview you go on is going to have at least one form of the “tell me about a problem from the past, how you dealt with it, and what you learned” question. Come up with an answer for it beforehand, and know what you’re going to say. Practice it. Make sure you are entirely without rancor or fingerpointing in your delivery. Role-play with a friend and see what they say. You might think you’re sounding calm, but a fresh set of ears may tell you otherwise.