How do you get hired after you've been fired?
Opinions vary, even among top career coaches, when it comes to dealing with that elephant in the interview room.
On the one hand, given today's economy and an increasingly mobile work force, a layoff or termination no longer carries the stigma it once did.
"The good news is, they're more public now," says Jamaica Eilbes, IT recruiter for Manpower Professional. "You can pretty much Google an applicant's previous company and find out how many people were laid off and what the reasoning was."
On the other hand, competition for jobs is much stiffer today as employers use the growing pool of job applicants to cherry-pick their next generation of leaders.
- Step 1: Define your mission.
- Step 2: Ditch your baggage.
- Step 3: Acknowledge the elephant.
- Step 4: Give the interviewer permission to reject you.
- Step 5: Start building a relationship.
"A firing is still tricky. An employer would look at that and wonder if that company was just trimming the fat," Eilbes says.
Which begs the question: Should you address your recent forced vacation upfront in a job interview?
International negotiation coach Jim Camp thinks you should. The author of "No: The Only Negotiating System You Need for Work and Home" says a more proactive approach can take you from fired to hired in a matter of minutes.
"Bring it up? It is absolutely the first thing I would bring up," Camp says.
Camp says it takes plenty of preparation beforehand to turn that critical make-or-break moment into gainful employment.
He offers five steps to turn "fired" to "hired":
Step 1: Define your mission. What are your long-term goals? How does this job/employer fit into where you're headed? Take stock in your credentials and experience so you have a clear vision of what you bring that others cannot to this position.
Step 2: Ditch your baggage. Recently fired or laid off? Jettison all anger, guilt and self-doubt before proceeding.
Volunteering at a local food kitchen or homeless shelter or doing another good deed can help you feel better about yourself, Camp says.
"Ralph Waldo Emerson said there is only one way to raise your self-esteem, and that is to do something for others expecting nothing in return," he says.
Step 3: Acknowledge the elephant. If you've been fired, Camp suggests you acknowledge the fact early in the interview. Explain why you were terminated, even if it's because of a failure on your part.
Explain that you have corrected whatever deficiency led to your firing and tell the prospective employer that if you are hired, you want feedback early and often about areas where performance is not satisfactory.
"Don't transfer blame to a bad boss or conniving co-workers; there are no excuses," Camp says. "That's where you address the real problem, face up to the real problem and provide the solution to the real problem. That's a basic rule of negotiation."
Step 4: Give the interviewer permission to reject -- or embrace -- you. Job candidates can reclaim negotiating power and break down other barriers by letting employers know that they are open to rejection if the fit isn't right.
He suggests you phrase it this way: "If I'm not the right person, I don't want you to feel uncomfortable. Just say no to me and I will certainly understand."
This is a key and powerful step, Camp says.
"You are establishing that you have no need for this job; you want the job but you don't need it," he says. "You are also establishing yourself as an effective communicator. It's a subconscious effect and it works every time."
Step 5: Start building a relationship. Job seekers should try to put themselves in the interviewer's shoes by asking about the challenges the company is facing and how the job candidate can contribute to solving them, Camp says.
"Once you get those challenges, now you address, out of your abilities, how to solve those challenges," he says. "You're applying your information and your solution to their world, their pain."
Don't get defensive if the interviewer asks a question like, "Why should I hire someone else's reject?"
Instead, strip their statement of its emotional charge with a nurturing statement such as, "I probably appear worse than that on paper to you."
Then, redirect the conversation with an interrogative question such as, "How has this tremendous downturn in the economy affected your industry overall?"
"We call that a reverse," Camp says. "Instead of answering a question with a question, I put a nurturing statement in there to put you at ease. I'm not going to slam you with a question."
Other career coaches and employment experts suggest a more cautious approach to revealing information about a layoff.
Eilbes advises job seekers to use their judgment about how much to reveal.
"If they know that you just came from a company whose layoffs have been all over the news, they might not even ask," Eilbes says. "If they do, it depends a lot on how they ask the question."
However you answer, make sure the reply is truthful, Eilbes says.
"Never lie in an interview; it will come back to haunt you."
John Challenger, CEO of the Chicago-based global outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, generally favors a don't ask, don't tell approach.
"You should not bring it up; there is no need to address it. Don't bring up your problem areas in an interview," says Challenger.
"If it does come up, and undoubtedly it will, you should have a well-rehearsed answer ready, short and to the point, that reassures the hiring manager that they are not going to be bringing in problems from your last job. You need to assure them that there is no big issue there."
But Camp says a proactive approach and maintaining a positive attitude -- even if you feel your worst -- can pay big dividends.
Most people don't realize that, in an interview, hundreds of decisions are made within a couple of minutes," he says. "When you carry negative baggage in there, you can come across as poorly organized and lacking focus. There are all kinds of misconceptions they can create in the interviewer.
"Just like fencing, there are principles and rules to this event. If you don't know what those principles or rules are, you're dead in the water. If the interviewer is going to try to break you down, you've got to be able to defend and still put yourself back on the offensive without offending. It's a fine art."