Careers: Life after death

Getting fired is not the end of your career -- if you're prepared to do some explaining in job interviews.

Dave, a 30-something supervisor at an automotive manufacturing facility in the Greater Toronto Area, can still remember the day he was fired from the company he had spent more than 10 years working at. “It was 10:30 in the morning, and I got a page from the HR manager's office. There was a sheet of paper on the table that was upside down–and that was it,” says Dave, who asked that his real name not be used. “As the letter read, they basically proceeded to say that I was not considered a long-term fit. Beyond that, they asked me if I wanted to resign or if I wanted to have a letter that said I was dismissed or fired.”

Shocked, Dave decided to wait until he was let go. Then he took a few weeks off to “absorb” what had happened. After that, he hit the pavement to look for a new job, expecting there would be some significant challenges ahead when it came time to explain the situation to potential employers.

Not surprisingly, deciding to hire someone who has been fired can present equally challenging hurdles for employers. Is it OK to hire someone who's been let go? What sort of extra due diligence should you perform? How probing can an interviewer be when it comes to asking about previous jobs?

Mardi Walker, senior vice-president of people at Toronto-based Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment Ltd., which owns the NBA's Toronto Raptors and the NHL's Maple Leafs, says the most important thing to remember when deciding whether to hire someone who's been fired is to have an open mind–and to realize that it happens more than most people think. Although Human Resources and Social Development Canada doesn't collect statistics on the number of people who are fired or laid off each year, estimates in the United States run up to one million. “I think that today, hopefully, people recognize that that type of firing happens,” says Walker. “People may find themselves on the outs or let go from a company; it may simply be that they're not a good fit with that particular organization.”

Walker says it is “incumbent” on a prospective employee to look at a candidate's overall history. “Is this the only position they were ever let go from? What about how they did in the other places? Maybe there was something different about that position that didn't work out. It's all about having an open mind and doing a lot of due diligence.”

As with any prospective employee, Walker says it's important to perform rigorous reference checks and to combine them with appropriate assessment tools, such as online questionnaires, that can help determine personality type or job-specific fit. It's especially important to ask job candidates to get at the reason why they think they were fired or let go.

For Dave, those were some of the toughest questions to answer. “As I began to interview, it became quite apparent to me that the biggest hurdle I had was, 'What happened?'” he recalls. “The question is always asked, and it's always one that I felt very uncomfortable answering.” Dave's advice for anyone in a similar situation? “Re-evaluate what you can improve on and really look at what things made the company decide to fire you,” he says. “And then, quite frankly deal with it.”

Monica Beauregard, president of Bridgepoint, a Toronto-based human-resources consulting and training firm, says the best advice for anyone in Dave's shoes is to come prepared to answer specific questions about their previous job and to talk about the strengths they can bring to the new one. “If they were terminated because of management style,” says Beauregard, “what management style was it that wasn't right? I like asking questions where there's no right or wrong answer, where you're actually getting at fit.” Beauregard advises hiring managers to ask job candidates to talk about examples of the type of environment, pace and leadership style they like most. It's also important to get them to talk about what sort of things they did not like about their last job.

Both Walker and Beauregard stress, however, that there's a fine line between asking good questions and going too far. “If you find something out that is irrelevant to the job, you can't discriminate on that basis,” Beauregard warns. According to the Ontario Human Rights Commission, employers cannot discriminate against a job candidate, for instance, based on a conviction for an offence which has been “pardoned under Canada's Criminal Records Act or an offence in respect of any provincial enactment.”

Ultimately, says Walker, the more information you have about a job candidate, the better. And don't forget to watch for red flags. “If it seems to be a consistent pattern, that would be a red flag. If they spent two years looking for another position, then you might start to wonder.”