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Explaining a Prior Termination

February 21, 2011
by Tim Tolan
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Advice for Explaining a Prior Termination to a Potential Employer
Tim Tolan
Tim Tolan

If you've ever been terminated from a job, you aren't alone. We interview plenty of candidates who admit they've left a previous employer via “mutual consent.” Translation: they were given the choice to leave or be terminated. It happens. It doesn't have to be a death sentence for the remainder of your working life.

There's a range of reasons for separation during the course of a career. Whether it's new management appointed by the board, a merger/acquisition, downsizing, a disagreement in style or personality with your manager, or a whole host of other reasons, everybody has their own story, and it's up to you to set the record straight. Many of us have experienced a not-so-wonderful exit at some point. The one ingredient that can make it worse is trying to hide it or lie about it. That's not a good plan, ever.

My advice to candidates is to be prepared for the questions that will be asked during the interview. Step up to the plate and tell it like it is-it's not as hard as it seems. Reach out to the person you had challenges with, and try to have a meaningful conversation about your job search. While this might be a humbling experience, you must be able to discuss each role on your re´sume´ without giving false statements and creating unnecessary stress during the reference check. It's not worth the risk to handle it any other way. Remember, there are only two or three degrees of separation in healthcare IT. I recommend you call this person and be as honest as you can about your job search and what you're trying to accomplish. Tell them you need their help. Time heals lots of situations, and generally speaking, people want to help. Talk about the role and the organization you're interviewing with, and explain why you want to use them as a reference. You may be surprised by their willingness to help.

If you're unable to solicit help from someone who can corroborate your story, be ready to discuss what happened, why it happened, and what you've learned from the experience. Make sure you have other executives, employees, and peers who can vouch for you. Talk about your accomplishments and what you've achieved; don't spend time focusing on the details of your exit. Chances are you will be able to verify the value of what you've created if you engage others to help tell your story.

I also recommend that whenever you go through a “mutual separation,” jump at the opportunity to get letters of recommendation from those who can help you downstream. Memories fade and people move around but letters become a permanent way to help you chronicle and memorialize the details of your situation. I also strongly recommend the same people that provide a letter on your behalf also provide a virtual reference for you on LinkedIn. In all likelihood the HR professionals you'll encounter will read your LinkedIn profile during the interview process. Help them connect the dots.

Dealing with a career blemish usually becomes a larger issue when you make it a big deal. Focus instead on the things that mattered, and where you moved the needle-promotions and earned bonuses also validate your success. For legal reasons, many employers simply provide your title, start date and the last day of your employment. That's it. Just make sure you're prepared to explain each job you've had, what you accomplished and why you left. Be prepared to talk the interviewer through each role. Ambiguity or false statements will come back to haunt you every single time. Honesty always works.

Termination from a previous job can be a really big deal or just a minor footnote that you can successfully explain away. It's up to you to help yourself and your future employer tell it like it is.

Tim Tolan is a senior partner at Sanford Rose Associates Healthcare IT Practice. He can be reached at or at (843) 579-3077 ext. 301. His blog can be found at Healthcare Informatics 2011 March;28(3):64