There’s no good way to lose a job. Losing an IT job due to downsizing, relocation, or merger, however, is preferable to being fired, terminated, discharged, canned, or “let go.”

Interviewers always ask, “So, why’d you leave [your last employer]?” When you say something like, “The company relocated 110 jobs to a city a thousand miles away”—something that happened to me once—interviewers nod and move on to the next question.

But if you’ve been fired—something that happened recently to a friend of mine—explaining why you left gets a little trickier. You have to be creative and deliberate to deliver the two things interviewers want: an explanation that makes perfect sense, and at least one reference from the last employer.

Less is more
I have a friend who thought he was having good interviews for several IT manager and system engineering positions. I’m one of his references, but no one was calling.

With current technical know-how and many years of IT experience, he has the credentials for the jobs. I asked him, “So how did you explain why you left [your last job]?”

You may go now

It’s unfortunately a familiar story in the IT biz. My friend was the first IT person hired by a startup company. After depending on this one-man network/support/training band for over a year, the company hired a “chief technical officer.” The CTO made some new hires, my friend’s job title was changed, and his duties were reassigned. He never quite met the expectations of the new management team. One day he was summoned to an office where he was informed he was being “allowed to resign.” He took the severance, took some time off, and then started sending out resumes.

I listened as my friend listed his accomplishments, the problems he solved, and the money he saved by being a one-person IT department. He ended his lengthy explanation abruptly with “And then they hired a CTO, and he and I had different opinions about how the network should be run, and I was asked to leave.”

I said, “Whoa! TMI!” (Too Much Information)

“Your accomplishments are listed on your resume. You need a one- or two-sentence explanation, so you can get past that question and get on with the interview!”

As we discussed his strategy, it became clear to me that my friend was still emotionally charged over losing his job. I tried the “never let ’em see you sweat” line on him, and he didn’t think that was funny.

If, however, you’re going to be effective in interviews and get the job offer, you must let go of your anger about the old job. If you don’t, it’ll ruin interviews for you. Employers have enough problems managing the stress of current employees. If you come into the interview with baggage from your last gig on your mind, it’ll show.

Memorize and relax
We took the “less is more” approach and whittled my friend’s initial response down to these two sentences: “I was the company’s first and only IT person for X months. The company hired a CTO who wanted to hire in some of his old coworkers, and I decided to look for a new opportunity.”

I told him to memorize those exact words and practice saying them until they came out confidently and effortlessly. This approach lets you put your departure in context. If more details are needed, the interviewer will ask for them. Otherwise, assume the interviewer is aware that IT managers are like managers in any other department; sometimes they accept a new job and the first thing they do is “clean house.”

When you’re asked about why you lost a job, keep your answers short and sweet. As quickly as possible, steer the conversation toward how your experience and skill set make you the best candidate for the job.

Share your interview story

If you’ve lost a job, how do you respond to the “Why’d you leave?” question? To share your experience, post a comment or drop us a note.

About that reference
No matter how you explain leaving a company, interviewers will ask if you have any references, “preferably someone who managed you.” In my friend’s situation, the new CTO was his last manager, but he wasn’t a prospect for the references list. So my friend approached the person to whom he reported during the time he was the one-person IT department, who agreed to verify my friend’s contributions before the CTO came on board.

If you find yourself in a similar situation, and I sincerely hope you won’t, finding even a single reference in your “old” IT department may be impossible. However, you may still be able to provide a good reference from your last employer.

If you’ve provided good support for your end users, recruit one of them. I know guys who routinely include a company’s receptionist on their list of references. The receptionists may not have managed you, but they can attest to how nice you were when you were solving their computer problems!