How To Answer Interview Questions About Being Laid-off

By Chris Kolmar
Nov. 27, 2022

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Layoffs and furloughs can happen to anyone, even the best employees, if a company is forced to downsize its workforce in a rocky economy. But despite the exigent circumstances, hiring managers are sometimes skeptical and hesitant to bring on an employee who was let go from a previous job.

This bias is something you need to prepare for in your job interview. Even if you have understandably powerful emotions about the injustice that happened, it’s important to stay as neutral as possible. You don’t want the layoff to be an indicator that you aren’t capable.

Here are some tips to help navigate this tricky situation.

Key Takeaways:

  • It’s important to be honest about why you left your previous job because a lie can come back and haunt you.

  • Try to keep your response short and try to redirect your answer back to more positive topics.

  • Make sure you show how you will add value to the company and showcase your past work with a portfolio.

How To Answer Interview Questions About Being Laid-Off

Why Interviewers Ask These Questions

Interviewers ask questions about why you left your last job to help understand the reasons behind it. Providing the reasoning will also give them insight on your relationship with your previous employer.

How you answer the question will help determine if you were laid off, fired, or left your previous job voluntarily. How you speak about your previous employer will also show if you have a good relationship with with your previous manager and company.

How to Explain a Layoff in a Job Interview

Talking about being laid off is always uncomfortable, but the topic is likely to arise in the interview, especially if you’ve been unemployed for a while.

Many layoffs are due to business decisions rather than personal performance. Be sure to emphasize that.

Here are some extra tips to help you answer the question in the best possible way:

  1. Keep it short. Don’t dwell on this response for too long; you want to redirect the conversation back to more positive topics, such as your strengths and the value you can bring to this new company.

    One or two sentences should be all you need. Keep it succinct, and keep your tone either neutral or positive. Avoid making negative comments about your former employer, company, coworkers, or clients.

  2. Show how you added value. Make a list of your accomplishments to demonstrate how you added value in your role to the company. This is a great opportunity to emphasize the skills, knowledge, and qualities you used to obtain these positive results at your previous place of employment.

    Don’t be afraid to seize this opportunity to segway back into your strengths and redirect the conversation to a new topic.

    If you’ve addressed the issue, you don’t need or want to spend a lot of time talking about why you lost your job when you can be focusing on pitching your value to a potential new employer instead.

  3. Fill in the gap. If there’s a gap between jobs in your resume, you can pretty much guarantee that topic is going to come up in the interview, especially if you appear to be a job-hopper who is dismissed or leaves in less than a year at every company.

    Employers want to know how you were spending that time between periods of employment.

    • This is an opportunity to emphasize anything positive you might have done to improve your skills. Perhaps you went back to school, or you spent some time freelancing or consulting, or you partook in online tutorials, or you achieved a special certification.

    • Remember that you want to stand apart from other candidates and make a good impression, so replying with, “Since I’ve been laid off, I’ve just spent my time looking for work” isn’t going to impress a hiring manager who has heard that tired line a dozen times.

    • Employers value people who are lifelong learners committed to self-improvement.

    • If you have been laid off in the past and had a few jobs since then, now is an excellent time to mention how you have been working to address weaknesses or expand certain skills to advance toward your career goals.

  4. Get references. One of the best ways to counter the negative bias associated with being laid off is for the hiring manager to hear testimony from people who worked with you and can vouch that you are a valuable employee.

    This is one reason why you shouldn’t burn any bridges during your exit interview from your previous company.

    Be sure to reach out to former coworkers, supervisors, clients, subordinates, customers, and members in your network who would be qualified to discuss your work ethics and skills before the interview so they’re prepared in case the hiring manager contacts them.

    Keep it professional; don’t use friends and family, even if your mom does think you’re the best.

  5. Showcase your past work. A portfolio of past work is a great way to stand apart from your competition and prove your value. Instead of saying how great you were at reports or designs, put your money where your mouth is and provide visual evidence to back up your claims.

    A portfolio can include samples of spreadsheets, reports, case studies, written works, designs, presentation slides, lesson plans, published articles, artwork, and more.

    Anything you’ve done that has a visual deliverable can be included, as long as it doesn’t violate any confidentiality agreements with your previous employer or include private client information.

  6. Differentiate this job from your previous job. If you were fired from your last job due to inadequate performance, knowledge, or compatibility, the best way to address this is to highlight the differences between the old job and the one you’re applying for now.

    Most importantly, say why you feel like this new job will be a better fit.

    For example, if you’re a people person but your old job stuck you behind a desk and made you file reports all day, emphasize how excited you are by the prospect of meeting with clients and putting the skills you’re passionate about to use.

  7. Use your connections. This is when having a strong network can pay off. If you know anyone currently working at the place of employment you’re interviewing for, see if you can get an endorsement.

    Making a good impression on a current employee might translate into a personal recommendation to get your foot in the door.

Fired vs Laid-Off

Understanding the difference from being laid-off versus being fired can help you answer questions about why you left your previous job easier. If your previous employer was not clear for the reason you were let go, here are the differences between the two:

  • Fired. Being fired means that you were released from your responsibilities because of a reason that is your fault. Some of those reasons could include:

    • Misconduct

    • Inappropriate conduct

    • Damaging company property

    • Not meeting company standards

  • Laid-off. Being laid off refers to when you are terminated at no fault of your own. This is typically because of constraints the company is facing. Some reasons include:

    • Downsizing

    • Needing fewer employees due to a reduced workload

    • Restructuring after merging companies

    • The company is struggling financially

Additional Tips For These Questions

Positivity is the key. You might be angry, hurt, and upset about losing your job, but letting those raw emotions show too much in an interview is not going to make a good first impression. Instead, you need to strive for calm, cool, and collected. Remember:

  • Be honest. Chances are good that a lie will come back to bite you in the long run, so know exactly what you’re going to say when the interviewer asks, “Why did you leave your last job?”

  • Remain positive. It’s important to remain positive and avoid saying anything negative about your previous employer. Speak positively about those you worked with, and be sympatric about that they had to make the difficult decision about laying off employees. This will show that you respect your previous employer and the company you worked for.

  • Acknowledge the elephant in the room yourself. The interviewer has already seen your resume, so you might as well bring up the layoff or gap in the resume yourself. This gives you the upper hand and indicates that you are confident and have nothing to hide.

  • Use numbers. If you were one of 50 employees furloughed due to the pandemic, say so. The human mind tends to fixate on numbers, so any statistics you can provide, such as saying that 25% of your department was let go, will help to ease any skepticism about you having poor work performance as an individual.

  • Explain what you learned. There is something to be learned in any experience, good or bad, and employers like to see people take a lesson and use it to better themselves somehow, whether that entails further education, skill development, or another area of self-improvement.

    It shows that you possess the maturity and motivation to better yourself.

  • Be prepared. You know this question about why you were laid off is coming, so there’s no excuse for being blindsided in the interview. If you need to jot down notes in case nerves tend to make your mind go blank, then do so.

    Practice your response ahead of time so you won’t even hesitate when the topic comes up in the interview.

Final Thoughts

Interviews aren’t supposed to be easy, but preparedness and practice can certainly help to make them less difficult. You have to become a salesperson, and the product you’re pitching is your own skill set.

Some people are born for sales and have no trouble stepping into this role, but for others, it’s difficult to muster confidence, use the most impactful words, and turn a negative experience into a positive response to impress an employer.

Remember that you’re not alone. COVID-19 caused a massive surge of layoffs and furloughs that left thousands of people in this situation having to answer this tough question. Theoretically, hiring managers should be a little more sympathetic due to the abnormal situation and state of the economy, but biases can be difficult to overcome.

Instead of dwelling on this inevitable interview question with dread, plan how you can smoothly redirect your response to talk about why you think you’ll be a great fit with this new company.

What’s up to you is whether that means focusing on the lessons you’ve learned, the skills you’ve developed in the interval between jobs, or the value you believe you can bring that wasn’t being fully utilized before.

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Chris Kolmar

Chris Kolmar is a co-founder of Zippia and the editor-in-chief of the Zippia career advice blog. He has hired over 50 people in his career, been hired five times, and wants to help you land your next job. His research has been featured on the New York Times, Thrillist, VOX, The Atlantic, and a host of local news. More recently, he's been quoted on USA Today, BusinessInsider, and CNBC.

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