Spinning the Negatives in an Interview

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Posted by The Editors on June 19, 2011
Spinning the Negatives in an Interview

A savvy interviewer or negotiator may try to destabilize your presentation (or subsequent negotiation position) by tying your hiring chances, compensation, title, or responsibilities to something negative in your work history. If you have had some rough patches in your career, or you have had a manager who did not appreciate your style, it is imperative that you own these negatives and turn a question about them into an opportunity to either deflect to a positive story or demonstrate how you overcame those issues.

Here are some examples of negatives and how to deal with them when brought up in an interview or negotiation (usually to apply downward pressure on your compensation):

You were laid off from a previous job.
There is no shame in being laid off; in fact, it happens to almost everyone at one time or another. Come up with a breezy two-sentence explanation for the company's layoffs, and finish with an upbeat recitation of the opportunities that the layoff presented. For example, you were able to finish school, you toured Europe, you learned some woodworking, and-best of all-you were freed up to look for more meaningful work at a great company like the employer's.

The trick here is to have a quick gloss for the layoff and then segue directly into a positive wrap-up that conveys equanimity and readiness to take on the next challenge. Also, don't be cheesy, but don't underestimate a hiring manager's desire to hear genuine enthusiasm about the new position and the prospective employer.

You were fired from a previous job.
This one is a bit tougher, but you absolutely should have a packaged explanation at the ready when the subject comes up, and it's likely that it will. The best explanation will openly acknowledge that the situation wasn't optimal and look for a way to tell the story with a positive ending. Above all, you do not want to get bogged down in a long-winded explanation of how you weren't wrong in the first place or how other folks had it in for you. Even if you were mostly in the right, most hiring managers don't want to hear the whole story-and will likely tend to sympathize with your former manager.

Instead, describe the problem in three to four short dispassionate sentences and then speak about what you have done in the interim to fix your contribution to the problem. If you were fired for poor attitude, you might talk about how you started volunteering and realized how much you took for granted. If you were fired for being constantly late, you might talk about how you saw a sleep specialist and now sleep 8 hours a night. Most important, don't lie about either the problem or the solution; a prospective employer may check your story and blackball you in the industry or profession if the story doesn't bear out.

You quit your last job.
Assuming you didn't leave your former employer without notice, there is absolutely no shame to this. Characterize the decision as one you made, after careful consideration, to give you the time and focus to find a better opportunity at a great company like the employer's.

If you did quit your last job without notice and for a thinly justified reason-and you know there is potential animosity remaining at your former employer, we suggest employing an approach similar to that given above for explaining a firing. Emphasize what has happened in the interim to develop your maturity.

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