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I'm filling out a job application that asks the question "Have you ever been terminated or asked to resign from a position in the past?"

I did get fired from a job back in 1998. It was my first high-profile tech job after I graduated high school, and I was still very much a smug kid with a crappy work ethic. I antagonized my boss whom I despised, and I naively believed that finding work was pitifully easy since this was the height of the dot-com bubble at the time.

I won't even try to spin this as "not my fault" because it totally was. I'm perfectly comfortable owning up to the mistakes I made because that was over 20 years ago and I was a literal teenager at the time. I've done a lot of growing up since then and I'm a different person now.

On the one hand, I want to be honest and forthright on a job application. On the other hand, HR departments often use this question to immediately reject potential applicants without consideration of the reasons.

I've had a long and successful career since then and I don't feel that being fired an entire lifetime ago is relevant to the position I'm applying for now. I'd be fine with engaging the discussion in an interview if asked, but there is no room in a 400 character text box for that kind of nuance. The job I got fired from isn't on my resume because it was so long ago, and the company doesn't even exist anymore.

I'm looking for work because I've recently been laid off from a job I've had for 10 years due to an acquisition and workforce reduction. It was made clear to me by my former boss and my termination paperwork that the layoff is in no way related to performance or disciplinary reasons. In fact, my most recent performance review was positively stellar. But a layoff is already a small hill I have to climb and I don't want to further taint an application to a potential employer with something that shouldn't even matter anymore.

Is there an acceptable expiration date on such questions? Will I be branded a liar if I answer no?

If I answer yes, how could I explain it succinctly, and do HR departments typically consider those explanations when screening applicants?

  • 32
    You gave us two paragraphs describing why you were fired, which is only ~630 characters. I was able to pare that down and add a sentence or two about growing up and receiving a stellar performance review at your 10-year job, and still came in under 400 characters. If you decided to mention this, you should be able to write up something concise for that text box. – David K Apr 16 at 18:39
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    Depending on your location, a "redundancy" is quite different to "being terminated" – Criggie Apr 17 at 2:41
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    @Criggie; I don't understand what you mean by "redundancy" – Wes Sayeed Apr 17 at 2:57
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    @WesSayeed "terminated" means the employer doesn't want you in the job any more. "redundant" means the job position itself is gone. In the former its all about the person, and in the latter its nothing to do with the person so is less bad. – Criggie Apr 17 at 3:06
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    @Criggie; Ah I see. I'm in the US (which I failed to mention in my post), and we call that a layoff or a "workforce reduction". But no, I was fired/sacked/whatever 20 years ago on account of being an insufferable, entitled jerk who showed up late all the time and only did the work I felt like doing. My most recent job was a layoff. There is a legal distinction between the two. – Wes Sayeed Apr 17 at 3:16

10 Answers 10

82

It would be understandable to say no, because it's unlikely anyone would put in the effort to verify you were fired over 20 years ago from a non-existent company, especially if that job is not in your resume.

The problem with saying "no" is that it is not the truth. And not telling the truth seems to bother you, which is not an uncommon response.

This is a personal ethical choice to be sure, but you'll also have to carry around the worry, irrational or not, that someone someday will find out.

If this was a question about work history, I would definitely omit that job since it was so long ago, but that's not what the question is asking.

There's no way to say for sure what any particular company's policy is with a question like that. In my experience companies usually take context into consideration. The fact that they provide 400 words for this (as opposed to a simple checkbox) does seem to indicate they are doing so. The company would likely not go through the trouble of handling an application if they blindly rejected anyone who had been terminated.

I would say yes, and also briefly explain that it was 20 years ago, and served as a wake-up call and important learning lesson. You can turn this into a positive.

A company who would reject you based on that answer (or outsource that rejection power to an automated process) is probably not one you'd want to work for.

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    My only reservation about your answer is the last paragraph. Often times employers go through 3rd parties to harvest applications and pre-screen candidates. This job appears on the company's own web site, but the Apply Now button links to a 3rd party HR firm with this company's branding. If the 3rd party system is set up to auto-reject a candidate based on certain checkboxes being checked, I don't think it says anything about the company one way or the other. I just want my application rejected by a human if that is to be the case, not a machine. – Wes Sayeed Apr 16 at 20:44
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    And even within a company, the junior HR person who sticks to their checkboxes is not necessarily anyone you would interact with later – George M Apr 16 at 22:03
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    @WesSayeed: A company who employs a third party recruiter, but does not vet the recruiter's recruitment practices (dismissing applications based on an unelaborated answer); is similarly disinterested in its employees as a company who does the recruiting themselves and dismisses your application based on that one answer. In all cases, the recruitment process is the responsibility of the company - it's their choice to outsource it, it's their choice to choose how to approach it. A bad recruitment process always reflects badly on the company - barring exceptional HR employee misbehavior. – Flater Apr 17 at 8:31
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    @WesSayeed - Just remember, if a machine does reject your application based on a checkbox, a human chose to put that machine there. That human likely either knew the risks of losing a potentially good candidate, or would have rejected on the checkbox alone themselves. They could also have been negligent, or ignorant, and not truly considered the consequences. Either way, if a machine made the choice to reject your application, a human made the choice to let the machine decide. – Azrantha Apr 17 at 8:55
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    @WesSayeed irrespective of the company's intentions, with this process in place you would know that some of your future colleagues would be the second-best people for their jobs because the best candidate got pre-screened out on some trivial matter, and some would be more comfortable than average with lying. This will affect the workplace you are considering entering, as will the decisionmaking that has allowed the process to work this way as Azrantha has highlighted. – Will Apr 17 at 10:17
47

I did get fired from a job back in 1998... I've recently been laid off from a job I've had for 10 years

How to answer the question: "Have you ever been terminated or asked to resign from a position in the past?"

Thus, the correct answer to the question is "Yes. I was fired once over 20 years ago while still a teenager. And I was recently laid off as a result of an acquisition."

You could then go on to explain how you have grown since your early years. Most interviewers will understand that.

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    The "once, 20 years ago" part really helps. I don't think any sane hiring manager would require more explanation than that. It's like saying "yes, I did crazy things in college" or "I, too, was a teenager many years ago". – Mad Physicist Apr 17 at 13:54
  • Why not use this same approach to answer 'yes' but refer to the recent layoff and leave off the job from 20 years ago, especially since it isn't in the work history. How tight is that walking the ethical tightrope? – Kelly S. French Apr 17 at 14:36
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    Perhaps "as a result of an acquisition" could be better than "after an acquisition". The point is to say (assuming it's true) that the acquisition was the only reason for the layoff. – Andreas Blass Apr 17 at 19:16
  • It isn't necessary to mention being laid off in the answer. Being laid off isn't being fired, nor is it being asked to resign. – user1602 Apr 22 at 16:04
  • @JoeStrazzere, I don't agree with that, and I don't think it's what the question is really asking. – user1602 Apr 22 at 19:40
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It’s ethical to be concerned about how to answer it and honestly my first thought was no one will fault you on principle even if it were provable. But as I thought about it, it occurred to me that 400 characters may be the perfect space. Nuance is not for the application process. If you had eight paragraphs to explain, they’d skip you before you reached your conclusion. Application is about not getting weeded out and making an impression. You might even do yourself a favor by answering affirmatively.

By analogy, say you go out for pizza. The order is taken, completed in reasonable time and a good pizza overall. Does that experience stand out over the last dozen times you’ve had pizza? If they burned your pizza, apologized, got your drinks and an appetizer while they did it right and didn’t charge you, are they a bad restaurant or a great one?

Have you ever been terminated or asked to resign from a position in the past?

Yes, once as a teen--and it was one of the single most valuable lessons of my (early?) career. I’ve since learned my confidence was not misplaced, but how I interacted with others was forever shaped for the better on that day.

Ultimately, anything is a gamble. A simple “no” is safe, but leaves you no more intriguing than the other dozen applicants who answered the same. Turning that one, long ago shortcoming into a strength usually doesn’t get to happen until the interview.

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    The fact that there's a 400 letter text box suggests that, under ideal circumstances at least, it would be read by a human. It won't necessarily be someone who gives it more than a cursory skim though, so get the important facts in up front. – Matthew Barber Apr 16 at 23:07
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    I would remove the Yes, and just start with Once, as a teen .... this reduces the change of a robot looking for "yes" and or someone skim reading and seeing the "yes" without changing the meaning of the answer. – Tim B Apr 17 at 8:34
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    -1 for suggesting that getting fired is some kind of terrible thing to have gotten yourself into - sounds like you're trying to explain away a conviction on aggravated assault or something... – einpoklum Apr 17 at 11:34
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    @einpoklum what? Where does this answer suggest that? – CactusCake Apr 17 at 12:53
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    @JohnSpiegel: Negative, yes; but they haven't indicated what kind of negative nor how grave. It's a bit like when they ask "what would you say your worst fault is?" in this respect. – einpoklum Apr 17 at 13:21
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To expand on mcknz's answer. It seems like there's mainly 2 options

  • Yes, with an attempted brief explanation. As you mentioned, this may immediately disqualify you. And also as you mentioned, it's not like an interview where you can be personable.
  • Lie. As bad as it sounds, I'd consider this the best choice. Not only because you won't get caught but simply because something like this from 20 years ago is just not relevant.

The choice is now up to you. Can you morally lie on a job application? Different people have different morals. I would have no problem with it.

If it makes you uncomfortable:

  1. Tell the truth
  2. Explain the best that you can
  3. Hope for the best.

Good luck to you :)


Edit: A very good point came up in the comments that, I think, helps with the morality of the situation. Employment history generally is thought of as the previous 10 years (or the most recent 7 jobs). So it may not even be a lie to exclude such information from a job application.

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    Also, depends on your situation. If you've not much in the way of cash reserves, or there's not many opportunities, then honestly ... I can see a situation where you might just "misunderstand" the question and think it just applied to jobs in your work history. It's not as if you're using that particular job as justification as to why you should get this one. If you can't live with yourself for that, and it's totally understandable. Where I work - being open about it would be seen as a positive flag about the person. It could work in your favour – Algy Taylor Apr 17 at 10:50
  • The problem with the edit to this is that the question says "have you ever...in the past". It doesn't say "Have you ... in the last 10 years ...", or "Does your resume contain...". The goal of the question appears to be to find out if you've ever been fired, because presumably it could be a red flag. So reinterpreting the question as per the edit is questionable I think. – bob Apr 17 at 15:28
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    but @bob - "past" is relative, and infinity doesn't exist. They don't state a specific time period (say, "10 years") so you have to assume the usual frame of interest. – Fattie Apr 17 at 21:26
  • I guess people can interpret that statement how they want. Though to be fair, since a person's existence goes back finitely in time, infinity isn't an issue. If I've been alive say 40 years, and someone asks if I've ever done X in the past, that means in my case, have I ever in the past 40 years (which is my whole life) done X. Doesn't mean someone can't interpret it differently, just that I contend that such an interpretation would be different than the one most likely intended by the asker. – bob Apr 18 at 17:30
  • And I as one human being (others may think differently) would find an answer of "no" meaning implicitly "no not in the last 10 years" to be dishonest, or would at best think the candidate was confused. If I'm asking this question I realize people try to put their best foot forward and am trying to get around that to discover any potential red flags by asking about the candidate's whole employment history, not just the things they've included in their resume. – bob Apr 18 at 17:31
9

It's very likely that, in your resume or application you surely don't even list your entire work history (like 25 years worth) but only the last, say, 10 years. Is that right?

I would say with such a minor piece of ancient history - which is well outside your resume - it would be irrelevant.

To put in to light just how long ago this was, do you truly even remember anything about the job?

One person's name, anything? Your desk? The product? Where you had lunch? Anything?

Is it even the case that you were literally, exactly, and legally "terminated"? Do you have any paperwork or evidence to prove that you were terminated? Were you perhaps asked to leave (was the word "terminated" even used then? People used to just get "fired" or "sacked"!) Can you even remember the full circumstances, paperwork, procedue and anything about the events?

Consider this - say for some reason someone challenged you if you were actually "terminated". Could you present the slightest evidence that you were literally terminated?

Is there an acceptable expiration date on such questions?

The length of the content of your resume; 15 years anyway.

If a specific number of years is not given, you have to assume a reasonable one typical to this sort of commercial communication.

Will I be branded a liar if I answer no?

Simply, No you will not.

You had a part-time job as a teenager and it didn't work out after a couple weeks. It would be .. grandiose .. to describe it as "terminated!"

If I answer yes, how could I explain it succinctly, and do HR departments typically consider those explanations when screening applicants?

Unfortunately it is impossible to "explain" it in either way.

It's a yes/no item in a database. There's no "explaining" such things.

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    The answer to all of your questions is yes. I remember the job, the names of my coworkers, even the address of the building, and I'm sure I still have my termination paperwork in an old box somewhere. It was not a part-time job. It was a 40-hour, full-time position that I basically pissed away. Also, I was 19. – Wes Sayeed Apr 16 at 20:32
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    Hey Wes - My God, that's amazing, I was drunk that entire decade :) Well: you can take my advice as general. The short answer then to your question - it can only be one man's opinion - is that it's far too long ago and too minor to mention in the context. (I'd just be annoyed if I had to read something like that - you know?) One man's take! Good luck!!! – Fattie Apr 16 at 20:36
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    More to the point, is there any reason to include this job in your resume if it was 20 years ago? Did you do anything so staggeringly original that you risk not being hired because they don't realize you're the author of the famous ---? Then you should leave the entire job off. There, no more need to worry about that box – George M Apr 16 at 22:07
  • @GeorgeM is it common practice to comment on answers without having read the question? – Alex M Apr 16 at 23:51
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    just as @GeorgeM says, this whole affair of a couple of weeks (from decades ago) is not even on the resume. I have whole careers I don't even mention on a resume for a given field. There has a to be a sense of proportion and realism. – Fattie Apr 17 at 10:11
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The answer in my opinion would be no (if it's an automated system).

In person my answer would be "not in the relevant past". The point here is that the company that wants to hire you doesn't care about job experience that's 20 years ago. If job experience isn't relevant I don't see how termination is. Would you answer "yes" if you got fired from McDonald's while in high school ? That job and termination would be about as relevant to your current one as the one you did have.

One could argue that a lot of personal growth happens in 10 years, let alone 20, and especially between 18 and 38.

So yes, on an automated system I would straight up lie. If given the chance to elaborate I would.

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    All true! !!!!! – Fattie Apr 17 at 21:29
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On the other hand, HR departments often use this question to immediately reject potential applicants without consideration of the reasons.

Would you want to work at a company who's HR department is this judgmental and labels you for the slightest (unelaborated) answer?

The question doesn't even exclude cases of being fired due to bankrupcy, which is in no way the employee's fault. A company that dismisses anyone who answers yes to that question without asking for elaboration is not a company that values its employees, but rather sees them as numbers on a sheet (a more colloquial proverb in my culture is "meat on the pile").


In the end, it's best to be fully honest during job interviews, because it provides a way for you to see if the company is right for you. Job applications are a two-way street; both you and the company are looking to see if you are right for each other.

If you feel like you have to lie to get the company to consider you; then are you not always going to feel like you have to keep up a sham appearance in order to work there?
If instead you are honest from the beginning, then you know that when you get a job offer, it will be given by a company who appreciates you for who you are, rather than for who you are able to pretend to be. And in the long run, that's going to be a better workplace for you.

This is like the classic dilemma of telling a (white) lie to get a date with someone. If the date (job application) ends up going anywhere real (a job), you're studdenly stuck with the lie you told. If the date doesn't end up going anywhere (no job offer); then the lie was irrelevant since it never went further than the date (job interview) anyway.

0

Question:

"Have you ever been terminated or asked to resign from a position in the past?"

Answer:

"Yes, I got terminated from the position of position-title-here once, in 1998."

If they want to dig further, let them ask you about it. If they want to ask "And did it ever happen again?" - let them ask you about it. And if they want to disqualify you on these grounds - well, it might be more of a bitter pill for you to swallow, but - let them, you wouldn't want to work there anyway in this case.

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    I'd say the fact they are asking that is already a red flag of a highly bureaucratic inefficient establishment :) – Juha Untinen Apr 17 at 13:15
  • @JuhaUntinen: Possibly, but OP does want to go work there, so let's give them the benefit of the doubt. – einpoklum Apr 17 at 13:19
  • I would provide some explanation as per @John Speigel's answer. A termination in 1998 could be a minor one-time thing or a major risk indicator (e.g. it could indicate an on-going major character flaw that happened to get discovered). It's best not to let HR's mind wander here. – bob Apr 17 at 15:34
  • @JuhaUntinen tl;dr RUN – Underverse Jun 3 at 12:06
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Firstly, just because a company asks for some information on a form does not automatically make that information any of their business. Think race, sexual orientation, religion, etc.

Secondly, even most criminal records are deleted after 5, 10, or sometimes more years. That does not mean that you did not get convicted or sentenced, but it does mean that it is now for most intents and purposes forgiven and forgotten.

Given that your "offense" happened more than 20 years ago I believe it falls squarely in the forgiven and forgotten category.

Thus a yes-answer may be more of a lie than a no-answer in your case.

0

If the exact question is “Have you ever been terminated or asked to resign from a position in the past?” then it’s not the same as “List all occasions when you were fired.”

I’m surprised none of the answers so far picked up on this. Subtle, perhaps. But an answer that’s both true and avoids the problem altogether is:

”Yes, I got laid off from my current job because of restructuring after a recent acquisition.”

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