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I am asking just to be prepared should it ever happen, because it has happened to a very few people I know: they are top performers, have always been given positive feedback by their superiors, have received promotions, etc. and one day they are just terminated for no reason - outside the scope of a lay off or redundancy program.

I suspect the real reason may be some inner politics or something similar, but the point here is that it is nothing for which the employee got any feedback or a chance to improve.

If anyone is in such a situation where they are given no reason (and have never been given a reason for bad performance), how are they supposed to answer the "Why were you terminated?" question at job interviews?

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    I guess you'd say "They no longer needed my services" Make sure that you collect references from senior co-workers and managers who are friendly to you. – Vietnhi Phuvan May 31 '14 at 0:19
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    @JoeStrazzere - depends on your location. Here we fired a useless employee and we had to specifically say nothing which could give cause - just "goodbye, here is your pay check" – NobodySpecial May 31 '14 at 23:14
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    @NobodySpecial but if he was a useless employee he should know, so it falls on Joe's scope of "not understanding why they were fired" – Secret Jun 1 '14 at 3:26
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    "budgetary restraints" – Raystafarian Jun 1 '14 at 11:46
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    I don't agree that a useless employee always knows. Some of them fall under "unconscious incompetent": [link]en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_stages_of_competence[/link] – SeraM Jun 2 '14 at 0:28
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I have fired someone who, if you asked him, would probably tell you that he was fired for no reason. This was a very personable, hard working, smart guy I was hoping would be a developer. He was hired to fill two roles 50-50: one he was objectively bad at and the other he was abysmally awful at. His self assessment on both these roles was that the first was "flawless" and the second "is getting there but I know it needs some work." He told me that he never made the same mistake twice, but he did, all the time - he just didn't realize it was the same mistake.

For example, being given some tentative requirements for making an estimate, then hearing in a meeting that the project looked like it was was going to go ahead, and immediately getting started using those requirements, without waiting to hear that the project had been sold or confirming the final requirements. On being told it was sold, not looking in the location we keep requirements to see it had been updated, and not asking the person who said "do it now" whether anything had changed. The second time he did this, he said it wasn't the same mistake because one was a Windows application and one was a web site. I have many more examples which I will spare you.

Eventually he was on the tightest leash imaginable: having to send detailed steps of what he planned to do each day, and loop back to tell us how he did against the plan. He never met the plan but he always had a reason and didn't see the pattern. Things would take twice as long as planned, or 4 times, or even ten times! I remember a task my other developer felt would take 2 hours that was taken away from this guy after a week, although as he pointed out, he didn't spend 40 hours on it, probably only 20. The other developer finished it in an hour. There was more than one meeting in my office with the door closed where I said "this can't go on, this cannot keep happening." He was not on any billable projects, only internal-use ones, because it was impossible to keep promises to clients if tasks were given to him.

And when he asked me, while I was away visiting a dying relative, if we could meet when I got back to talk about what he needed to do to get the raise he felt he was owed because he had been with us a year and his wife was really pushing him to earn more money, I decided he would never realize how far his performance was from where it needed to be, and I fired him. He was utterly blindsided and furious. But he was not fired "for no reason." Should this happen to you, you can say it must have been personal, somebody must have been jealous, or whatever else you like but the chances are you were so bad at that job you didn't even realize you were bad.

It might then be useful to look back over meetings and emails and try to look at them with new eyes: "what if all this is about my not being very good at this work?" Yes, there is praise in this email and this review, but now that I look closely, there is also some criticism. Hmmm..." You may learn something important about yourself.

What do you say in the interview? One of my other former staff members suggested this employee apply to a specific job (at that employee's new employer) that needed something he was very good at, and had no need for the skills he was so abysmal at. He applied there and told them (truthfully) that our work mix and business model were not a good fit for him, which is why he was applying to something so different. He got the job and was a bit of a star there, promoted repeatedly to the extent the recommender was thought more highly of for bringing him to them.

So a happy ending for everyone because he was doing something he was good at. I don't know if he told them he was fired or he quit, and I don't care. I only kept him around as long as I did because I liked him, and I was genuinely happy that he found something he was good at. But I bet if you asked him he'd say I blindsided him, fired him for no reason, and did it out of personal dislike or some other "politics" reason.

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    this doesn't seem to match the cases question asks about: "it has happened to a very few people I know: they... have always been given positive feedback by their superiors, have received promotions, etc" – gnat Jun 1 '14 at 17:03
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    First, what people tell you is not what happens always. Second, a person busy giving themselves positive feedback may truly believe that their bosses are doing so too. This fellow did. – Kate Gregory Jun 1 '14 at 17:15
  • I know what you're talking about (have met guys like you describe and fully agree with your analysis regarding these). However, the part of the question referring "received promotions" makes me wonder if it's really about this sort of people - it doesn't look like idea of good performance is solely within their mind – gnat Jun 1 '14 at 17:17
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    +1 for a good honest story that conveys a good point: everybody thinks they are awesome at their job and is entitled to a good performance review, raise, promotion etc. It is easy to blame the firing manager or think it's "for no reason" because you don't want to see the reason. Therefore, when hearing "I was fired for no reason or my coworker was fired for no reason", it's hard to take that seriously. – Brandon Jun 1 '14 at 17:38
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    +1 i like stories, this was a good one that had a lesson and a happy ending. i smell movie deal! – bharal Nov 13 '14 at 16:01
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If you weren't given a reason, then the best thing to say is "I wasn't given a reason". You can follow up with some extra information if you like: for example if the company was in financial trouble, then say that (it's very rare that employees have no idea that a company was in financial trouble, if only because layoffs are usually preceded by wage freezes and hiring freezes). If you were given positive performance reviews, tell them that. If a number of people were let go at the same time, say that.

2

I have seen this happening a few times, also at my current company - people are just let go for some bogus reason like "you are not fit for the role" but without ever having received negative feedback prior to that; I think it may be a symptom of shrewd internal politics. Maybe the boss saw the great performer as a threat to his/her career development or there were minor disagreements.

It is a tricky situation and the interviewer wants to be able to trust you and see if you can be self-critical.

The most likely reason for being let go without any other negative feedback is being perceived negatively by the superiors, so I think it shouldn't be too bad to explain something along the lines of: "My manager and I disagreed on a number of points, so we decided to end it there".

That way, you can also deflect the attention from your performance and underline the fact that it was more of a personal/corporate decision.

  • Just my opinion, but if someone fed me that disagreement line, I wouldn't be impressed. I expect my employees to be able to disagree with me without it turning into their departure from the company. I would follow up and ask the nature of the disagreements and what was done to try and resolve them. – Dancrumb Jun 1 '14 at 14:22
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    Agreed. My manager has disagreed with me quite a few times. More often than not, I eventually realized he was right (after I put my ego aside). If I resigned every time I disagreed with a boss, I'd be unemployed and have learned a lot fewer lessons. – Brandon Jun 1 '14 at 17:40
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    Another variation on this: My wife was once fired for being too good. It was in a piecework pay situation, clients preferred her. The boss was faced with getting rid of her or having the rest of the people walk. – Loren Pechtel Jun 1 '14 at 21:00

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