4 Questions You Need to Ask Before You Hire Someone Who Just Got Fired

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Apr 20, 2016
This article is part of a series called Opinion.

It’s tough to find the perfect candidate for any job. You need to make sure the skill set is a match, and the company culture is a fit. You want someone who can contribute to the company from day one. There are a lot of boxes to check.

So what happens when you find someone who looks great on paper, but comes with one gigantic red flag? What happens when your perfect candidate tells you he was fired from his last job?

I use four questions to determine whether it makes sense to take a chance on someone who’s just been fired:

What’s the Candidate’s Side of the Story?

If the candidate told you he was fired, you’ve already learned two critical things about him: he’s forthright, and he’s honest. He could have told you he left his last job to explore new opportunities or that he was let go in a cost-cutting move (i.e., lie), but he decided to be upfront about the situation. That takes a certain amount of intestinal fortitude, which you have to respect.

That said, what matters most here is not the official reason the candidate was fired (aside from criminal situations, of course), but how he describes what happened. Someone who tells me he “hated” his manager is showing me immaturity — and will probably end up “hating” his new manager, setting everyone up for a bad outcome.

On the other hand, a candidate who explains in detail what led to his involuntary departure, and then lays out for me all the things he would do differently now, shows experience. Which leads to …

What Did he Learn From the Experience?

Someone who was fired from his previous job was judged by his former manager and obviously underperformed in some way, or else he wouldn’t be sitting across the desk from you with his resume in his hand.

So you should pass, right?

Not necessarily. The key is what the candidate learned from the experience. If someone had an issue at his last job that led to his being fired, I’ll assume he’s spent time reflecting on what happened and coming up with a personal action plan to make sure it never happens again. I want to hear about that process and know that he’s committed to learning and adjusting. Making mistakes isn’t the worst thing someone can do — not learning from those mistakes is.

I once hired a product manager who had just been fired from another area startup for deploying a new product that missed aggressive revenue expectations. However, he initiated, executed, and managed that new product entirely from scratch. He was a strong operator whose only failure was overly optimistic forecasting and made it clear that he was never going to make that mistake again. Hiring him still remains one of the best decisions I’ve made.

What Do the References Say?

Let’s face it: it’s unlikely someone who gets fired will provide the manager who let them go as a reference. That said, you can still learn a lot from his other work and personal references.

At ZipRecruiter, if we like a candidate, we turn red flags that come up during the interview process into research projects. Once you know the details behind a potentially negative situation and hear what the candidate learned from it, you’ll have a better sense of whether he could be successful under different circumstances.

I recently interviewed a candidate who was fired from the management team of an A-list dating site. A cold reference check came back that said he was terrible, and to run away fast. However, when talking to additional references, we learned he was labeled “difficult” because he wanted to radically reallocate company resources in favor of mobile at a time when mobile was insignificant to company revenue.

Today, the mobile-first dating app Tinder dominates the dating marketplace. Had this candidate been listened to, his previous company could have become Tinder. The reason for his friction with other members of management (that ultimately led to his termination) was actually an endorsement of his competency.

What Does Your Gut Say?

After you’ve done all the research you can, there is still one more question: what is your gut telling you?

There’s a lot of dysfunctional working environments out there and a lot of poor managers. Many good employees are collateral damage in the internal politics of bad companies. A previously terminated employee may in fact be a great buying opportunity for a good company and manager.

This article is part of a series called Opinion.
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