AMY LINDGREN: Explaining a layoff – 5 ways to do it, 5 ways not to do it

Amy Lindgren

If you’ve ever been laid off (and these days, who hasn’t?), then you know how awkward or even humiliating it can be to explain the situation to someone else.

When the other party is an interviewer, the stakes are high: Say too much and you can sound like a complainer or a victim. But say too little and the interviewer might think you’re hiding something.

Regardless of the context for the conversation, be it an interview or a beer with friends, it’s good to control the storyline. Here are five things to train yourself not to do when describing your layoff to others, followed by five things to try instead.

When discussing your layoff, don’t…

…gloss over it. While you don’t want to go overboard discussing the layoff, neither should you act like it never happened. A blithe “That’s what happens in my industry” will sound like you’re hiding something, so you’ll need to build out the story a bit.

…give a blow-by-blow account of the event. If saying too little is bad, going into detail is also a mistake. That’s because long sagas dominate the conversation, while leaving the listener exhausted from the over-sharing.

…describe the work environment in negative terms. Resist using words like unprofessional, toxic, dysfunctional, or any other negative term that smacks of name-calling. If you need to provide some kind of back story (and usually you don’t), focus on finding more neutral words.

…blame others. Whenever someone says their layoff was due to another person’s incompetence, or the manager’s need for a scapegoat, or whatever, the listener will be wondering what really happened. Generally speaking, we don’t trust someone’s story when they’re blaming someone else.

…blame yourself. In a similar vein, it’s awkward to be around someone who’s heaping blame on themselves. There’s a difference between accountability and self-blame, as you can see in these two conversation snippets:

Accountable version – “I eventually learned that they needed someone with more marketing skills and my strength has been on the communications side. Next time I’ll know to ask more questions to be sure I understand the job.”

Self-blame version – “I should have known they needed more marketing experience but I didn’t ask. I messed up by taking that job without looking into it more.”

Instead, when discussing your layoff, do…

…be succinct. Practice saying only a couple of sentences that sound mostly neutral in tone. For example, “That job ended with a layoff in March, when the company merged with a competitor.” You can add information if they ask questions, but otherwise, let it be.

…provide a big picture, if it’s relevant. In the example above, “when the company merged with a competitor” is the big-picture descriptor, which gives the situation without laying blame or going into unneeded detail. Another example would be, “Our manager was trying to reduce costs and mine was one of the jobs that was cut.” The idea is to give relevant and true information while also drawing attention away from questions about your performance or other awkward subjects.

…provide context related to your hiring, if relevant. The trick here is not to sound blaming, but to let the listener know that something changed from when you were hired. For example, you might say “Since mine was a temp-to-hire job, I knew there was a chance that they didn’t have enough work for a permanent position. But I thought it was worth risking a layoff just to get the experience.”

…take credit for what you learned or did in the job. Regardless of the circumstances for the layoff – including if you were at fault in some way – you need to demonstrate that your time there was productive. Things you learned to do, customers that you were able to serve, or progress that you made on a department project…it’s all part of the story of what you can bring to the next employer.

…relate your experience to the job you want next. Which brings us to perhaps the most important “do” of all when it comes to describing a layoff: What you’re going to “do” next. If you’re talking with friends or colleagues, you can be more expansive: “I’d like to transfer that experience to something where I can make a difference…”

But with an interviewer, your words need to be specific to the position you’re discussing: “One of my takeaways from that job was the emphasis on the global market. I learned a lot about how other countries purchase their raw goods and I think that gives me a valuable perspective for working with your company.”

Bottom line? Keep your eye on the future and not the past, and conversations about your layoff will likely to go well.

Amy Lindgren owns Prototype Career Service, a career consulting firm in St. Paul. She can be reached at or at 626 Armstrong Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55102.