How to Answer: “Why Were You Laid Off?” During an Interview (with Examples)

This may also be asked, “Why were you laid off?”

When you have lost your job due to a layoff, you do need to be prepared to explain what happened — very carefully.

Layoffs Happen, But Still Need Explanations Even During a Pandemic

It is a common fact — companies increase staff during periods of economic boom, and companies reduce staff to reduce expenses when business is bad, like when the Coronavirus pandemic requires the business to shut down.

Employees are typically the largest “expense” for any employer, so reducing the number of employees immediately reduces expenses.

The Coronavirus caused millions of layoffs, so, if the pandemic was the cause of your job loss, the explanation does not need to be long or detailed. Clearly, the problem was the pandemic, not your job performance, so do not feel the need to be defensive.

When a business or economic downturn has impacted an organization, reducing the level of staff is the fastest way a company can cut costs.

That choice is often the option selected by corporate management looking for a quick fix. As a solution, it rarely works. When an employer begins laying off staff, they usually end up doing more layoffs later.

Whether the term used is layoff, downsizing, redundancy (in the U.K.) or reduction in force (a.k.a. “RIF”), the result is the same. You lost your job and were involuntarily separated.

[Related: articles in Job-Hunt’s free guides to Layoff and Layoff Recovery and Job Loss Recovery.]

Prepare to Answer “Why Were You Laid Off?” Before You Need To

Rather than squirm in your seat while you figure out how to discuss your involuntary separation, think through your answer in advance so you can provide the right response for the situation.

Answering the question, “Why did you leave your last position?” will likely be uncomfortable. Preparation is your best strategy.

You do not want sympathy from the interviewer. Nor do you want to seem angry. You want to show them that you are moving on with your career.

Follow these 5 simple rules when you answer:

  1. Keep your answer brief.
  2. Keep your answer positive. NO anger at the employer, at politicians, at other countries.
  3. Share something you learned through the process.
  4. Share what you have been doing since the layoff (freelancing, volunteering, taking classes, caring for family members).
  5. If other people were laid off with you, share the total number of employees who were laid off (or your best guess).

A job interview is NOT a time to share grievances or speak disparagingly against an employer.

Sample Answers to “Why Were You Laid Off?”

When it’s time to respond to the “Why did you leave your last job?” question, take a deep breath, be brief, answer the question, and stay positive.

Do NOT say something like this:

We were in a tough market, and management wasn’t paying attention to what our customers wanted and what our competitors were doing. When sales dropped dramatically, it wasn’t surprising that profits disappeared too. So management ended up laying off most employees rather than reducing their own salaries and bonuses.

OR like this

We could see the Pandemic coming but, instead of adapting our procedures to enable us to survive — as many of us recommended — the owner just shut the company down. It was a stupid thing to do that cost over 300 of us our jobs, but he’s enjoying a permanent vacation.

Instead, these are better ways to answer this question:

    1.   Coronavirus pandemic shutdown:  

      Unfortunately, the Coronavirus pandemic shut down the company, and over 300 people lost their jobs. The rules to reduce the spread of the virus made us unable serve our customers. Fortunately, I am healthy and so is my family.

      It was a great company, and I miss working with those people. Clearly, in the future, we need to pay attention to the news and not assume that we are immune to catastrophes like this.

      Since the layoff, I have been learning much more about working remotely, using the video meeting technology required now, like Zoom and Google Meet. Now, I am looking forward to moving on with my career, and this opportunity looks great.

    2.   Reduction in force (RIF): 

      To dramatically reduce expenses, the Company decided to shut down our entire division, which impacted 15% of its workforce across North America. Unfortunately, I was one of those people.

      I have had time to re-assess my strengths, skills, and interests, and I recently enrolled in a class…have been studying independently…took a workshop…(fill in with something you did to learn something new).

    3.   Reorganization:  

      The Company reorganized, shifted some responsibilities to another division, and upgraded their technology to automate other processes. They eliminated about 8% of the workforce which was over 50 people.

      While looking for work, I’ve been volunteering with a local nonprofit and assisting with various organizational needs. (If you can share a story about how your volunteer work has positively impacted the employees, other volunteers, or people the agency services, this is a good place to share it.)

    4.   Downsizing:  

      Over the last year, the company took a hard look at its organizational structure. The last thing they wanted to do was eliminate jobs, but it was a small company and I was one of 6 people who were let go.

      One thing I’ve learned through this process is to make myself less expendable and to take more responsibility to invest in my career and myself. I recently enrolled in a class…have been studying independently…took a workshop… (fill in with something you did to learn something new).

    5.   Temporary Layoff:  

      Much of the work I performed was seasonally based.

      I typically would find other work to do in the off-season, then, go back when things picked up, but I’ve decided that I need to find something more stable.

  •   Corporate Merger:  

    My employer was acquired by a larger company in another state. The other company was in the same business and had employees doing exactly what I do.

    They decided that they didn’t need employees in two different locations doing the same thing, so they consolidated the work at their corporate headquarters and eliminated my job here. I was disappointed to have my job eliminated, but, from their perspective, it was a logical decision.

Stay Busy and Productive After Being Laid Off

If you are angry about your layoff, deal with it. Dump the anger out, privately, NOT on social media!

Do not let the anger grow — you will probably have a “bad attitude” that will show and impact your interactions with employers and recruiters, damaging your chances of landing a new job.

The best thing to do following an involuntary separation is to stay busy by enrolling in a class, becoming active in a professional organization, and/or volunteering your time with a local organization while you seek a new job.

These strategies provide a platform for learning, increasing your professional visibility, and skill building. Demonstrate personal and professional growth through these experiences, and share that during an interview.

The Bottom Line on Answering the Question “Why You Were Laid Off?”

You did nothing wrong — you were just in the wrong place at the wrong time! So do not feel like you have any apologizing to do. But, in the interview process, do ask about the employer’s history with layoffs, and, of course, be wary if they have just had a layoff or seem to be in the process of down-sizing.

Read on for advice on how to answer when asked the reason for leaving your current job.

More About Layoffs and Successful Job Interviews

Answering the Common Job Interview Questions:

Questions About You:

Handling Special Career Situations:

Questions About Them:

Questions for You to Ask Them:

Interview Preparation:

About the author…

Beth Colley CEO/owner of Chesapeake Career Management Services has guided over 1,200 job seekers to career success since joining the careers industry in January of 2000. She is a Certified Master Resume Writer, a Certified Career Management Coach, and a Certified Brain Based Success Coach and an active member of Career Directors International, The National Resume Writers Association, and Career Thought Leaders.

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