Wednesday, November 13, 2013


Ask the Administrator: How to Explain a Termination

A new correspondent writes

I am back on the job market after getting three years as a full-time English Instructor.  At my most recent school, I was on the tenure-track, probationary status.  I was informed at the end of my second year that my contract would not be renewed and when I inquired into the reason, I was just informed that I was not a good fit.
Here comes the tricky part: my dean, the one who decided to let me go, disclosed to me that the school had actually fired him and that the school told him he would be done after he completed the next term, so they kept him on a term after notifying him that he would be done.  During my appointment at the school, this dean harassed me sexually, verbally, broke my contract multiple times, scheduling me overtime without my permission, having me work on projects unpaid for which I was contractually due compensation.  
Because I was probationary status, I was reluctant to bring these issues to human resources and when I brought them up to my union rep, on the local and state level, I was told that I had no recourse.
After I was let go, I had a lawyer investigate for a possible unlawful termination case and I'm pretty sure my former dean knows of the allegations made.  I decided to drop them so I could focus on finding a new position, but now I'm not sure how to explain why I was let go to new hiring committees.  
I don't want to look like someone who stirs up trouble, or plays the victim card, but I don't actually know why I was let go: I had strong evaluations. 
How can I explain my past employment situation if it comes up?  Is it likely that my dean may say bad things about me retaliatorily if he knows about the (true) allegations I made against him?

There’s a lot going on here, so I’ll just try to take it piece by piece.  

First, it would have been better if you had brought your concerns to HR while you still worked there.  I know that people often refer to "The Administration" as if it shares one mind, but it doesn't.  It consists of a bunch of moving parts, some of which conflict with each other.  It sounds like they realized that your dean was a problem; that could have worked to your advantage, since it would have impugned his credibility.  If nothing else, it would be good for someone there to have a record of complaints about sexual harassment.

Second, I wouldn’t expect your dean to give a poisonous reference.  it would be rare -- not unheard of, but rare -- for someone to say something substantively negative in a reference.  If your former dean isn't there anymore, it's that much less likely.

Third, I'm a little surprised that your union didn't do more.  

All of that said, in the absence of some sort of smoking gun, you're probably right to focus on moving forward.  

I hope you made other positive contacts at your previous college.  If you did, I'd recommend using them as references.  Leave your dean off the list.  If pressed, you could simply explain that your previous dean was terminated, and that you wouldn't trust him not to lash out.  (If you' have a good rapport with any of your former colleagues, you might be able to find out something more useful about why you were let go.  Was there something you did that didn't help your cause, or was your dean just a jerk?  If it's the former, you could use that to improve.  If it's the latter, you could use that to let go of any lingering self-doubt.)

In terms of explaining the departure, I'd go with something vague that isn't entirely false, like "personal reasons."  No need to go negative on yourself, especially in this market.  

In any event, good luck.  It really sucks to become a character in somebody else's drama.

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  Should she continue to dig into the past, or just focus on the next thing?  And if she chooses the latter, what does that look like?

Have a question?  Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

Since you apparently have few other realistic options, move on, and don't ask the former dean for a reference. Ask a senior colleague or department chair who can speak to your positive contributions at your former school, instead. When you ask those other people, be sure to talk with them about how they would respond to any questions about the reasons behind your departure. It may help to have a more open conversation with them, than with the hiring committee at your potential new place of employment. If asked, they can say things that you can't. Even if they're not willing to say that your departure was the result of the inappropriate behaviors of the former dean, they can at least frame your departure as a real loss to their program - as long as that's true, of course.

I was in a similar situation to your correspondent, and I have to say, "personal reasons" doesn't really cut it. People who don't have a job, or who were let go, or who left for "personal reasons" are often viewed with suspicion by hiring managers. The economy's so bad that you wouldn't leave a job unless there was something significant behind it.

I once had an interviewer tell me that he only had one question: "why did you leave your former employer?" This individual was not satisfied with "personal reasons," as you might imagine.

Should you get an interview, you WILL be asked to elaborate on those personal reasons, and you'd better have a brief but satisfying story. Whatever you come up with should be practiced to the point that you are comfortable saying it, without being glib or robotic. Rehearse with friends or trusted colleagues until you can "own" your narrative.

I don't know why you wouldn't just say "The dean who made the decision only told me that it wasn't a good fit. He's no longer there; I think he had issues with quite a few people. I actually really liked the rest of the department and the administration."

You don't want to come across as petty or personal, but I think if you then move on to emphasize that second part (that you got along well with everyone else) it won't seem that way.
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