The Great Recession threw a wrench into many people’s career plans, forcing detours into lower-status or unrelated jobs and periods of unemployment. Explaining those periods of career diversions is a new challenge—but, like any other part of the interview process, it’s all about how you sell yourself.
Here’s some expert advice for how to talk about résumé gaps and unimpressive jobs.
Yes, the world threw you a curveball—perhaps a few—and your career timeline took some hits. It’s easy to fall into a bitter mindset that you were the victim of forces beyond your control. But that defeatist pattern makes you look like a victim to employers, says career coach and entrepreneur Elatia Abate. With over 15 years of talent hunting, including two years at Anheuser-Busch and two years at Dow Jones, Abate saw a lot of candidates. She says the worst thing they can do is claim victimhood, or suggest they can’t overcome obstacles and will continue to be buffeted by the world’s whims.
Part of the attitude fix is in tweaking your interview game. If you’re approaching the interview thinking, I just need a job, I just need a job, you’re feeding all the power to the interviewer, says Abate. It’s not just puffing up your chest and putting on your game face—it’s walking into that interview owning your experiences.
“If you come to the interview afraid, meaning you prepare answers you think the other side will want to hear, but you don’t actually want the opportunity, your ship will sink,” says Abate. “Don’t be afraid of your experience or lack of experience you’ve made in the past. Especially in this day and age, there’s zero stigma about old experiences—nothing is particularly bad or good. What matters is that you did it, and, more importantly, how you used the time you had.”
You’re going to need to plan how you’re going to talk about these unimpressive periods of your professional life. But this doesn’t mean glossing over it or fibbing around problematic periods—it’s talking about how you stayed productive on the path to where you are today. Building that story means looking at those unimpressive jobs from different angles and relating the skills you built there to the job you’re applying for.
“What trait can you find in your work that can still be related to the opportunity you’re looking for? Things are not as disconnected as they seem on the surface,” says Abate. “Let’s say you’re applying for a marketing associate or entry-level analyst but had to work at Starbucks to cover that gap. What from those jobs is relatable: the customer service, the increased revenue of the store, the things you pull from the day-to-day and make them relevant to the opportunity you’re applying for?”
Then there’s the big scare: explaining periods of unemployment. That’s not so terrible, Abate says, because she doesn’t think anyone’s just sitting around on the couch. Even something so simple as taking coding classes on the side shows your initiative to improve. But even if you did just kill time on the couch, the fact that you got the interview shows that the employer believes you have something to offer.
“From where I sit, it doesn’t matter if you had an employment gap. It matters how you use what you had to make it to the opportunity you have now,” says Abate.
The one thing you should never do is use the Great Recession as a crutch, says Abate. Even if you took jobs below your rank after getting let go from a previous position, you should wear that as a badge of honor, says David Lewis, president and CEO of the HR outsourcing and consulting firm OperationsInc. You survived.
Let’s face it: That transition was probably painful and humbling. But the worst thing you can do in an interview for a new job is get bitter about explaining how you lost your old one. Don’t be bitter. Instead, lean on business explanations. Have statistics about how the recession savaged your industry: You could say that, for example, 20% of your industry’s employers consolidated and you happened to be the one in three people at your rank that got let go. If they offered you a compensation package, tell the interviewer that you took the package. Then explain how you had two choices: to wait for a job at your previous rank or compromise for a lesser-paying one. Compromising for that midlevel or entry-level job put food on the table and showed that you weren’t afraid to get back to work. Portray yourself as a student of industry who is working back up to your previous rank.
“You have to keep away from bitterness and anger and finger-pointing, especially when those fingers are being pointed at individuals or old employers,” says Lewis. “It’s so much better to show yourself as a savvy businessperson who has worked within your circumstances than to lay blame at the feet of others.”
We humans are pretty poor at evaluating our own capability. Abate has her clients literally draw up a map of their skills, abilities, and work experience. You’ll find that you know how to do a lot more than you think, she says.
“It’s a logical puzzle in some ways: How can you trace everything you’ve done in the past?” says Abate. “I ask people to sit down and detail out everything they’ve done, like work opportunities, and even mundane stuff. You see pretty quickly that there are patterns of abilities, skills, and knowledge that would be applicable to a new opportunity.”
Then she has clients draw up a separate map of the skills they want to have in an ideal version of themselves. The key comes in drawing bridges between what you have and what you want. It sounds like a silly kinematic exercise, but it’s actually a clever visualization of an action path to build skills via tangible steps.
Human resources departments often want square pegs to fit square holes: perfect fits according to the job search criteria, says Lewis. When employers see candidates with unimpressive job experience or employment gaps—what Lewis calls “jagged edge” candidates—the employer has to get creative to determine how their core skills match up with the job’s criteria.
For that reason, jagged-edge candidates get edged out of interviews in favor of candidates with unbroken chains of experience. Jagged-edge candidates have a much better chance of scoring an interview by networking and creatively grabbing HR departments’ attention, says Lewis. How? By getting in contact in other ways than the front door–like going on LinkedIn and seeing if you have a shared connection with a leadership person at the company you’re applying for, and having your connection personally hand over your résumé or even make an introduction.
Otherwise, Lewis recommends doing a ton of research around the position you want and then finding direct email addresses for executives at the company you want to work for. Send them direct emails that honestly convey your interest but are short enough to be “nonscrollable”–so short that the reader doesn’t have to scroll to read your whole email. Leverage any connections: Did you grow up in the same town? Go to the same college? Get into the same fraternity?
But don’t send your résumé with the email, Lewis stresses–you just want to get across your interest. The goal is to start a conversation where you will have much more opportunity to explain the context of the “warts” on your résumé, says Lewis. Build a human connection, and they will see you as a prospective employee–someone harder to ignore than a sheet of paper listing jobs and dates.
Here’s the part where we tell you to shoot for the job you want, not the one you think you need. Yes, it’s the fuzzy aspiration to go for your dream job—but after years seeing candidates apply for jobs they didn’t want, Abate was left scratching her head and asking why these candidates weren’t applying for positions they were far more interested in. People have drilled incapability into their heads until they engage with cognitive dissonance to say, well, I probably wouldn’t get that job, so I shouldn’t even apply, or that their dream job wouldn’t pay the bills.
“It’s fear disguised as pragmatism. ‘Oh, I couldn’t have that job because I have to pay my mortgage.’ Is that true? Is there only one way to pay a mortgage?” says Abate.
But fixating on a single job opportunity can be a problem too. People think that if they don’t get that one perfect job, their career could be ruined forever. She tells her clients to not treat job searching like hunting for a perfect hidden thing, but like an expedition to the South Pole.
“So if you work for National Geographic and you’re going to the South Pole, you need equipment and knowledge and preparation, otherwise you’ll freeze to death. But once you’re there, you’re gathering information. Once you let go, it’s all an experiment,” says Abate.
There’s a wealth of resources online to help reshape your attitude and make good habits for a better, more skillful you. But they won’t hold you accountable, says Abate, and her service includes sending her clients into the world to experiment with job-finding tactics and come back to her with questions. Obviously, this suggestion is self-serving—but Abate herself has a career coach, and that’s not uncommon.
“Most coaches who are worth their salt do [have their own coach], because two heads are better than one. You want someone there to help you get better at your game,” says Abate. “I won’t be the right coach for everybody. It’s important that people find a coach who is going to help them transform their life, someone they feel comfortable building a working relationship with.”
Lewis believes employment coaches are worthwhile resources, but you should only pick ones that a friend has personally recommended. It makes a whole world of difference if your friend can vouch for the coach and directly credit the coach for getting a job.
“It’s one thing to have a coach sell you on things they can do for you; it’s another thing to have someone gainfully employed telling you that ‘I was in your position six months ago. This is what I spent, this is where I am, and I can attribute to this coach that I’m gainfully employed right now,'” says Lewis.