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How to best explain a gap in employment

Posted by Pattie Hunt Sinacole  August 8, 2011 07:40 AM

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Q: After nine years of service, I was laid off by a large Boston-based company in January, 2010. I have picked up some contract and consulting work for short periods of time through friends and colleagues. However, I can see from the interviewers’ faces that I need to work on a response to one question. I am tired of the question, “why do have such a large gap in your employment history?” I want to say, “because I was laid off…. isn’t that obvious?” These interviewers are so callous and don’t understand that being unemployed for over one year takes a toll on a person’s self-esteem. So Job Doc, how do I answer this question? I will follow your advice. I just need to know what to say.

A: Thank you for submitting your question. This question could have been written by hundreds of job seekers who share your frustration.

Let’s start with the positives. It sounds like you probably enjoyed a stable work history prior to being laid off. This is important information to convey and highlight during any interview. Also, you have secured some consulting and contract roles. These roles should be included on your resume and mentioned during the interview.

And that question, about the gap in your employment (however it may be phrased), should be expected. You will get that question again. Expect it, prepare for it and don’t let it irritate you. An interviewer is trying to find out what occurred during that gap. It could have been that you left your last company because you were tired of travel. Or you left your last role to care for a sick family member. Or you left because you were fired after you were linked to embezzling company funds. All three are possible reasons and all three reasons are very different.

Here is my best advice. When “the question” is asked, don’t get emotional. Expect it. Prepare for it. This part of the interview may play out like I’ve described below.

Interviewer from XYZ: So John, you have been out of work for over a year. That’s a long time. Tell me about the circumstances of when and why you left ABC and tell me what you have been doing since you left ABC.”

You: Jane, thanks for giving me an opportunity to explain. First, I should point out that I was with ABC for nine-plus years. I started with ABC right out of college and then was promoted three times. Like a lot of companies, they struggled financially in 2008 and 2009. I survived three layoffs but finally in early 2010, I was laid off too. As you probably recall 2010 was a tough year and a lot of Massachusetts-based companies were not hiring. Fortunately, through networking, I have been able to secure quite a few consulting roles with several small- and mid-sized companies. What I have learned is that I thoroughly enjoy working in smaller, entrepreneurial environments, much like XYZ.

In short, what you are communicating is that you:

1. have had a strong professional work history and that the lay-off was an aberration and due to the overall economic climate, not your performance
2. you are not bitter or angry but you are looking for your next opportunity with a positive outlook and enthusiastic demeanor
3. that you were proactive and an effective networker which enabled you to land several consulting roles

You have woven in many positive comments about yourself and your work history. Your final comment is linking your abilities and preferences back to the opportunity being discussed.

Every question asked during an interview is an opportunity. Don’t run from it or take offense! Instead prepare by crafting a response to showcase your abilities, skills and relevant experience.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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Meet the Jobs Docs

Patricia Hunt Sinacole is president of First Beacon Group LLC, a human resources consulting firm in Hopkinton. She works with clients across many industries including technology, biotech and medical devices, financial services, and healthcare, and has over 20 years of human resources experience.

Elaine Varelas is managing partner at Keystone Partners, a career management firm in Boston and serves on the board of Career Partners International.

Cindy Atoji Keene is a freelance journalist with more than 25 years experience. E-mail her directly here.

Peter Post is the author of "The Etiquette Advantage in Business." Email questions about business etiquette to him directly here.

Stu Coleman, a partner and general manager at WinterWyman, manages the firm's Financial Contracting division, and provides strategic staffing services to Boston-area organizations needing Accounting and Finance workforce solutions and contract talent.

Tracy Cashman is Senior Vice President and Partner of the Information Technology search division at WinterWyman. She has 20 years of experience partnering with clients in the Boston area to conduct technology searches in a wide variety of industries and technology.

Paul Hellman is the founder of Express Potential, which specializes in executive communication skills. He consults and speaks internationally on how to capture attention & influence others. Email him directly here.