‘Why have you been unemployed for so long?’

Q: I was laid off nine months ago. I have had great success with landing interviews. However, I seem to be a finalist but never receive an offer. I am getting frustrated and discouraged.

During a recent interview, I had a hiring manager ask me why I have been unemployed for so long. His tone of voice and body language made me feel horrible. I felt very defensive and know I did not respond in the appropriate way. I babbled some answer that I can’t even accurately recall. I thought I knew all the toughest interview questions but this one really stumped me. What is the best way to answer this question? I felt like screaming a response like “This has been the worst recession in 30 years…. Have you read a newspaper lately?”

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A: Let me begin on a positive note. Your resume and professional work history must be impressive. Why do I believe this? You are being interviewed and rising to the top of a probably very large pool of talent. There are many (sometimes hundreds!) talented candidates who are vying for every available position – both employed and unemployed candidates. With each and every interview, you have gained valuable experience. This can only work to your advantage.

When asked a tough or unusual question, I advise to first take a moment to think about it before formulating a response. You can even respond… “I don’t think I have been asked that question during my search. Let me give it some thought.” A short response like this can buy you a moment or two. It is best to respond in a factual, open yet positive way. One way to respond might be:

I don’t think I have been asked this question during my search. Let me think about your question for a moment.

First, I should point out that prior to this period of recent unemployment, I was gainfully employed for 22 years. I began as a marketing intern during my senior year of college and then ultimately rose to the director of marketing role. I am thankful that I can pursue a passion for a living. I really enjoy the field of marketing. I was very effective in the areas of web analytics, customer acquisition and retention metrics as well as selling sponsorships.

As we have discussed, I was laid off, along with 57 colleagues, in the summer of 2010. As you know, the economic climate has been a challenge for job seekers. There are so many strong candidates applying for every available position. Fortunately, I have picked up some contract work over the past several months. I was hoping that the contract roles would lead to a full-time role but that has not been the case.

I am searching for a full-time marketing role.

A job seeker should answer a question completely and honestly but also capitalize on the opportunity to showcase the successes and strengths. It is fine to begin with a short response that buys you a bit of thinking time. Then, highlight some of your strengths – your stable work history (before this bout of unemployment), the upward trajectory of your career, your areas of expertise in your field, etc. Additionally, if you have worked as a consultant, contractor, point this out! And consider including these contract roles in your current resume to help fill the gap. Lastly, end on a professional and encouraging note. Avoid being defensive or irritated. Being defensive, annoyed or irritated at one question can diminish your ability to advance in the process.

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I am thrilled that you didn’t yell “This has been the worst recession in 30 years…. Have you read a newspaper lately?” Sure, I can understand why you would want to respond in this manner. But it doesn’t help you land a job.

Keep swinging. Don’t let an interviewer’s question get under your skin and rattle you.

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