Simple Truths About Handling the 5 Toughest Challenges in a Job Interview
Challenge #4: Explaining An Extended Employment Gap
There are many valid reasons for having gaps in your employment. Some interviewers and hiring authorities automatically assume the worst upon their discovery. It's vital to carefully and thoroughly prepare to truthfully discuss employment gaps in order to ease the interviewer's natural curiosity and concern while placing yourself in the best possible light in relation to the expectations of the position.
It's fairly common these days for a parent to choose to leave the traditional workforce following the birth or adoption of a child. It's helpful to be able to point to some way in which you kept your hand in your field during the hiatus, however. For example, did you take on a part-time volunteer assignment with an organization that was somehow relevant to your field, or perhaps take one or more continuing education courses to enhance your knowledge or keep your skills sharp and current?
If your employment gap is due to a serious illness, don't flinch when the interviewer asks about it. Maintain your composure and enthusiasm, and consider adapting the following response to your own unique circumstances: “Yes, I was on medical leave during that time period. My doctor was thrilled with my complete recovery, and I realized that full health is truly a gift. I discovered what I most value in life, and as a result, I am committed to pursuing excellence in work that I genuinely enjoy. My understanding is that this position requires someone with a strong customer focus and attention to detail. In my prior role with XYZ Corp….” Note that this response addresses the gap head-on, explains the true cause, omits the details, and gracefully refocuses the conversation back to the needs of the employer and the candidate's capabilities in meeting those needs. The case would be even stronger if the candidate had been able to take a brush-up course or two or participate in some type of volunteer activity.
Perhaps your employment gap is due to the serious illness of a family member, and you left your job to fill the role of full-time caregiver. Depending upon the nature of your career, you may be able to drawn on relevant activities during this time and make a meaningful connection to the target position that will resonate with the interviewer. For example, you may have settled an estate or handled other financial matters following the death of a terminally ill relative whom you cared for. If your career is in the field of financial planning, banking, or insurance, you can make a powerful case for having real-life experience that is highly relevant to your target position. Perhaps you managed a property or properties and supervised various contractors’ activities or grounds upkeep—an activity that required transferable skills relevant to your target position. Remember to clarify that the crisis situation has now been resolved, and you are eager to return to the career that you have genuinely missed during this interlude.
If you have been looking for employment for a very long time, you are not alone. Characterize your unemployment period as one in which you have been reevaluating your career goals, and that you look forward to finding just the right fit. Emphasize that your commitment to your work is 120 percent, and you have been searching for a fulfilling position in which you could make a significant contribution to the success of the organization. Again, it helps if you have also engaged in self-improvement activities (attended college courses, acquired new computer skills, learned a foreign language, and so on) during this same period Be sure to mention if you were given a severance package from your prior employer, and how it allowed you to become selective in your search for a good fit. Most everyone is aware of current economic conditions, so avoid blaming the career field or market conditions. Besides sounding negative, it may strike some interviewers that you are shifting accountability. Instead, maintain an upbeat, positive attitude, and emphasize your strengths as they relate to the target position.
It's far more preferable to initiate a discussion of a topic like this on your own terms, rather than let the interviewer find out about it later and jump to the conclusion that you were deliberately hiding something. Again, always bear in mind that the interviewer naturally may have underlying concerns—in this case, about the company's liability for potential future illegal activities, whether you will display violence in the workplace, whether you will attract to the organization other people convicted of similar crimes, or whether you will steal from the organization.
Remember the overarching simple truth: Always be truthful. However, it's best not to blame others, society, or the economy for your incarceration, as the interviewer may conclude that you have not accepted or will not accept accountability for your actions. Again, carefully plan what you will tell the interviewer, being mindful of conclusions that can be drawn from each point you make. Consider adapting the following to your unique circumstances: “Yes, I committed a felony some years ago, when I had a serious lapse in good judgment. I'm not at all proud of this. What I am proud of, though, is that I did exercise good judgment after this and was released early for good behavior. I took several college courses in [insert relevant course(s) here] and was chosen to lead several work teams. We always finished our assignments on time or ahead of schedule. I've learned many important lessons, and most importantly, I think, I understand that I'll have to earn your trust. I also learned self-discipline, and am eager to contribute to achieving objectives as part of a solid team. I feel that I have what it takes to excel in this position—you said you needed a team player who is a quick learner.”
As with the other examples, notice that after explaining the employment gap, the conversation is redirected back to the employer's needs and the candidate's capabilities that directly relate to the position. It's vital to strike a balance between sharing enough to convince the interviewer that you earnestly have moved beyond the employment gap a better person, and not divulging information that is superfluous and would only serve to harm your candidacy.
The most compelling yet simplest truth about what may at first appear to be “tough challenges” is that they truly are opportunities in disguise, if handled wisely.
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