Interviews are nerve-wracking enough without a hulking elephant in the conference room. The pachyderm's name? "Ralph, The Yearlong Unemployment Stint." He's got value, really -- he's a good elephant! -- but it's hard to tell as he chews a gaping hole through your work history.
Maybe your break from the workforce was intentional. You wanted to travel, try a new hobby or just hang out. Or maybe the break was unintentional, but at one point you didn't worry too much about finding a new job. Whatever the case, now you have to explain the stint and why it shouldn't concern employers. Here's your plan for acknowledging -- and perhaps even celebrating -- the elephant in the room:
Keep calm. For starters, "don't panic," says Jenny Foss, founder of the career blog JobJenny.com. While unexplained gaps may still raise employers' eyebrows, she says, "there are a lot of ways you can thoughtfully and strategically manage the message surrounding the gap." Here's how to get working on that message:
Think about what you gained in that period of unemployment. Do some soul-searching, and ask yourself what you learned during your break, says Andrea Kay, career consultant and author of "This Is How to Get Your Next Job: An Inside Look at What Employers Really Want." Did you volunteer? Perhaps you gained new perspectives or discovered more about your community. Took a class? You (hopefully) learned new skills. Did you travel? Perhaps you learned about certain cultures, became more resourceful or honed your Spanish skills.
"These are all great qualities to bring to an employer," Kay says, so log them. For example, the adaptability and comfort with other cultures you developed while traveling are worth showcasing when interviewing with companies that have offices throughout the globe, Foss adds.
If you didn't travel, volunteer or take classes, the break may shed less obvious lessons -- but they're there. "I don't care what you're doing, people always gain or learn something," Kay says. "They always go from being something to something else." Maybe you learned more about what kind of person you are or what you want to focus on, she says, while writing in a journal, building better habits or talking to others.
Or maybe you simply gained a sense of renewed energy or focus -- a chance to hit the refresh button. This is a common result of work hiatuses, Kay says, and it definitely counts as a gain.
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Write down your worries. What are you concerned employers will assume about your gap in employment? Maybe you're worried they'll think you're a slacker or someone who has no valuable skills. Consider your red flags, Kay says, which will "give you more fodder for the response you're going to craft." Speaking of which ...
Craft your message. You've got the raw materials in front of you. Now mold them into an articulate explanation. Say how you decided to take some time off for such-and-such reason, and "here's what I learned, and here's how it helped me," Kay says. Cue enthusiastic references to the new perspectives, renewed energy and other takeaways you mapped out earlier. And those anxieties about how employers may perceive the unemployment stint? Here's your chance to weave counterpoints to them in the explanation. You probably won't come off as a slacker as you describe how you spent your unemployment gap volunteering or learning new things. Be sure to finish with something like, "Now I'm focused and ready to make the transition back to [insert your line of work]," Foss suggests.
Keep the explanation succinct. Practice your "funemployment" message like you would rehearse other interview answers, like why you want to work at that particular company. While practicing, aim for a message that's thorough but concise. As Foss points out, over-explaining can seem inauthentic. "When you rattle on and on about something, you immediately look like you're nervous or trying to cover something up," she says.
Be proactive. Mention the employment gap on your own terms, rather than "with your back up against the wall and your defenses up," Foss says. Don't wait for your interviewer to call out the break -- and he or she will. Bring it up in the beginning, when asked to talk a little bit about yourself. You'll have already perfected and practiced this message, so launch into it. As Foss puts it: "Your best defense is almost always a good offense."
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