The Right Way to Tell Your Out-of-Work Story

Whether you’re in an interview or rewriting your resume, here are some suggestions for managing your professional image in a job search. They’re organized by the reasons you may not have been working, but the advice can be catered to different situations:

If you were laid off

Their objections: “There must have been something wrong with you at your previous job.”
Your messaging:

  • Be careful in how you describe your relationship to the layoff. For example, never say, “I was laid off.” Always indicate you were part of a layoff, if that is in fact true. If you can truthfully say, “They kept me on board through the first two layoffs, but as the recession went on…” that also shows your employer valued you. Give the reason for the layoff when you can. For instance, “The whole division associated with this product was laid off.”
  • Show you’re on good terms with your former employer. If you can do even one day’s consulting, having that on your resume shows they valued you. If you can’t volunteer, ask for endorsements from former bosses and colleagues on LinkedIn and other social media sites.
  • Make sure there’s something current on your resume that speaks to your skills. The longer you have been out of work, the more important this is. It can be as simple as a consulting assignment, volunteering your professional skills, and further education or training.
  • Don’t dwell on the past. Speak in a committed way with all your contacts and friends about what you are doing now. Talking about your old employer and what happened then will dampen people’s confidence that you might be ready for a new job.

If you took time off to care for children or a sick relative

Their objections: “You’ll be quick to desert us for family matters. You’re not serious about working.”
Your messaging:

  • Stress that you’ve arranged your family matters so that you can focus on your career. Keep your plans for settling your affairs short and factual.
  • Don’t go into the gory details. Avoid framing your absence as something like, “My mom needed me because she was so sick,” or, “I just couldn’t leave my adorable baby.” You can easily get tripped up by your own emotions.
  • Keep the discussion at a minimum. The more you mention your family, the more you might reinforce your audience’s objections.

If you are a college grad

Their objections: “You have no real-life skills. We’ll have to waste time training you when we could more easily find an experienced person.”
Your messaging:

  • Present experience on your resume in terms of responsibilities and results, not tasks. That will help you demonstrate as much real, dependable work experience as you can. For example, “Chosen by regional manager to train 15 new servers for a new restaurant location. Opening day went smoothly, and all 15 are still working successfully six months later.” Be as concrete and factual as you can.
  • Stress your practical skills. Use the words “experienced at” when you can. For example, “Experienced at high stakes public presentations from Debate Club.” Or “Experienced at handing multiple priorities and details as Tour Manager for the Marching Band.” Remember that in most industries “traveling” and other unprofessional hobbies are not practical skills, so try to suppress the urge to share your wanderlust on your resume.

If you are a post-entrepreneur, whether your business succeeded or failed

Their objections: “You’re only waiting until you’re ready to start your next business.” Or worse, “Once someone has worked for themselves, they can’t take direction from someone else.”
Your messaging:

  • Prove that you can take orders. This is the toughest objection to overcome, particularly if you are a serial entrepreneur. The easiest way is to tap into your network and look for try-before-you-buy opportunities, contract, or consulting positions.
  • Be concrete about your commitment, which might persuade your new employer to trust you. For example, state directly both when you talk to people and in cover letters, “I am looking for a five to seven year assignment as a [X] in order to make a contribution to the field of [Y]…”

Whichever messages you choose, use them consistently in your resume, cover emails, social profiles, and interviews. All your friends and referrals should know your messages, too. If asked, “Was Pete laid off?” You want to make sure your friend answers, “Yes, Pete was a part of a big layoff, but they liked him so much they kept him a few extra days to migrate their systems.” Maintaining (and living) the image you’ve created can put a positive spin on your situation for prospective employers—and in the long run, you’ll feel more positive about yourself.

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