March 13, 2013

It’s Feeling a Lot Like Interview Season: Presenting Your (Checkered) Past

Ah spring is in the air. Snowdrops are beginning to bloom. For many of you it’s beginning to feel a lot like interview season. With this in mind, I thought I would look at how you can best present your checkered past.

Let’s face it: very few of us have a life that has proceeded smoothly from Point A to Point B to Point C. Whether you’re fresh out of school, returning to the work force, coming back from a layoff, or switching industries, it’s likely you have a moment or two in your past that takes some explaining. Below, a few pointers for these conversations.

Before we look at them however, a general note: regardless of the facts of your case, the tricky bit is to present the information to a potential employer in such a way that you don’t sound like you’ll be out the door just after they get you acclimated. Here’s how I recommend proceeding:

If you’re in the mood to get it over with, and your interviewer begins with, “Where shall we start?” you could respond, “Well, if I were sitting where you’re sitting I’d be concerned about the gaps in my resume, so we don’t we tackle that first?”

It’s always better to be on offense than defense.

If you want to wait until things warm up a bit, you can wait for your interviewer to bring it up, at which point you can say, “I’m glad you asked me that.”

So, let’s begin:

The Fresh Out of School Response:

For many people, school was not necessarily a linear path, but instead included some time off/a wide variety of internships/or a 5th-year ‘victory lap’. Here are a few ways to present this:

The Time Off Response:  “Yes, I did take some time off and I’m so grateful because it’s gotten my wanderlust out of my system. Without it, it’s likely I would have abandoned a career shortly after starting it. Now I’m ready to give my career my full attention.

The Multiple Internships Response: “Yes, I have had a wide variety of internships. This has been great for me because it really helped me focus on what I do and don’t want to do. I can now state unequivocally that X is where my heart lies.”

The 5th-Year Response: “Yes, I did include a 5th-year. This was because I realized halfway through that I had chosen the wrong major/wasn’t giving my studies my full attention/needed more time to round out my resume. My fifth year gave me the opportunity to round out my education so I could bring my best to the workplace.”

The Returning to the Workplace Response:

As noted earlier, you always want to begin with “I’m so glad you asked me that.” In this case, you then segue to, “As you can imagine, single parenthood/caring for an aging parent necessitated a great deal of time and attention. That said, my children are older now/my father’s routine is stabilized, so those factors are no longer in play.”

The Multiple Past Jobs Response:

If you’ve held a number of jobs because you had trouble settling on a career– or settling into the idea of working at all—you’re going to need a slightly different response. In this instance, I would say, “As you can see, I’ve had the opportunity to try a number of different kinds of jobs, and I’ve learned a great deal from all of them– each provided skills that I was able to incorporate moving forward.” I would then list the very specific reasons that brought you to the company. For example, “The reason I’m here today, however, is because I’m such a fan of your products/your values/your history.”

The Recently Laid Off Response:

In this case, I highly recommend bringing it up at the outset, but in the following way, “As you can see, I was recently laid off from X company, which was not only highly disruptive, but very discouraging—I loved my job! Given that, I’d like to ask about your plans for growth/expansion in the next five years, as I don’t want to find myself in this situation again anytime soon.”

In every scenario, I would close with, “Once you hire me, I’m ready and willing to give the company 100%.”

Frances Cole Jones

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