It's not unusual to go through a period (or several) of unemployment during your career. In fact, nearly 8 million Americans are currently jobless.
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Whether your time off was the result of a voluntary sabbatical or an unexpected illness, deciding how to address it during your job hunt can be a challenge.
Keep your chin up. A break or two in continuous employment isn't a deal-breaker for most human resources managers. In fact, learning how to discuss it with confidence will give you a leg up over other candidates who shy away from the subject.
Ignoring a gap in your employment history is a bad idea. That only allows a prospective employer to imagine the worst-case scenario. Instead, address it head on.
On your resume, make a note of your reason for leaving a job. If a position was unexpectedly eliminated or relocated, it would be reasonable to expect a gap while you hunt for a new job. It's also okay, however, if you took time off to travel, write a book, or handle a family crisis. The key in these cases is to emphasize that the break was intentional.
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You must also be honest if you were fired from a job. While it's not the best-case scenario, you can present it in the best possible light. Never lie about or badmouth your previous employer. Keep the reason for the firing simple and objective, then shift the focus to what you learned from the experience.
An interviewer isn't typically as concerned that gaps exist as they are with how you handled them. They're looking for answers that highlight your ability to overcome a challenge and move forward. Playing up this angle in your responses will help you shine.
Explain how you spent the time and how the experience will make you a better employee. For example, completing classes or attaining certifications while you're out of work improves your professional standing. Teaching a class helps your public speaking skills. Taking on freelance or consulting work makes you better at client relations. Raising children can make you an expert at multitasking or event coordination. Even volunteering or writing a blog shows initiative and likely translates into skills you can bring to the position.
Prepare a Response
You'll feel more at ease discussing your employment gaps if you practice beforehand. Without a rehearsed response, you're more likely to panic and give an off-the-cuff answer that could do more harm than good. With enough practice, your prepared response will sound natural.
As a bonus, practicing allows you to hear your explanation over and over and get encouragement from friends and family. This exercise will help you feel more confident that your period of unemployment actually strengthened you as a professional.
Take the Lead
When the topic of employment gaps comes up, how the conversation will go is largely up to you. Set the tone by exuding confidence. Remember your rehearsed response and deliver it without fidgeting, averting your eyes, or stammering.
There's no need to talk at length about your period of unemployment. Limit your answer to one or two sentences, and then stop talking. Droning on and on will only make the hiring manager suspicious that you may be hiding something unflattering. If they want more information, let them ask for it.
Finally, a smart interviewing tactic is to finish your answer by asking the employer a question that redirects the conversation back to the job for which you're interviewing. This approach allows you to deflect attention from your shortcomings and instead shine a light on how your talents and abilities can contribute to the company.
Jodie Shaw is the chief marketing officer for The Alternative Board (TAB).