How To Handle Rough Spots On Your Résumé

by Joe Conklin

When I first met Mike, I could tell he was in the right job. He had been a recruiter for more than 35 years. His enthusiastic, friendly but straightforward approach was perfect for introducing potential employees to potential employers.

Mike put me so much at ease I had no trouble bringing up a subject that crosses peoples’ minds during a job search: How do you handle sensitive situations in your career history?

To stimulate our thinking, I shared with Mike a series of hypothetical situations, each stitched together from real life-experiences I have heard of or seen. Mike listened and shared his thoughts on how he would handle them.

Situation One

Suppose somebody is looking for a new job because the place he worked last was destroyed by a fire, tornado or similar catastrophe. He did not start his search right away because the owners thought they could rebuild. After two months, the owners gave up and filed for bankruptcy. How should the employee account for the gap in his job history?

Mike: That’s an easy one. Just be honest. I see no problem with a brief mention on the résumé about what happened and why the employee waited. I would suggest this even if he were responding to a blind ad or passing out résumés en masse at a job fair.

Situation Two

The employee noticed some possibly illegal activities at her last place of employment. While not personally involved, she was not comfortable with the thought of being around in case the company was caught and charged by the authorities. So she resigned to minimize damage to her reputation and professional image. She has been asked to appear in court as a witness for the prosecution. What does a potential new employer need to know?

Mike: I don’t think the employee needs to disclose she is a witness for the prosecution. That might raise a red flag unnecessarily. She didn’t do anything wrong, but even companies with high standards might wonder if they would risk trouble or controversy by hiring this person. During the interview the employee can say the company’s survival started to seem shaky, and she wanted to line something else up rather than risk being without a job after it shut down. When the time comes to testify, she should just ask for the time off and say she has court business to take care of. She shouldn’t go into details but should just act as if it is some routine matter.

Situation Three

This time the employee is looking for a new job because he was laid off from his old one. While he always received high ratings on his reviews, the company eliminated the department when the market it served was no longer profitable and it had to reorganize. The employee has been attending school full-time for a year to train for a new specialty. What should he say on the résumé or during the interview given the extensive time out of a job?

Mike: This is something he could mention briefly in a cover letter. In the interview, he should just repeat what is in the cover letter. He should explain it was a great opportunity to go back to school to train for a new specialty he is excited about joining. He should inject a positive, enthusiastic tone and sound like somebody the company will want to hire. The right attitude still matters a lot.

Situation Four

The employee’s spouse accepted a dream job in another state. The two of them relocated. The spouse was laid off shortly after starting because a key contract the new employer was counting on failed to come through. After a few months, the spouse found another new job in another state. The employee quit the job he had started in the second state and is looking for work in the third. What is the best way not to look like a job hopper?

Mike: Assuming the résumé shows a steady work history up to the time of the first relocation, I don’t think a potential employer would automatically assume the employee is a job hopper. With fewer and fewer people staying with the same company their whole career, relocations are more frequent these days. Explain the situation in the interview. The employee could mention it briefly in the résumé, but I don’t think it would be necessary. If the résumé shows strong qualifications from past jobs, and the employee comes across as honest in the interview, I wouldn’t worry about the job hopper issue.

Situation Five

The employee accepted a lateral transfer with his old employer. The employee and the supervisor agreed the employee was highly qualified based on the job description and his prior performance. After the transfer, the company added some new computer programming responsibilities. Because the employee was not strong in programming, his performance suffered. The supervisor arranged training and worked with the employee, but the progress was too little and too slow for the company. The employee was laid off on good terms because the company had no other position to put him in. What does he say to a potential employer?

Mike: First, I think this person needs to carefully evaluate jobs he applies for. While I haven’t seen it happen that often, I know of cases in which the perfect job became a problem when the organization added different duties. Since the employee was doing fine before the transfer, I would look for jobs doing similar work. On interviews, he should emphasize he is applying for the job he originally had at the other company. If the old supervisor or colleagues are willing to vouch for how well he performed in the original job, their contact information should be provided in the interview.

Mike’s general advice in closing was, “Whatever you do, always be honest. Don’t try to fool the interviewer. Assume he or she is good at reading people and will pick up attempts to deceive. Assume your references will be checked. Make it easy for the employer to believe you, and you make it easy for the employer to hire you.

JOSEPH D. CONKLIN is a statistician with the U.S. Department of Energy, helping to assess the quality of its natural gas survey operations. Conklin earned a master’s degree in statistics from Virginia Tech. An ASQ member, he holds the following ASQ certifications: quality engineer, reliability engineer, quality auditor, quality manager and software quality engineer.

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