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Navigating Interview Questions About Your Unemployment

How to Answer the Question, “Why Have You Been Unemployed for So Long?"


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When employers ask questions about why you’ve been out of work for so long or why you’re unemployed to begin with, these have to rank near the top of panic-inducing interview moments, no matter what the cause of your unemployment is. Assuming you can breathe through your anxiety, you need to have a reasonable, honest response that still positions you as a strong candidate for the job. No problem, right?

While it’s never fun to talk about unemployment with a prospective employer, it’s one moment in your interview. The best way to work through any difficult interview question is to anticipate it ahead of time and have a good answer prepared. This will prevent you from being caught off guard.

Why Employers Ask About Your Unemployment

Before you prep your answer, ask yourself why an employer would care about your unemployment. If you’ve got the right skills, education, and experience, the time you’ve been unemployed shouldn’t matter, right?

Well, maybe that’s true, but, in reality, the interviewer is wondering if you’ve got the right skills, education, and experience, why haven’t you found a job? “An employer is worried that there’s some sort of performance or personality issue that necessitated your unemployment,” counsels Brie Reynolds, Career Development Manager and Career Coach at FlexJobs. In other words, the interviewer might worry that they’re missing a red flag other companies are seeing.

There may also be concerns that if you haven’t worked for a while, your skills and abilities aren’t up to snuff anymore. Are you up to date? Or, will the employer have to spend time training you to get caught up? There may also be a concern that you are desperate and you’ll take any job you’re offered, only to leave when something better comes along.

How to Answer Interview Questions About Your Unemployment

The good news is that your resume is strong enough to land you the interview. How you handle the questions about employment gaps, though, may be the difference between a job offer and a rejection.

Be Direct and Honest

It’s never a good idea to start any relationship with a lie, especially when talking to an employer about your unemployment.

“Your answer should reassure the recruiter or hiring manager that, regardless of the circumstances of your unemployment, you’re ready and excited to get to work,” says Reynolds. “Explain what started the unemployment—whether it was a layoff, a planned break, a surprising personal circumstance, a firing, or anything else. Don’t go into details, and don’t be negative.”

Then, let the employer know that you are passionate about your profession. Talk about your background and experience, and let the employer know that you understand your competition is tough, but what sets you apart from other job seekers are your specific skills.

Explain That You Aren’t Desperate

The truth may be that you really need the job. But, you don’t want to give that impression. Try saying this instead, “I don’t want to take any job that comes along. I’m only applying to jobs I’m truly interested in and where I think I would be a good fit.”

Give Yourself the Hook

When people are uncomfortable with the topic of conversation, they often start to babble. Keep your response brief, but complete, and on point. Be sure to end on a positive. Preparing your answer ahead of time will help keep you from rambling and possibly saying things you shouldn’t.

Show That You’re Still Professionally Active

While job searches can take lots of time, it’s important to demonstrate to employers that you have been doing other professionally related activities during your unemployment and not binge-watching your favorite shows all day. In addition to looking for work, you should be prepared to talk about the other activities you’ve been a part of. For example, discussing how you’ve been volunteering, taking classes, and/or attending professional events could all lead to constructive conversation.

Have Something to Brag About

In many cases, it’s appropriate to discuss personal accomplishments that you’ve achieved during your time off. This can help employers get a better sense of who you are and how you set goals for yourself. For example, during your time off from work, maybe you really wanted to get healthier, so you’ve had a goal to run 500 miles this year, and so far, you’re at 356. This shows that you’re proactive and not being dragged down by your unemployment.

Stay Positive

Now is not the time to unload the frustration or negativity you may be feeling because of your unemployment. Employers want to hire positive people—those who actively demonstrate resolve, fortitude, and optimism. You know, those who make lemonade out of lemons!

Regardless of the circumstances surrounding your departure from your last job, never trash talk the company, your former boss, or your coworkers. Even if your criticisms are warranted, they will reflect more negatively on you than anything.

Anticipate and Prepare Your Response

No one enjoys explaining long-term unemployment in an interview—no matter the circumstances. But, the odds are pretty good that if you have an employment gap on your resume, it’s going to come up. While there are resume formats that can help draw attention away from that gap, most employers are going to notice that gap anyway.

There’s no way to know whether or not your unemployment is important to an interviewer, so it’s best to prepare and practice your answer ahead of time. With enough practice, you’ll find the answer that helps you explain why you’ve got that gap and why you’re still the best candidate for the job.

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Photo Credit: bigstockphoto.com

A version of this article was originally published on December 14, 2010.

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