Pulling Back the Curtain
Perhaps you’ve been in the same job too long, making you appear to be unmotivated. Maybe you have employment gaps or the opposite — too many previous jobs hanging around your neck.
Conceivably, you may be battling bias against a disability or sexual orientation. Could be that you’re a woman who knows an underlying concern may be parental absenteeism — or whether you can supervise men. Or suppose you’re crashing into brick walls because you’re in alcohol- or substance-abuse recovery.
Sometimes you’re pretty sure that you’re running into rejection because you were fired for cause or demoted. Or maybe you don’t know what to say because you’ve been convicted of a crime.
Think carefully before discussing special issues. Even a question that seems innocent may cause you to reveal things you didn’t mean to tell. For nonsensitive questions, asking for more time to think about your answer is okay. But for special-issue answers, you seem more straightforward and sure of yourself when you anticipate the question and are ready with a good answer.
When You’ve Long Been in the Same Job
What some may consider stability, others may see as fossilization. Your chief strategy is to look industrious, ready to take on any challenge that comes your way, and adaptable to new ideas.
Because you’ve been with your last employer for so long, do you think you may have a hard time adjusting to a new company’s way of working?
- Not at all. Give examples of how you’ve already learned to be adaptable — how your previous job was dynamic, provided a constantly changing environment, and shared common links with the new company. Note parallels of budget, business philosophy, and work ethics. You plan to take up mountain climbing and sky diving when you’re 80 — figuratively speaking.
- Emphasize your commitment to your previous company as one of many assets you bring with you to the new position — and then name more of your assets.
Clunkers and Bloopers
- Discuss your relief at escaping that old awful job — at last!
- Simply say you’re ready to try something new.
You’ve been in your previous position an unusually long period of time — why haven’t you been promoted?
- Present the old job in modules (by clusters of skills you developed instead of by your periods of employment). Concentrate on all increases in responsibility (to show upward mobility within the position) and on relevant accomplishments. Note raises.
- Say that you’re interested in this new job precisely because of the inertia of your previous position. Mention any lifestyle changes (grown kids, second family income) freeing you to make a vigorous move at this time.
- Agree that your career hasn’t progressed much, but note that many talented people are forced to root or to accept lateral moves because few upwardly mobile job slots are available. Say your career plateau gave you time to reflect and solidify your skills set, lighting a fire under your motivation.
- Explain that you reached the highest position the company offered individuals in your specialty.
Clunkers and Bloopers
- Complain about office politics keeping you down.
- Say you were happy where you were and ask, “Why fix what isn’t broken?”
When You’ve Served Prison Time
The key to dealing with prison time is to make the experience as positive as possible. Work double-time to outshine the other candidates with your positive outlook and qualifications for the job.
Here are several tips you may find useful:
- Find the best collection of resources that address the criminal record employment dilemma on the following website: www.exoffender reentry.com. The resources include books, DVDs, free articles, and more. An especially helpful book is Ex-Offender’s Job Hunting Guide: 10 Steps to a New Life in the Work World, by Ron and Caryl Krannich, PhDs (Impact Publications). Inmates without access to the Internet will have to rely on family and friends to obtain these resources.
- Don’t count on expungement — the court sealing of criminal records — to keep employers from knowing that you’ve served time in prison. Expungement is no longer a reliable strategy for ex-offender job seekers because, in this digital era, commercial databases are slow to update what courts have forgiven; expunged records now often turn up in criminal background checks ordered by employers.
- Job seekers with prison records should be aware of the Federal Bonding Program (www.bonds4jobs.com). It basically provides six months of free insurance to employers that guarantees worker honesty — an incentive to employers to hire an at-risk applicant.
- The U.S. military accepts enrollments from those who have served time for misdemeanors and felonies. The pathway to enlist begins with applying for a moral waiver. The moral waiver process varies with each military service. Ask military recruiters for more information.
Tell me about your incarceration.
- Describe how it was one of the best learning experiences you’ve ever had. Explain the crossover (transferable) skills and education you acquired in prison.
- Say that it helped you make changes in your life so that the behavior that got you in trouble is history. Part of your old problem was hanging out with the wrong people. In your new life, you hang out with a different group of people who do not get into trouble.
Clunkers and Bloopers
- Lie about your conviction, figuring no one will learn about it until after you’ve been hired. (Why risk a firing on top of your criminal record?)
- Say you’re a victim of bad police work and never should have been in prison (unless technology has cleared you of all charges).
When You’re Shoved out the Door
The number-one rule in explaining why you were fired is to keep it brief, keep it honest, and keep it moving. Say what you need to say and redirect the conversation to your qualifications. As for what you should say, you have two core options.
Were you fired from your last job?
- If it wasn’t your fault:
Explain the firing as a result of downsizing, mergers, company closure, or some other act beyond your control. Sometimes firing happens several times in a row to good people who figuratively happen to be standing on the wrong street corner when the wrong bus comes along and runs them over. So many people have been on that bus these days that being terminated is no longer a big deal. Being let go wasn’t your fault, so you have no reason to feel guilty. Get on with the interview with a sincere smile on your face.
- If it was your fault:
Say you learned an enormous lesson during the experience. You messed up, but you know better now, and you won’t make the same mistakes again. Explain briefly how you benefited from this learning experience. Then quickly turn the interview back to the better you and go on to explain how you’re the hands-down best candidate for the job.
Clunkers and Bloopers
- Give interviewers the impression that you’re hiding something, that you’re not being absolutely honest and open with them.
- Bad-mouth your former boss. Say your former coworkers were a freak show.
- Tell the interviewer that you’ve had personality conflicts on more than one job. That admission sets off screaming smoke detectors warning that you’re a fiery troublemaker.
Have you ever been asked to resign? Why?
- Being allowed to resign (a soft firing) suggests that you may be able to work out a mutually agreeable rationale with your former employer. Do so and stick to the story the two of you come up with.
- When you have no good storyline, admit your mistake and say it was a painful lesson that caused a change in your work habits.
Clunkers and Bloopers
- Lie or give excuses to justify why you shouldn’t have been treated so unfairly.
- Rip on your ex-bosses or coworkers for forcing you out.
- Give multiple examples of your interpersonal conflicts.
When Sexual Orientation Is up for Discussion
A growing number of U.S. companies are expanding benefits and protections for their gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered (GLBT) employees. Getting a good job as an openly gay worker is much easier than in years past.
The movement to include GLBT workers in anti-discrimination policies includes two key points:
- Offering same-sex couples the same benefits as straight couples
- Seeking out potential GLBT workers in company recruiting
Even the U.S. military is keeping pace with this trend by repealing the “don’t ask, don’t tell” ban on gay men and women serving openly in the military.
In a further acknowledgment of changing times, for the first time ever, the United Nations in 2011 endorsed the rights of GLBT people in a resolution hailed as historic by the United States and other backers.
Attitudes are a mixed bag
Observers of GLBT employment trends believe that the message is received not only by big companies, but by many midsize companies that already have formal nondiscrimination policies concerning sexual orientation.
Moreover, my research suggests that a generational component has played an influential role in the expansion of equality for GLBT people in the workplace. As a generality, most young interviewers seem to be flat-out neutral — not affected one way or the other by a candidate’s sexual orientation.
That said, another group of interviewers — of any age — continues to form the “third rail” of interviewing for you. Because of their belief systems — or the culture that produced them — these interviewers operate with hardwired predispositions against GLBT people, rain or shine.
Even in companies or locales where sexual orientation discrimination is forbidden, homophobic interviewers get away with it because that won’t be the reason they give when you’re turned down (if you ever even hear back). They find other reasons for your rejection when they have any reason to suspect your sexual orientation is one they disapprove of.
Don’t be lulled into complacent mistakes because of the rapid acceleration in the GLBT equality movement. (Shockingly, being gay is not a legally recognized protected class.)
Regardless of the trend to include GLBT persons in company anti-discrimination policies and pro-gay declarations by state and local governments, discrimination is alive and well.
Be clear about your prospects
When you suspect that, for a screening interview, you’ve been paired with a closet homophobe whom you’ll never see again, don’t worry too much; that individual could be an anomaly. If the interviewer is the hiring manager to whom you’d report, worry.
As you evaluate how to move forward in your job search, note that a growing number of GLBT job seekers reject out of hand the notion of working for companies where they can’t be open about their orientation. They say the effort to hide it takes a toll on their productivity, as well as their emotional and physical health.
But sometimes the need for employment takes over. When you can’t find a workplace where your sexual orientation won’t be used against you, and you have rent to pay, you may choose not to disclose.
Recognize when it’s time to disclose
Here are suggestions to smooth away wrinkles from your interviewing experience:
- If you choose to disclose, wait until either the interviewer shows enormous interest in your qualifications and you know an offer is eminent, or the offer is actually made. Some savvy advisers recommend that you wait until you have a written offer letter in hand.
- Thoroughly research the company’s culture and civil rights policies before the interview. Look for companies that proclaim a nondiscriminatory policy on sexual orientation. Look for a company that offers life partners a domestic partner benefits plan.
- How can you tell whether equality happy talk is real or window dressing? Ask members of GLBT support networks what they know about a company where you plan to interview. Browse for GLBT job boards and websites.
Although you won’t be asked directly about your sexual orientation, an interviewer may — inadvertently or purposely — nibble around the edges with inappropriate personal questions.
Is there a special woman in your life? How’s your marriage?
- A nondisclosure answer: You consider a number of women special in your life (meaning your mother, your sister, and your aunt), or just say you’re not married yet.
- A confirming but neutral answer: Say you’re gay, open with your family and friends, and in a stable relationship. You may also want to casually mention that your sexual orientation has no bearing on the quality of your work. Add that it’s not a problem for you and that you hope it isn’t a problem for the company.
(Being open suggests that you’re not anxious and preoccupied about being exposed, that you have the support of your family, and that you’re emotionally stable and strong.)
Clunkers and Bloopers
- Bluntly refuse to discuss your personal life.
- Ask whether the interviewer is married.
I see that when you were a college student, you were president for two years of the campus Gay-Straight Alliance Group — can you tell me about that?
- Note that Gay-Straight alliances are found on campuses nationwide, functioning as anti-discrimination organizations. On your campus, the Gay-Straight Alliance Group has 75 (or correct number) members. As president, you were the group’s representative in student government and participated in official greeting events with visiting dignitaries. All your duties weren’t so visible — you also led planning for fundraising activities, balanced the checkbook, and helped clean up after events.
- Explain that, after leading the Gay-Straight Alliance Group as president for two years, you received a Campus Leader Award from the university’s chancellor; ask whether the interviewer would like to see it (from your portfolio).
Clunkers and Bloopers
- Answer only that it was a political action group for GLBT students.
- Say that you led angry protests at school events.
When You’ve Worked Everywhere
In an era of contract workers, just-in-time temporary hirings, and companies tossing employees overboard to boost already healthy profits for stockholders, I’m always surprised to hear employers object to “job hopping.” I shouldn’t be.
Employers favor candidates with a track record of staying a “reasonable” amount of time at previous jobs. They assume that the past predicts the future and that the candidate will stay as long as he’s wanted at the company.
The kicker is the meaning of “reasonable amount of time.” The current groupthink narrative places a minimum stay in a job at two to three years.
This arbitrary time frame doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t cut your losses and leave if you’re in a bad job — circumstances vary widely. It does mean you need to give plenty of thought to how you handle a job-hopper question and deal with it in a logical, convincing, and upbeat answer.
You’ve changed jobs more frequently than is usual — why is that?
- List accomplishments in each job that relate to the position you seek. Note that you built new skills in each job. Say that you’re a person who contributes value wherever you go.
- Give acceptable, verifiable reasons why you changed jobs so frequently — project-oriented work, downsizing, dead-end positions, company sold out, or department shut down.
- Say that you’ve become more selective lately, and you hadn’t been able to find the right job until this opportunity came along; explain your employment travels as a quest for a fulfilling job.
- If this move is a career change for you, show how your experience and skills support this change and how the position fits your revised career goals.
- If your positions were for temporary agencies, cluster the jobs by responsibility and recast them as evidence of your use of cross-functional skills in many situations. You’re a Renaissance man or woman.
- Ask whether this is regular-status employment. If so, admit you’ve lacked some commitment in the past, but now you’re ready to settle down with a good company, such as this one. If not, say a temporary job is just what you have in mind to keep your skills refreshed with experiences gained at various companies.
Clunkers and Bloopers
- Complain about what was wrong with each of your ex-employers that made you quit. Say you didn’t want to waste your time working for dysfunctional people and organizations.
- Show a lack of focus — you just couldn’t get into your jobs.
- Say you’re looking for something that pays more.
When Gaps Drill Holes in Your History
Employers may rush to judgment when they find gaps in your job history.
If your job history has as many gaps as a hockey player’s smile, try to find growth experiences (self-directed study or education by travel).
If you must blame your jobless patches on sick leave, emphasize that you have fully recovered and are in excellent health. If personal problems take the hit (ill parent or sick child), follow up with facts that indicate the personal problems are history.
When your record is spotty beyond belief, try to get on with a temporary job and then prove by your work record that you’ve turned over a new leaf.
Sometimes the gaps in your record are of recent vintage — you’ve been looking for employment without success for a very long time. In current periods of unemployment, your posture is commitment — you throw yourself heart and soul into your work and you want to be very sure to find a good fit. Explain your waiting period as a quest for a fulfilling job.
How long have you been job hunting? Wow! That’s a long time — what’s the problem? Why haven’t you had any job offers yet?
- Say you’ve become more selective lately, and you hadn’t been able to find the right job until this opportunity came along.
- If you were given a sizable severance package, explain how it financially allowed you to take your time searching for the perfect next move.
- Admit your career hasn’t progressed as much as you’d like, but the good news is, you’ve had time to think through your life direction, you’ve reassessed your career, and you feel focused now. You’re fueled up and ready to go!
- Explain that while you’re good at building consensus (through compromise) with others, you haven’t been willing to settle for a job that doesn’t maximize your skills and qualifications. Say that low-end jobs are all that have turned up in this market until now. Clarify that you’ve taken your time to find the perfect job fit because the position is very important to you.
Clunkers and Bloopers
- Say you don’t know what the problem is.
- Complain that greedy employers are beating up on the working class.
- Gripe abut how many opportunities you’ve missed out on because recruiters don’t recognize your true worth.
- Look depressed and admit that you’re becoming discouraged.
When You’re Demoted a Notch
Demotion carries more negative baggage than does firing. Demotion suggests personal failure; firing doesn’t, unless you’re fired for cause.
Do I read this resume right — were you demoted?
- Your best move is to deal with demotions before you reach the interview. Ask your demoting boss for a positive reference (see my book Resumes For Dummies, 6th Edition) and come to an agreement about what happened that’s favorable to you — assuming your boss knows you’re looking around and doesn’t mind helping you leave.
- Explain honestly and as positively as possible the reasons for your send-down.
- Admit that you weren’t ready for the responsibility at that time, but now you are. My, how you’ve grown! Describe the actions you’ve taken to grow professionally — school courses in deficient areas, management seminars, management books, and introspection.
- Affirm that you’re looking for a good place to put your new and improved management skills to use, and you hope that place is where you’re interviewing. Quickly remind interviewers that you’re qualified for the job you’re interviewing for, and back that up with examples of your skills and quantified achievements.
Clunkers and Bloopers
- Lie or try to shift the blame to ABY (anybody but you).
- Accuse management of unreasonable expectations.
When People in Recovery Interview
Networking is the way many people in substance recovery get job interviews, with the result that the referring party often has revealed your background to the interviewer.
When you’re sure that the interviewer is well aware of your substance history, find a way to introduce the topic on your terms: I am a better-than-average qualified candidate for this job. As you know, I have fought the substance abuse battle and won.
Emphasize that you are a battle-tested, proven individual who has survived a crucible, taken control of your life, and grown into a stronger person. Try not to become mired in interminable details of your recovery, but stick to your main theme of being a well-qualified applicant who overcame an illness and is now better equipped to meet new challenges than most people.
As soon as you think you’ve tapped in to the interviewer’s sense of fairness, redirect the conversation to reasons you should be hired. But until you calm the interviewer’s anxiety about your recovery, the interviewer won’t truly hear anything you say about your strengths and qualifications.
Seek more advice on doing well in job interviews when you have red flags such as drug or alcohol abuse in your background. Read Job Interview Tips for People with Not-So-Hot Backgrounds, by Ron and Caryl Krannich, PhDs (Impact Publications.).
Head-on questions in a job interview are unlikely to be asked — Do you drink more than you should? Do you use drugs? But you may be indirectly questioned.
We have a drug testing policy for all employees. Do you object to that?
- Answer that, no, you certainly don’t object. You don’t use drugs or alcohol. You are very healthy, clear thinking, and reliable. You are in a 12-step or another recovery program and have been substance-free for a year (or more). Discuss your qualifications for the position.
- Tell the interviewer you don’t object and add that you have no health problems that would prevent you from giving 100-percent effort on every assignment.
Clunkers and Bloopers’
- Say you’re doing your best to get your life back together; to prove it, you’ve attended four rehab programs in the past two years. You just need a chance at a good job to keep you clean (sober).
- Say you had some problems in the past, and give no details about how you kicked substance abuse.
When Women Are Put on the Spot
News flash! Young women of child-bearing age battle questions about family matters.
Research companies for family-friendly policies before you apply. For example, women’s magazines regularly run stories identifying the best of national companies that promote work-life balance. Use your networks and search local newspaper stories to find similar small and midsize companies where you live.
When you have small fry and you choose to stay home with them, but you still need the pay, contemplate alternatives: working part-time, pairing up with another person to do the same job (job sharing), taking your work home (telecommuting), and rearranging work schedules without cutting productive hours (flextime).
Get quality career advice and job postings for all types of jobs by visiting Nancy Collamer’s JobsandMoms.com (www.jobsandmoms.com). Is becoming a major business player more your dream than hanging out with growing kids? Lois Frankel, PhD, has long had her finger on the pulse of why women succeed or stumble. She’s the author of a shelf of widely acclaimed books of what works for women who work; find her wisdom — which includes good ammo for answers to gender questions — at www.drloisfrankel.com.
In the meantime, standard responses to the subtle (or not-so-subtle) probes about the patter of little feet: Kids are way, way in the future because (say why); the lifestyle you’d like to grow accustomed to requires a two-income family; you have super-reliable child care (explain).
When cornered, try this tactic to ensure you won’t become a staffing problem down the line: Whether or not I plan to have children in the future is not central to my career. Like so many other energetic women today, I intend to work and have a career no matter what happens in my personal life.
What are your career plans?
- This job meets your immediate career plan. It allows you to be a solid producer yet build on your already strong skills. You will work hard at this job to prove yourself and accept greater responsibility as it is offered. You’re reasonably ambitious. You don’t plan to relocate.
- Making career plans five years out is not realistic in today’s rapidly changing job market. But you’re excited about developing new green technology (or whatever), and this job is exactly what you seek. Your background makes you a perfect fit (details).
Clunkers and Bloopers
- You expect a promotion within a year (suggesting that you’ll be unhappy if you don’t quickly rise through the ranks).
- You don’t have a particular goal in mind.
What is your management style?
- Explain how your management style is compatible with the company culture (you researched that culture on the company website). Incorporate contemporary management-style language (you read a few magazines and recent books on the language of business today). No marbles in your mouth when you state how you handle insubordination, motivation, serious mistakes, and other supervisory issues.
- Explain that you don’t flinch at making tough decisions and implementing them. But you’re not a bully or a screamer. Storytell: Give true examples of how you’ve handled past supervisory problems.
Clunkers and Bloopers
- Give a vague answer on management style, revealing your naiveté.
- Out-macho a male interviewer or seem to be too lightweight for the job.
When Disabilities Are Revealed
The Americans with Disabilities Act severely limits what interviewers can ask people with disabilities prior to offering a job. If you have a visible disability, you may benefit by giving an explanation of how you’re able to do the job.
Essentially, the ADA permits an interviewer to ask you about your abilities to perform a job, but not about your disabilities. As an astute employer once said, “We are not interviewing a disability. We are not hiring a disability. We are looking to hire a person who can do the job we want done.”
Suppose an interviewer asks, “How is your health?” Just explain that you’re able to perform tasks that the job requires. (But if you have an obvious disability, the ADA makes the question illegal at the pre-offer stage.)
For a quick brush-up on your rights in job interviews, scour the federal Labor Department’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (www.dol.gov/odep; click Frequently Asked Questions).
Examples of questions to expect include the following:
You say you can do the job. How would that work? Can you explain more?
- When practical, ask to give a demonstration — if need be, bring your own equipment.
- When a demonstration is impractical, pull an example from your last job (paid or volunteer) or educational experience. Storytell: Recount a true tale of your having been there, done that.
- Anticipate essentials to job performance (anything in the job description) the interviewer may be worried about — such as physical mobility, safety, and motor coordination. If you have vision or hearing impairment, expect some concerns that you’ll miss visual or aural cues essential to job performance. Explain how you’ve adapted in these areas or will overcome obstacles.
- Suggest a few references (previous teachers, counselors, employers, or coworkers) who can testify to your abilities to do the job.
Clunkers and Bloopers
- Show you’re offended by the question — soapbox about unspoken bias.
- Explain that your coworkers have always set aside their work to assist you with problematic tasks.
- Without examples to support your claims, assert you have no problems with job performance.
Because you’re our first applicant with a disability, we’ve never dealt with accommodations before. How much are these accommodations going to cost us?
- Promise that your requirements are minimal and give examples of how your skills will merit the company’s small investment. Get cost estimates on the Job Accommodation Network (www.jan.wvu.edu).
- Offer to provide some of your own equipment (you aren’t required to do so, but the offer shows serious interest in contributing to the company).
- Offer information on accommodations, such as telephone numbers for companies that sell accommodations devices or consultant organizations specializing in accommodations.
Clunkers and Bloopers
- Name a costly price for all the equipment you could possibly need, assuming the company can afford the expense.
- Act demanding because you think that the ADA is protecting you — the interviewer on the lookout for litigious types won’t hire a bad attitude.
- Cite the ADA requirements and threaten to sic your attorney on them. If you sue, hope you win enough money to not need a job — ever!