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Candidate Corner: Career Transition and How To Explain It

Written by: Greg Weiss

Candidate Corner: Career Transition and How To Explain It

At some point in our lives, everyone faces adversity at work. It’s easy to share your story if you know it won’t impact your candidacy, but how do you present yourself when it’s something you’re worried might cost you the job?

Sometimes it’s something you’ll be comfortable explaining;

  • A reduction in force (RIF)
  • The closing of an office
  • Loss of funding
  • Caring for an elderly parent or sick loved on

Other times, you might not know how to frame it;

  • A significant gap due to lack of employment (you’ve been interviewing but not getting offered)
  • A demotion within the company
  • You had health or other personal issues that you would rather not discuss
  • You left a hostile work environment before having a new job lined up
  • Numerous short tenures, etc.

Well, today, we’ll be using nearly 65 years of collective agency recruiting experience (yes, we have a small but very experienced team) to help you navigate telling your story to potential employers.

Let’s start with three basics…

  • Always be truthful and have conviction in what you share. Employers need to trust you fully, so if they don’t think they can, they’ll go in another direction. And, remember that people have all sorts of connections, so often there is a way they can learn what happened off the record.
  • Don’t hide information. Experienced interviews can often tell when you’re trying to hide something.
  • Be positive in what you share and how you frame things. A company may pass on you if you come across as “broken” or “jaded.” You know the expression “when life gives you lemons?” Companies want to see that you have dealt with adversity and come out on top; they want to know what you took from the experience and how it made you better, etc.

And now, we’ll dive into specific examples and how to tackle them when interviewing…

Extended Lack of Employment

Scenario: You’ve been out of work for months, and it’s not for lack of trying. You’ve been a finalist numerous times but haven’t been able to secure an offer.

What you can share: For a lot of candidates, they don’t hit their job search as heavily early on. As they feel more pressure to find something, it shows in how they come across when interviewing. They start to become tight, it can impact their confidence, and it can even leave the interviewer feeling that you’re desperate to find something and not the right thing.

First, you have to believe that not everything depends on this interview. You may even want to verbally express it to yourself until that truly registers with you.

And as for what you tell prospective employers, it’s okay to share something like you’re not accustomed to being in this position because you’ve always been recruited into roles, not applying. You can share that you didn’t know how to attack your career search early on correctly.

There are many ways to frame it, but avoid saying things like “I’ve been interviewing a lot, but nothing has materialized.” When you say that, it can be interpreted as everyone else passing on you, and it must be due to something they saw or didn’t see.

While that can be the case, remember that it’s key to frame things positively, so it’s okay to say, “things have gotten close a couple of times, but you just haven’t found the right fit yet.” And you can follow that up with, “I’m looking for a place to have a career and not simply a job.”

Demotions

Scenario: You were promoted to being a Director but then were moved back into being a high-level IC.

What you can share: Start by knowing explicitly why you were demoted, what ownership you have in that demotion, and what you learned from that experience. Consider using a problem-solving method like IDEAL (Identify, Define, Explore, Action, Lookback) to evaluate what you could have done better. Demotions happen, and some great leaders stumbled early in their careers.

Then, we recommend hitting it head-on. It’s okay that it didn’t work out if you learned from it and it made you better. They’ll ask about your job history and the move from being a Director to IC, but what they’re looking for is the “why” and ask themselves, “is this something that would make the candidate not a fit for our leadership role?”

If you were a first-time leader, crafting everything you took the experience that you would change/avoid in your next role should be easy. It’s also great to share that you appreciate the company giving you that opportunity and that it has made you better prepared to lead in the future.

Gap Due to Personal Issues

Scenario: At some point in our lives, things like critical health issues, divorce, child-related matters, and loss of loved ones happen to all of us, not just some of us. The severity of what we face and how we need to face life’s hurdles is very individualized. At some point, you might need to prioritize things outside of work to the degree that it makes it impossible to remain employed.

What you can share: There are many out there that might be saying “it’s none of their business” or “keep private life private.” And yes, there’s merit to that. Keep in mind, however, that while employers are limited in what they can ask, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t curious and aren’t sure if it’s a potential “red flag.” If you don’t address it at all, it might tip the offer to go to another candidate due to the degree of uncertainty that remains related to your background.

At the same time, you should only share what you are comfortable sharing. While some things are easier to share (ex., radiation treatment for cancer and you’re happy to share that it is now in remission), other things can be a bit trickier (ex., an ugly divorce or rehabilitation for dependency issues). Simple general statements like these suffice…

  • There was a health-related issue that, unfortunately, required a lot of time and attention that made me unable to remain fully committed to work. (this covers both health-related and dependency-related treatments)
  • When COVID-19 first hit, you and your partner had to decide on the best option to manage the children and their e-learning.
  • You had some unexpected family obligations that required immediate attention and something only you could manage.

You don’t have to tell them your life story, but make sure that you keep in mind that they want to know that whatever it was that pulled you away from being able to work, you’re now able to commit to full-time employment fully and can’t wait to get back out there.

Left a Hostile/Toxic Work Environment:

Scenario: You left a hostile/toxic work environment before finding your next role.

What you can share: This one can really trip candidates up. It is easy to start going too negative with what you share. Employers are often left thinking, “didn’t they do their research before joining the company,” “how bad could it really have been,” “was it them or the company,” ” was it kneejerk because it doesn’t seem well thought out to leave something before finding something,” etc.

If you have an easy out like recent bad press (see PostcardMania) or an extremely low rating on Glassdoor or Blind, you might not have to go into great detail. With Glassdoor and Blind, you might have to answer a follow-up question on if you read the reviews on the company before joining, however. Maybe you joined a “dream” shop, but once you were there, their culture and expectations were not a fit (see Amazon). Then there are the environments known for not supporting women and diversity (see Activision Blizzard).

Other times, it might be specific to a manager, co-worker, or team. That’s when it’s harder to share your story, especially if it is related to something tied to sexual harassment or threats. It’s okay to state, “I’m not at liberty to go into great detail other than it was a place that I no longer felt safe.” We would recommend closing with something like, “I still appreciate my time there and the opportunity, but I knew I had to make the hard decision to leave the company even before finding something new.”

Additionally, if you have a reference that can speak to the quality of your work product during that tenure, this would be a great time to share that information.

Numerous Short Tenures

Scenario: You’ve been a part of many failed startups, but now you’re interviewing with a shop outside of the SaaS world that has a reputation for having long-tenured employees.

What you can share: Companies are scared of job hoppers. And while some people are constantly chasing the next raise, the next title, etc., many have had bad luck. One trick that can help explain short tenures due to mass RIF or failed startups is adding that info to your resume and LinkedIn profile on the front end. You can do that directly under your title, as a highlighted bullet, parenthesis next to the company’s name, etc.).

You’ll see that it will increase the number of recruiting messages you receive but also help guide interviews to focus on you and your experience, not your short tenures.

And if you don’t know how to handle answering questions about your background, reach out to our team; we’re here to help.

Greg Weiss

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Greg authored 3 practical Career Books, and 1 Book helping Visionary leaders scale their businesses. He is one of Australia’s most experienced HR consultants and leading career coaches. He is the founder and owner of Soulidify and Career365. As an entrepreneur/business owner, Greg has experienced first-hand the joys and frustrations of starting and growing one’s own business.

You can find him on LinkedIn or Linktree.