Help with Specific Problem Interview Situations

This section deals with issues most people experience and that are often legitimate issues for an employer to explore. These issues include things such as gaps in your employment or being fired from a previous job. Employers are more likely to ask about these matters in a direct way.

Even the suggestion that some of the things in this chapter might be regarded as "problems" by an employer will make some people angry. For example, some would object to any mention that someone over 50 might experience discrimination in the labor marketalthough anyone over 50 knows that their age makes it harder to get a good job. Others resent that employers would even consider such things as race, religion, national origin, child care, and other "politically sensitive" matters in evaluating people for employment. But some employers do consider these things, despite the fact it is unfair or even illegal to do so.

Employers are simply people. They want to be assured that you will stay on the job for a reasonable length of time and do well. Sometimes, you just need to work harder to get this message across to them. You also have to realize that very few interviewers have had any formal interview training. They are merely trying to do their best and may, in the process, bumble a bit. They may ask questions that, technically, they should not. Consider forgiving them in advance for this, especially if their intent is simply to find out whether you are likely to be reliable. That is a legitimate concern on their part, and you will often have to help them find out that, in your case, their concerns are unwarranted.

In that context, I suggest you consider your situation in advance and be able to present to the employer that, in your case, being "overqualified," having children, being over 50, being a new graduate, or whatever your situation is simply not a problem at all and might even be an advantage.

Gaps in Your Work History

Some of the most accomplished people I know have been out of work at one time or another. About one out of five people in the workforce experiences some unemployment each year. Unemployment is not a sin, and most bosses have experienced it themselves, as have I.

The traditional resume technique is to write "20XX to Present" when referring to your most recent job, which makes it look as if you are still employed. If you use this trick, however, realize that it puts you in an uncomfortable position right away. One of the first things you will have to do in the interview is explain that this is not actually the case. Some employers will assume you are misrepresenting other facts about your situation as wellnot a good impression for you to create.

Many people have gaps in their work history. If you have a legitimate reason for major gaps, such as going to school or having a child, tell the interviewer in a matter-of-fact way; don't apologize or act embarrassed about it. You could, however, add details about a related activity you did during that period that would strengthen your qualifications for the job at hand. This kind of detail reinforces that you aren't out of touch with what that employer needs; you merely chose not to actively practice it for a while.

During the conversation, it may help to refer to dates in years rather than months. This is accurate and avoids showing short job gaps. For example, if asked when you worked in the restaurant business, reply, "from 2003 to 2005" rather than "from November 2003 to June 2005." Of course, if pressed, give the exact dates without hesitation.

Being Fired

I remember looking for a new job after having been fired from my previous one. Actually, I was replaced as a result of internal politics. I hadn't done anything wrong other than to be associated with the wrong boss, one who had lost favor. Still, I feared that the people who remained behind would not give me good references. And it was awkward explaining to potential employers just why I wasn't still working there.

Lots of people get fired, and it often hurts their chances of getting some jobs. In some cases, employers are afraid that you will be a problem to them. Of course, if you were fired for just cause, you need to learn from the experience and change your behavior or consider another career. However, in most cases, job seekers harm their own chances of finding a new job more than being fired does.

Know How to Explain Your Situation

When you don't know how to explain your situation, you don't do a good job in interviews. Job seekers too often leave the potential employer wondering just what happened at the last job and, not knowing any different, assuming the worst. Leaving an employer with the thought that you are hiding something is a bad way to make a good impression. As a result, you don't get job offers.

Many employers tell me they will not hire someone unless they know why the person left his or her last job. They want to be sure that you are not a potential problem employee. You definitely will have to deal with this issue if you want to get hired. The good news here is that many employers have been fired themselves. Normally, people in charge alienate some people or have had interpersonal conflicts or other difficult situationsit goes along with being in charge. If you have a reasonable explanation, many interviewers will understand because they have had similar experiences.

So if you have lost a job, the best policy is usually to tell the truth. Avoid saying negative things about your last employer. Think about how you can put a positive spin on what happened. If you are not a big problem to work with, say soand explain how you are very good at the things that this job requires. Tell the truth of what happened in your past job in an objective way and quickly turn to presenting the skills you have to do the job under discussion.

Negotiate for Better References

Another very important thing to do if you have been fired is to make sure that you negotiate with your previous employer about what he or she will say when giving you a reference. Ask for a written letter of reference, too. You can often negotiate this so that you won't be harmed as much as you might fear. These negotiations can help offset a negative past employer who just may have a simple personality conflict with you. This kind of conflict happens a lot, and it doesn't have to hurt you as much as you may think. Because almost everyone will lose his or her job once, you are in good company.

Get an alternative reference. Although you might have had a conflict with a previous boss, there are often others at your previous place of employment who thought well of you. If so, you should try to get written recommendations from them in advance. You should also contact those people to find out how they might help if asked to provide a reference.

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