Career Report
March, 2012 — Issue 145


Staying Strong During a Long Unemployment

If you’ve been out of work for a long time, there’s a tendency to start believing a potential employer can hold this against you. That’s because even though many people lost jobs during the recession, for reasons unrelated to performance, there can clearly be a fear that long-term unemployment is sometimes equated with desperation and a lack of competency. But, according to a Q&A feature article by Career Columnist Eilene Zimmerman of The New York Times, there are many ways to help change that perception.

Here are some of her insights and suggestions from the article:

What can you do about the perception that you’ve been out of work too long?

A. To change perceptions about your employment status, start with the way you network. When you have been out of work for a while, people in your network may feel guilty because they are employed and you are not, said Lavie Margolin, a career coach in New York City and author of “Lion Cub Job Search.” You don’t want them to feel sorry for you or see you as defeated, so make sure you have something to offer them, whether it’s sharing an article, talking about an industry blog or mentioning a professional opportunity they may not know about, he said.

It’s also important to keep up with what’s happening in your industry, so that when you do meet with others it’s clear that your knowledge is current, said Laurence Shatkin, career expert and author of “2011 Career Plan.” Maintain your memberships in relevant industry associations and consider volunteering on association committees. If possible, become involved in a communications role in a professional association. “It could be working on the newsletter or any task where people in the industry see your name,” Shatkin told the newspaper. “The fact that you’re active in the association shows you are still active in your industry.”

What can you do to minimize the impact of unemployment on your professional stature?

A. Keep your professional certifications, credentials and licenses up to date and involve yourself in activities that use your professional skills. Take temporary or part-time work in your industry if possible, or do unpaid volunteer work for nonprofits or charitable organizations that allow you to flex your professional muscles, Margolin added.

Also, you could consider starting your own consulting firm, suggested Julie Redfield, a talent management expert in the New York office of the PA Consulting Group. “Setting up a company — the Web site, the business license — can cost very little,” she said. “Use your network and get at least one or two small jobs that you can talk about on interviews and put on your résumé.”

Should you reorganize your résumé to make it less obvious that you’ve been out of work for a while?

A. No matter how you organize it, prospective employers will see the gap in your employment. You can put the emphasis elsewhere, however. Margolin suggested customizing résumés for specific positions by writing four or five sentences at the top summing up your skills and experience related to that opportunity.

Change the “work experience” section to “experience” and write about volunteer and paid work, making clear which work was unpaid but using the same language for both, said Elena Bajic, founder and C.E.O. of Ivy Exec, a recruitment service in New York. For volunteer as well as paid work, she told the newspaper, “quantify your results, talk about the strategies used to get there and about how you contributed to the growth and success of the organization.”

During interviews, how do you handle the topic of your prolonged unemployment?

A. It’s important to be straightforward and to explain what happened, whether it was a layoff or that your previous job wasn’t a good fit anymore, Redfield said. You want to put it in the best light possible while being honest; networks and industries are small, she added, and if you fudge the truth, you will most likely be caught.

Some people who have been out of work for a while have a tendency during interviews to broaden career goals, in an attempt to fit a wide range of positions, Bajic told the newspaper. If you were a marketing manager at a midsize company, for example, you may think you should start by saying you want to work in any marketing capacity at any size company. But “that indicates someone who doesn’t know what they want,” she added.

Employers may fear that such a person will take a job that’s not a good fit and leave as soon as something more appropriate comes along. Therefore, it’s better to be more specific, because employers aren’t looking for just any match, Bajic added. “They are looking for the right one.”