ask the readers: dealing with the professional aftermath of domestic abuse

Calling on readers to help with this one. A reader writes:

I am in a rather difficult situation.  I would be immensely grateful for any suggestions or insights you might have!

Background information: Several years ago, I graduated from a prestigious university with a degree in the liberal arts.  After graduation, unsure of what I wanted to do, I began working at a local business and, within months, was promoted to manager.  Two years later, I left my job on great terms, moved, obtained an internship, and was again quickly promoted to management.  I also, unfortunately, became involved in a very abusive relationship.

As is often the case, the effects of domestic violence permeated all areas of my life.  When this nightmare finally ended with my abuser’s arrest, I was left to sort everything out.  Luckily, after a year, I am proud to say that my personal life is now at an all-time high.  My professional life, on the other hand, is still waiting to be reassembled.

The lingering consequences of abuse on my professional life are as follows:

* During the years of abuse, I was forced to obtain and quit jobs in short time intervals.  I managed a small business for one year, worked as a cashier for eight months, worked in a cafe for four months, and taught at a high school for one year.  These jobs were punctuated by stints of unemployment, wherein my abuser would forbid me from working.
* My credit was severely impacted.
* I lost a huge chunk of my professional network and safety concerns have rendered another chunk of my network moot.

Now that I’ve been job hunting for several months, I would like to develop a plan to better deal with some of these issues.  Because the job market is so tight, I want to be as prepared and competitive as possible.

Thus, my questions to you are:

1. How can I mitigate these short-term jobs on my resume and in an interview?  I am mortified by this spotty record and I know I can’t say, “I was in an abusive relationship and it was his fault.”  Any advice on what I can do?

2. Short-term employment aside, I think my resume looks schizophrenic and might come across as dishonest or weird.  I graduated from a really great college at a really young age and was then promoted very, very quickly in the jobs that I had (including, incidentally, the ones that I had during the abuse).  These jobs, however, don’t really correspond to one another, and the sequence is off-kilter (Manager to Intern to Sales Manager to Cashier to Teacher).  How can I make this look, well, like the truth that it is?  Is there a way to maximize this?

3. As embarrassing as this is to admit, I’m not exactly sure what jobs I should/could be applying for.  In light of the concerns listed above, I know better than to apply for upper-level or management positions. Applying for administrative assistant positions, however, hasn’t resulted in any interviews.  I am ready to restart my career but I just don’t know exactly where to aim.  Do you have any thoughts?

4. If it becomes necessary at any point in the employment process, would it be okay to tell an employer an abridged version of the truth?  In other words, if they run a credit check, a background check (I hold active restraining orders), or ask to speak to some of my references (most of whom were unaware of my situation at the time), can I be preemptively honest?

I love reading your blog and revel in its sanity. Even if you can’t offer any suggestions, it’s been great to organize these thoughts!  Thank you so much!

Readers, what helpful thoughts do you have here?

{ 63 comments… read them below }

  1. KellyK*

    For #4, I think you should be preemptively honest in any situations where it looks like they’re going to either find out on their own or see something that looks sketchy.

    As far as the short and erratic jobs, you might be able to say that you had to quit a couple jobs because of family issues, which are resolved now. Also, what did you tell the places you left when you quit? If you told them something that doesn’t match with “had to quit for family reasons” then I don’t know what you would do about that. It’s definitely a possible problem.

    I would also keep an eye out and look for jobs with any non-profit organizations that either work directly with abuse victims or are in enough of a related area that they’re familiar with the issues involved. At least at those places you should be able to say what happened (in an abridged and as neutral as you can make it fashion) and be a lot less likely to have it held against you.

    1. KellyK*

      I should add that by “preemptively honest” I don’t mean oversharing. Just tell them anything that they’re about to find out anyway, with as little detail as you can.

  2. Lisa*

    I’m a volunteer Victim Advocate. Is there a victim advocacy organization in your community? You might have their business card from somewhere during the crazy arrest/trial process and not remember it from having so many things shoved in your face while you were under immense stress. If you don’t know, call your police department and ask if they use victim advocates. If so, give the organization a call and ask to come in to talk about resources for DV survivors seeking employment.

    If there’s nothing specifically in the way of victim advocates in your community, there are still probably organizations that can help you and coach you through ways to explain your work history and other gaps. Searches for things like “women in crisis” and your city or “domestic violence survivor services” and your city may turn something up.

    To be honest, some organizations are as useless and outdated as some college career centers that haven’t updated their advice since 1989. However, there ARE organizations that are enormously helpful and will actively work to provide you with new networking opportunities. You might be surprised to find that female executives in your community are also domestic violence survivors and are willing to go out of their way to give a fellow survivor a hand up. At least reach out for help–at a bare minimum, you’ll end up meeting some great people who’ve gotten through this and restored their careers.

    As for actually interviewing and the hiring process, I DO think you should tell some of the truth, especially if the interviewer is a woman. (No sexism, just statistics; overwhelmingly, when DV goes to court, the perp is male and the victim is female.) I think most interviewers would accept something like, “I am a survivor of domestic violence and had to make some hard choices to get out of that situation, which had some negative consequences for my work history and credit score.” Deliver it with eye contact and a calm tone of voice, then follow up with what you’re doing to overcome the problem: “Since starting fresh, I’ve focused on developing X professional skill and I’m well on my way to getting Y relevant certification. I also volunteer for Z organization, where I (perform a task related to the job you’re interviewing for).”

    This is really one of the better excuses anyone can have for a schizophrenic resume, and most sane people know that an abusive relationship can take its toll in strange places. As long as you demonstrate that you’re now the consummate professional and that you are working hard to reach your goals, not wallowing in poor-me, I think you’ll be fine. Don’t let the shame of having been a victim overshadow the triumph of getting out. The shame belongs to your abuser and is one of an abuser’s best tools in avoiding consequences.

    (I mean, oversharing is bad, you don’t need to detail your injuries or go into how he forced you to quit jobs, but there’s nothing wrong with admitting that you suffered consequences professionally as a result of a now-resolved situation.)

    1. Jamie*

      I agree with you in theory – but while you wisely caution against over sharing, I’m afraid that even bringing it up will be considered over sharing to many people.

      I am not addressing what should or shouldn’t be – just what is – and the fact is that the subject makes many people uncomfortable. It’s a roll of the dice and I think more people would be uncomfortable than supportive.

      Even if you had an executive who was familiar – she could be supportive or you could have just pulled a trigger she didn’t want pulled at work. The topic alone is a trigger for many people – far more than would admit to it.

      I love your sentiment and I applaud the work you do – and advice to get in touch with an advocacy group is great. I’m just really doubtful that someone could successfully communicate this in a matter of fact way, while simultaneously convincing the interviewer that it’s now resolved. Because there would be the caution of taking on someone with on going issues as well.

      I just think that’s a fine line to walk and I’m not sure how doable that is in most circumstances.

      1. Lisa*

        I might be insulated a little bit since I work in a fairly open-minded industry and am involved with groups in the community that tend to attract the kinds of managers and business owners who would consider this a totally valid excuse for work history and credit issues. I know that if someone applied where I work and made that argument, it would be no problem as long as they didn’t come across as “has issues/unreliable” for other reasons. So, I like your advice, too.

        1. Maria*

          I’m with you, I studied the law and worked with victims, I would think it’s better to disclose. Also, I thought there are laws specifically prohibiting discrimination based on domestic violence, but that might be if you’re already working there…anyone know?

          1. fposte*

            From what I could find, Illinois is the only state that has a general law against discriminating against victims of domestic violence in employment, but there are other relevant laws; there’s an overview here (it’s a .pdf, I warn you):

            However, I’m not sure that means employers couldn’t take a job history impacted by domestic violence into account–I would guess that that’s more like “You can’t refuse to hire her just because you know she has a restraining order against her ex.” But interested folks should definitely pursue that further, since I’m just reading off the web here.

            1. Grace*

              California Senate Bill 400, which became law on January 1, 2014, has made it illegal for employers to discriminate or retaliate against victims because of his/her status as a victim domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking.

      2. just me*

        I think she’s probably okay to use an abridged version as well, at least where I teach it would be an acceptable excuse for the jumpy resume. I guess I’m also one of those people that think that if we continue to hide things like this, we, as a society, say it is okay that she has to be a victim forever. There’s a difference between oversharing, although most of us (I hope) would have empathy for the situation, and acknowledging that the past situation is part of what has shaped this potential employee’s life. I mean kudos to the OP and what a transferable life skill in that you have overcome adversity and developed many other skills in dealing with a HORRIBLE situation.

        As much as we try to keep work life and home life separate, that isn’t truly possible. The type of person you are is shaped by both and no one should be forced to hide their reality because it is uncomfortable for some people and could be construed as oversharing. There are so many stigmas in life and if she can’t use an abridged version of her reality to explain the gaps then I don’t know what that says about us as a culture. That’s just my opinion though.

        1. KellyK*

          Yeah, I agree that it says very screwed-up things about our culture to treat something like this as though it were a dirty secret that must never be mentioned. On the flip side, it’s not her job to put herself out there in a way that hurts her career prospects (as unfair as it is that it would damage them) to change that.

    2. Candice*

      I think this is wonderful advice. I especially think it’s important to be honest (not overshare) and then say what you’re doing now to change it. Acknowledge, then put the focus back on where you want it to be — your skills and your professional goals now.

  3. JenRay*

    As to number 4 – no. Be sure you are clear about what is being done during a background check – some companies will run your credit, some won’t. If they run it, then you can always tell them that you hit a rough patch and are working to straighten it out. Today’s economy is so rocky that there are plenty of people with credit issues applying for jobs. If you’re references know nothing about that period and still speak highly of you (and why would you use ones that don’t) then it won’t matter. The question is always – have you been convicted of a felony. – which I’m assuming is no. Unless you are applying for jobs with agencies/organizations that deal with victims of abuse, it’s not relevant to what you can do today.

    1. KellyK*

      I like the idea of avoiding mentioning it unless you have to, but I think it’s important to make sure that you don’t give the impression that you’re lying or covering something up. That means more than just “don’t lie” but also that you need to avoid being vague about the same thing in two different directions.

      For example, you don’t want to say you hit a rough patch in a way that implies the economy was to blame and then mention the family crisis in a way that makes them wonder which of those is the “real” story.

    2. Stells*

      I can’t speak to credit checks, but I agree that for a background they are only for felonies or misdemeanors. Restraining orders that the OP has taken out against another person won’t show up on the criminal check.

      OP- when it comes to disclosing for the background, just make sure you read the question on the application and answer with ONLY what they are asking for – for example if there’s a misdemeanor from 4 years ago but they only want the past 2 years. If you have something within the time frame they are looking for – just give the basic outline of the situation.

  4. AnotherAlison*

    OP: Sorry to hear about your situation. That sucks.

    If I read this correctly, the OP had maybe 2-3 years professional experience before the relationship, a 1-yr job managing a small business, the cashier and intern jobs, and a year as a high school teacher.

    I would put on your immediate post-grad experience & the next job, the small business management year, and the high school teaching year and leave out the short-term jobs. That’s only 1 gap year, and easy enough to account for with “dealing with a family situation.”

    It sounds like the first three jobs were all with small-ish businesses and fit together well enough, and you can explain the 1-yr tenure at the last job with the gap — you had to leave for the family reasons. You dealt with the family issues, and then due to some changes in your life experience, you thought teaching might be a good fit for you. You tried it, but it was a short-term contract and now you’re looking again. If there’s a gap between the teaching and now, well, then you’ve been looking ever since. Plenty of people in that situation now.

    As for what to look for, KellyK’s suggestion of non-profits was a good one. I also think you could try the types of businesses you worked for before the whole mess started, at the level you left off at.

    1. AnotherEllie*

      I agree with this. If you have enough work experience to fill out a resume while leaving off a few of the less pertinent roles (eg, cashier), then there is no reason to put those roles on. You can always mention that you did keep down a couple of part-time jobs during the gap, if you’re asked about it during an interview.

      1. KayDay*

        I’ve (very) occasionally seen people separate their “relevant experience” and “other experience” (relevant experience goes towards the top; other experience goes down at the bottom with skills/professional associations/other crap that may or may not be on your resume. Don’t include details for “other” just role and date.) I’ve only seen recent grads do this, but it might work in the OP’s case. That way your “gap” is covered if they employer is concerned, but those roles aren’t highlighted.

    2. Liz*

      This all makes a lot of sense.

      For what it’s worth, too, there’s a tone of “I want to do the right thing and don’t want to ask for anything that I’m not entitled to…” in the letter.

      If you’re reading, please know that you’re entitled to everything you want, OP. There is no right thing. There is no “what you deserve.” The idea that people only deserve a limited amount is a false view of the world that is heavily featured in abusive relationships and helps to foster acceptance of the abuse.

      Please accept that there is no limit to what you deserve and there is no right thing to do to guarantee rewards. You deserve everything.

      I hope that comes across the way it is meant, with your best interests at heart. I wish I could say it to some of my family members, and I really honestly hope it comes across the right way to you. Also, good for you for being brave enough to leave.

    3. Camellia*

      I think this structuring of your resume makes perfect sense. As we often hear on this site, your resume is a marketing document and this advice makes the best of it and totally sidesteps any ‘personal’ issues.

      1. Camellia*

        Sorry, I forgot to add, “…you could try the types of businesses you worked for before the whole mess started, at the level you left off.” also makes good sense.

    4. M-C*

      I totally agree with this. A resume is a marketing document, and it’s perfectly normal/desirable to emphasize the good stuff. There’s nothing wrong with dismissing a year or so with a line of “20xx: various short-term jobs while dealing with family issues”. I’d sweep the cashier and cafe under that rug for instance, although I think the small-business management and teaching could be left in if properly fluffed up with management skills. Of course you can provide a list of those temp jobs if they ask, later. But most likely they won’t, as these won’t be relevant to your real work experience. Everyone knows what it’s like to hold down a shit job for couple months in order to pay the rent, don’t make a big deal of it and nobody’ll think it’s strange. Especially if it’s recent as the economy hasn’t been conducive to Standard Careers.

      I also think you may want to take a closer look at lower-management jobs. If you have that experience, you’re probably being dismissed for assistant jobs because they assume you’ll want to work your way back up into management (ie their own job :-)) and that’s not what they want. Managements skills don’t rust very much, and teaching can be viewed from that angle too (if you did anything for school administration, committee etc be sure to mention it!). You’d probably have a better chance in a smaller business, in part because you have that experience, in part because they’re often more flexible about resumes. But you shouldn’t dismiss yourself :-).

      I also second the advice to try to get back in touch with the former network. So your ex may be “friends” with most of them. But surely there are a couple who’d be glad to be back in touch with you, while being willing to hear that you’ve had to get a restraining order for very good reasons, and that your info must be kept confidential? An email won’t risk much anyway, and you can setup a special one for this process. You don’t need the whole pack of them to recommend you, but one or two would be very good, and they may have good leads for you besides.

  5. K.*

    First and foremost, I’m so happy that you’re doing well in your personal life, and you deserve congratulations for having the strength to leave your abusive relationship.

    I think in your shoes, I would say something like “I went through a very difficult period in my personal life and as a result, my professional life has been somewhat erratic – but my personal life is no longer an issue and I’m eager to move forward with my career.”
    Regarding what positions you should apply for, how about something in between assistant and management, like coordinator?

    If the company does a background check, they’ll see the restraining orders, so I would mention them up front – but not before they tell you that they plan to do a background check.

    I used to volunteer as a rape crisis counselor and that meant overlapping with the DV advocacy community, and I second Lisa’s advice to seek out DV advocacy groups. Good luck!

    1. incognito*

      I like this wording a lot.

      As for what jobs to apply for, OP, perhaps applying for some jobs just above entry level – maybe things that would’ve been too much of a stretch after college. That might get you more interviews.

      Best of luck, OP.

    2. Cindy*

      I’m not sure–“difficult period in my personal life” makes me think of addiction/rehab/mental breakdown. These all raise more questions than they answer, and the type of questions an interviewer might not want to ask. I like “family issues” better because it makes it clear that *someone else* was causing the issues, which is true in this case.

      1. KellyK*

        Yeah, I agree with that. I think Marie’s “family crisis” phrasing is the best. “Family issues” works too.

        1. Blue Dog*

          I also “victim of a crime” as oppose to “victim of domestic violence.” I was a “victim of a crime” and had to change jobs. Or I was a “victim of a crime” and had to relocate.

          It is a shitty reality that “domestic violence” is sometimes erroneously viewed as a “family issue,” as opposed to what it really is, a criminal act. Also, some might (erroneously) tend to impute blame to the victim. Avoid it all. If pushed for details, just say, “You know, it’s something I’m trying to forget about. I don’t like to talk about it” and politely move on.

          Good luck.

          1. Confessions of someone who will not replace the toner of others...*

            I agree that it’s a crime, but I have little faith in people to mind their own business. I just know too many people who would hear that and their immediate response would be, “Oh, what happened?”

            I know I’m a cynic – but I just don’t trust people to keep their curiosity to themselves.

            I really like the phrase family issues and Marie I am so glad you posted on this. I immediately thought of you when I saw the subject matter.

      2. M-C*

        I agree about “difficult period in personal life” sounding like rehab. I also agree that “victim of a crime” might lead to outright interrogation, because people actually rarely disclose that, and there’s too much consciousness-raising left to do for most people to correctly interpret domestic violence as a crime right off.
        “Family issues” does put the onus on other people, but explains why you weren’t fully functional in the workforce (and could be interpreted as taking care of ill family members, and many other things). It also allows you to make it very clear the issue is over.

  6. Carl*

    Tell the truth. Chances are people in senior-level management, who may be doing the hiring for positions like admin assistants, have been around longer than you; they know crap like this happens to people. It may have even happened to them, or someone close to them (sister, mother, daughter, friend, who knows).

    I’m getting the sense that you think people will think you’re an unstable person, thus unreliable. Telling the truth about what happened, and what you’ve learned to do about it, will certainly help them see that, well, mistakes happen, and you learned. They’ll see you’re willing to pick yourself up and carry on — if I was a hiring manager, especially for someone who wanted to be in management, I’d find this trait to be commendable. I wouldn’t want a manager to not do anything if things do fall apart.

    Of course, you don’t want to come off as someone seeking sympathy and to be seen as a victim; managers need to be leaders, too, and good leaders don’t look for their subordinates to pity them. The so-called sketchy employment, maybe some of it can be left off. Alison has mentioned on the blog that some short-term employment, especially for stuff where you just get by to pay the bills (like, two months) could be left off a resume. If they ask, tell them the truth, that you were working to get by as you kept your options open, but are looking for stable, long-term work.

    Last, get some confidence. People go through crap in their life all the time. Ups, downs, leftways, sideways, backways, slantways — that Wonkivator everyone rides trying to break through the glass ceiling. Don’t let self-conscious thoughts keep you from moving forward.

  7. Marie*

    Here (basically) is what I said to explain strange employment patterns:

    “I know I have some spotty employment history from (time range) to (time range). I had a family crisis that had to take priority during that period and unfortunately made my schedule very chaotic, which kept me from pursuing my career at that time. Thankfully, it’s all resolved now, and I’ve taken x steps to start getting myself back on track (i.e. I’ve been volunteering or I’ve been interning).”

    If a credit check might be part of the process, you can just refer back to what you said earlier, as in, “My family’s crisis unfortunately threw my finances off-kilter for a period. I’ve been working my credit rating back up, but it will take some time. If you need to follow-up with anything on my credit check, I’d be happy to talk to you more about it.”

    I don’t have anything that’ll pull up in a criminal check, but I have had to field some questions about my past that seemed like they were inevitably going to lead to me having to explain the abuse in more detail, or risk lying. These were extremely difficult situations to deal with at first, and very nerve-wracking. I’m only telling you that to let you know that if this totally freaks you out, that’s so, so normal — you’re not reacting inappropriately (I know how abuse can make you feel like all your emotional reactions are crazy). I really recommend practicing some of these conversations at home, including practicing the tone of voice you want, the body language, and a few key phrases to repeat if you must. You never know when a sudden rush of feelings about your abuse might crop up, so having a practiced face/voice/body language to slide into can be a lifesaver.

    In my experience, the goal of questions about my abuse turned out to be workplace safety — HR wanted to gauge if my abuser might try to show up at work, and what security protocols they might need to put in place. At the time, though, it felt like it was an interrogation on the quality of my life and all the decisions I’d ever made, because I still had that internal judgment alarm going off — it takes a while to stop judging yourself by how likely you think it is that the other person might explode at and hurt you.

    The best advice I can give is to tell you that in my experience, most people don’t mean to judge you, most people are decent and kind and understanding, but most people also have no idea how to react to a revelation of abuse. And that can lead to stuttering and stumbling and saying accidentally offensive things.

    To smooth things over, I take the reins — I don’t wait to see how they’re going to react, I tell them how I expect them to react with my body language and vocal inflections. When the abuse conversation starts, I tell them the details in the same matter-of-fact way I would relay a medical condition or a vacation request. I’ve found that if I treat the conversation as something that is terrifying and emotional and uncomfortable, they will become terrified and emotional and uncomfortable right along with me. If I treat the conversation as something very normal and inoffensive, I’m giving them a template for how to act, and people will absolutely and gratefully take that template.

    So, for abuse, I would go with something like, “I was involved in an abusive relationship (or “When I ended a relationship, my partner began stalking me, and this went on for some time” — they can infer what’s unsaid there). It impacted my life in a lot of difficult ways, as you can see from my (employment history/credit check/background check).” Then you cover the main important points: 1) do you need any safety accommodations? (i.e. an office that is not visible from the front door, a conversation with security staff, your contact information not published on the company website, etc.), 2) how okay are you with talking more about this? (i.e. “It’s still a pretty sensitive matter, so I’d prefer not to get into details beyond practical concerns such as workplace safety or what appears on my background check,” or “I’m okay talking about this more, I know people often have questions and it can be awkward to know if it’s okay to ask. So just so you know, I’m fairly comfortable with this and will let you know if I’m not.”)

    It also helped me to check out workplace policies on violence or domestic violence (google ’em, they’ll pop up). Lots of places are recognizing this is an issue that requires workplace awareness and preparation, and are making policies to assist. Those policies are written in workplace language, which is really helpful. Getting out of an abusive relationship, you usually end up steeped in sort of therapy language, about your emotions and needs and boundaries. That stuff doesn’t sound so professional in an interview, so reading through these policies gave me professional-sounding ways to communicate what had happened to me, and what I expected from any employer in dealing with that. And it also allowed me to treat those expectations as normal — we should all be able to professionally and appropriately ask about benefits and salary and workplace culture, so I just added discussing the accommodations I need due to DV as part of that normal professional package.

    The conversation isn’t about why you were abused, how you were abused, whether they should believe you, or a forum on your capability as a person (it can feel like that, whether that’s your internal reaction or a vibe they’re putting out). So just take the reins and immediately lead the conversation out of that mire before it gets stuck there. The formula I use is: “I was abused. I’m telling you because X and what I need from you is Y (take Y from the DV workplace policies you find).” I find people are generally very relieved to get a map of what they should do.

    Another piece of advice, if it’s applicable to you (luckily, it was for me). Social work-y type jobs are going to be populated by people who know about DV and the effects it has on a person’s life. They might also be places where having some experience with this can be a boon, especially if you’ll be working with clients who have had similarly difficult life experiences. When applying at corporate type jobs, I had to go the family crisis route, but when applying at social services type places, I was often able (after gauging the situation, obviously) to straight-up tell them what I’d been through. Getting through a thing like an abusive relationship and getting your life back on track takes tremendous strength and fortitude and can provide a real empathy for others, and there are workplaces that will value exactly that.

    1. Nodumbunny*

      This is a bunch of really awesome advice Marie – I’m so glad you were here to provide it to the OP.

    2. KellyK*

      I know I have some spotty employment history from (time range) to (time range). I had a family crisis that had to take priority during that period and unfortunately made my schedule very chaotic, which kept me from pursuing my career at that time. Thankfully, it’s all resolved now, and I’ve taken x steps to start getting myself back on track (i.e. I’ve been volunteering or I’ve been interning).”

      I think this is perfect. Applying for jobs in this situation seems like a real tightrope walk between over-sharing and letting concerns go unaddressed. This doesn’t give details but it’s really clear about the seriousness of the situation, and it focuses on how you’re moving forward after it.

      1. Natalie*

        And if you do eventually have to disclose more details, it isn’t at all dishonest or minimizing, just vague.

    3. fposte*

      Oh, Marie, I was hoping you’d post–your advice on the intersection of work and abuse has been absolutely invaluable here.


      This is great advice. And it fits with any weird, possibly sticky or uncomfortable life situation intruding into job stuff.

      My partner was hospitalized recently while we were both going through a job search. He was more open about things with his recruiter than I was and I learned later that my now-boss was a little put off by what she thought was me being cagey/dispassionate about the job.

      The people who are hiring for jobs, just like the people we work for, are just that — people. We’ve all been through something. One person’s domestic violence is another person’s aging parent is another person’s disabled child is another person’s cancer diagnosis is another person’s….

    5. Ariancita*

      Truly wonderful advice. Thank you for sharing your experiences and wisdom here. I’m sure OP will find this incredibly useful. And now I’m wondering if I should suggest some sort of DV awareness at our workplace (we do so much awareness stuff).

    6. Candice*

      Wow. Phenomenal advice. Phenomenal. I’ll be keeping this post in mind if I ever know someone who needs advice in this situation.

    7. M-C*

      Hear, hear! Excellent advice Marie. But while I think it’s great in terms of explanation further down the road, I’m not sure I’d actually bring it up at the initial interview, just because you have no idea how the person in question is going to react. It’d be necessary as soon as you start the job though, as you’d need to make sure things like your presence and address aren’t disclosed online.. not to mention something with any security/front desk about your restraining orders being enforced.

  8. Marie*

    Also seconding seeking out victim advocates or any crisis lines or DV shelters you feel comfortable speaking with. It’s nerve-wracking to get into DV conversations with people who might not “get it”, even if they turn out to be super friendly and supportive, so it can be helpful to de-stress a bit by venting to people who do get it, and can validate how totally normal it is to be freaked out about this.

  9. NewReader*

    Some really good advice here on what to say and how to frame it.

    I would like to add, practice at home, in private. Get used to the sound of your own voice saying these things. That way your strength and focused determination will shine through.
    Keep it short. Less is more.
    Whatever words you chose – remember you are moving toward ending on an optimistic note. This means your current activities that relate to work.
    Have you thought about taking an online course or going to a seminar or something? Just to have that activity to redirect the conversation.
    “Oh so what are you doing now?”
    “Right now I am taking a course online in X, to beef up my skills in the Y arena.”
    “I volunteer at XYZ and found a great opportunity to increase my knowledge of ABC.”

    Just being able to redirect the conversation to current time and current activities can be very helpful. I guess what I am saying is be prepared to take charge of the conversation and not let it run amok. Know where you want to take the conversation and gently guide the conversation to that point.

    If you are moving onward, I think an interviewer would realize that your actions match your words. “Oh, her situation is over and her actions confirm that.”

    1. Mary Sue*

      Just to chime in again on the practice the answer. It’s like any other question you know you’ll be getting in an interview, you want to be prepared so you sound professional.

  10. Joey*

    Leave the miscellaneous jobs off your resume and list personaisles sons as the reason for leaving the most relevant and longest job. If questioned generically explain that you had to leave to deal with a family emergency. Only when you get an offer should you mention that your credit is not good due to a recent divorce. There’s no need to go into any further details. And frankly most employers don’t want to hear any more than that.

    And I disagree that you mention domestic violence. Although unintended some employers will interpret it as you looking for sympathy and too much information.

  11. Justin*

    Have employers always cared about gaps in employment? I think it’s really odd that even a month or two of not working is a red flag, which I’ve heard it can be. Are people without a job for a few months just doomed to permanent unemployment?

    1. Jamie*

      They’ve always been something that will arouse curiosity in an interviewer…but no, people with gaps aren’t doomed to remain unemployed.

      You just need a plausible explanation for why you were out of work and what you were doing during that time to keep your skills honed (if applicable).

  12. Erin*

    I don’t have any advice about how to word your explanation, but I did want to say that your resume may not look as atypical as you think. I also graduated from a pretty elite college several years ago with a liberal arts degree, and my resume is just as spotty as yours; actually much spottier, it sounds like. I’m not saying employers view this positively at all – but I wouldn’t necessarily think they’re scrutinizing your resume with an extra dose of suspicion either.

    There’s been a lot of focus on how the job market’s changed for very recent grads, and it’s all absolutely true. However, I think it’s easy to feel like if you’re slightly older (graduated slightly pre-recession, for example) you should be enjoying an old-fashioned, straight-up-the-ladder, stable career path, and that’s not what I’ve really observed for many people. Remember that the challenge for a lot of people our age is that we chose our majors when there appeared to be a wider variety of employment options for people with general degrees, especially from pretty highly-ranked schools. (For example, at my college it was quite usual for business consultancy firms to recruit humanities students, which is no longer really the case. My personal plan was always to teach, which is a field that has also become massively over-supplied because of the recession-related budget cuts and many laid-off career changers hoping for something stable. I’m still subbing.) There was also a bit of a different attitude about what to do immediately post-graduation because the economy was still good when we were making plans. So for example, people went into year-long volunteer programs to work with an issue they cared about, even though the work was out-of-field for them…not realizing that the economy was soon to crash, the definition of ‘entry-level’ was soon to change, and they’d kind of missed their chance without knowing it. Finally, I don’t know your background and where exactly you went to college, but try to be realistic about who you’re comparing yourself with. I know I can get depressed when I see that a lot of my classmates with similar degrees (and if I do say so myself, similar skills) from Elite University are on Facebook complaining about their job at Publishing Company, Fashion House, Art Gallery, or Prestigious NGO. But then I remember that many of them are from very prominent families and had connections I could only dream of well before they set foot on campus as freshmen. I don’t say this to be cynical, but merely to remind myself that our career paths are likely to be different for a variety of reasons.

    So in short, I definitely think that you should use the advice above on how to explain your job history, because your reason is very valid (and I’m so glad you’re doing better.) However, I hope you don’t have the additional stress and discomfort of feeling like your resume is especially unusual.

  13. withheld*

    I can commiserate, having had a similar situation (and I’d add a #5 to my list of issues: persistent and high stress abuse even after the relationship ended resulted in poor work performance from me, damaging my references in some of those short term jobs – although I was never terminated I wasn’t renewed).

    I say this as an Australian, where we might have a different approach… (and our resumes are genuinely 2pages long, the full job/career/education history is a multipage curriculum vitae, often a resume is sufficient for a job with less than 5yrs of experience required, CV for professional roles (management, graduate etc) with more than 3yrs experience, or the CV is just resume length anyway.)

    #1 While a resume includes all your work history you could skip the most ‘schizophrenic’ job (cashier) and explain you were handling a family or private matter (and took the teaching role as a way to expand your skills and gain a fresh perspective while rebounding from it) etc. If pushed (unlikely) you could say “I know this looks unusual, but it has allowed me the opportunity to build some fantastic skills in unexpected ways, such as presenting information on short notice to a large group of roaming cats that cannot pay attention” or whatever.

    #2 I too have had the very significant promotion at a young age. Put it on, and put references that can confirm that this happened. If the references are not available still (for whatever reason) you can still put the HR department down who can confirm job titles, dates and wages. Be prepared to ask questions about it in an interview. You can also refer to the teaching experience / other jobs as a ‘chance to spread your wings and confirm you were happy with working in *preferred/current/interviewing* industry as you’d come to realise that you’d followed a fairly narrow path and you wanted to be sure of your future career’. Or similar.

    #3 I’m not sure what level you were at before – but if you were at middle management before (ie you had at least supervisors below you, then they had staff) then apply for specialist supervisory positions, team leads of technical or specialist teams, departmental technical support roles, project management or project support (larger projects) etc. If you were a team lead/beginning level supervisor then apply for 2IC or team lead positions but with less staff or consider applying for lower paid but similar responsibility roles (maybe not for profit). Basically I’d recommend taking one step back from whatever your last ‘successful’ role was in the industry, and slotting back in there. It will give you time to find your feet again, give you time to catch up on any changes and employers will be more confident of your ability.

    #4 (and my addendum #5) I’d say yes. There could come a time where that’s appropriate. I’d do that before I signed off on a background check or handed references over etc so when you know you are down to the last couple of candidates. It shouldn’t be a long winded thing, but a quick “That ‘personal matter’ I referred to in the interview was actually a domestic situation that resulted in me needing to take out restraining orders and affected my personal finances. The situation is now resolved and has been for some time, but it has left it’s mark and you might find that as you do the background check. Please feel free to ring me if you need clarification or further information.” and don’t say more – even better if you can say this directly to the HR people rather than the interviewing ones, but either way keep it private, honest and simple.

    Good luck!

    1. Camellia*

      I agree with everything except #4. Someone earlier commented “just say bad divorce’. That is the perfect answer; it covers a multitude of situations from credit score on up, and most people realize that and/or can extrapolate for themselves.

      1. M-C*

        I agree with the “bad divorce” terminology. Most middle-aged managers or hiring people will have been through one of these themselves, or seen several up close, and will be able to extrapolate without wanting to pry.

  14. moe*

    There have been a ton of great comments here, but I just want to reiterate: career-wise, you’re not in a bad place at all, OP. I know the black hole of a personal crisis can sometimes seem to overwhelm everything else–and I don’t mean to minimize what you’ve been through–but you’ve got a lot of great things to highlight: great experience & education, a good trajectory at the longer-term jobs you’ve had, and comparatively, not that long a period of “churn” to explain. Really.

    I would never push anyone to reintegrate into a network they felt unsafe about, but I’d also point out–as someone who was assaulted by a person in my (previous) professional network–sometimes you have more allies than you’d suspect. The good work you did still stands. The person you were still stands. It can be worth putting some feelers out to one or two of your old contacts to see what will happen. Almost assuredly, the crisis you’ve built up in your head, what an ordeal it would be to get back in touch with the people you knew back then, is just that–built up. This was my experience at least. Most people that you knew to be good and caring, are really just good and caring people who would want the best for you and would love to help.

    Best of luck to you.

  15. Candice*

    Would listing your resume by skill rather than in chronological order be a viable option? Maybe it would make the skills the highlight and take the focus off of the jump-around nature of the rest of it?

  16. M-C*

    Just wanted to send big hugs to the OP in conclusion, and all my best wishes. You’re still in a hard spot, but you’re working on it the right way, so don’t get discouraged and all this will be truly behind you soon! May I recommend that you read “why does he do this?” by Lundy Bancroft so you understand better what happened and feel more confident about yourself? It’s the most incredibly helpful book I’ve found on the topic.

  17. Kristie*

    I’m also a survivor of domestic abuse and struggled with a very similar question to yours. Eventually I got to the point where I was telling people, “I was in a difficult situation for a few years and had to make choices that were more about having a job than having a career. That is in the past now and I’m ready to dive into a new career opportunity.”

    That says everything, without over-sharing. It also always felt very honest to me.

    In terms of what jobs to apply for… I think you apply for the jobs you want and just see what happens.

    In my case, I went back to work in non-profits for awhile… which were often easier to break into and also allowed me to get my skills/resume back on track before transitioning to a corporate spot.

  18. Meagan*

    Kristie, you have the best advice and wording. I don’t think she should mention the DV at all. I have been a victim of DV, and while I am an advocate for victims, I also know from my current (wonderful) husband’s ex that there are women out there who cry DV falsely just to get sympathy… any excuse for her to not take responsibility for her own mistakes. If I were hiring and DV was one of the first things that came out of an interviewee’s mouth, I would automatically rule her out of potential candidates, just to avoid possible drama. There is not reason to bring up personal life in a professional interview.

  19. Damien*

    What I want to know is whether the OP is male or female. I am a male survivor of intimate partner violence at the hands of my ex-wife. As a man, often the best I get is a blank look. I have been told by a social security judge that he simply does not believe I was abused.

    I would be up-front about it, without over-sharing. This is a societal issue that is just too big and severe to put away for any reason. If you get turned down from a job over it, believe me, you do not want to work for them anyway. If you get the job after being honest and concise, you have a good idea that you can work comfortably there – no matter what gender you are.

    1. Grace*

      Sorry to hear that you were abused by a woman. I believe it. (I work in law.) There are many violent, abusive, troubled women.
      Take care.

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