how to repair a bad job history

A reader writes:

So, my job history isn’t the greatest. When I was younger, I had a tendency to get a job and quit soon after. It was stupid and irresponsible. But now I am serious about finding a stable job. Is there any way to make my resume desirable so they won’t toss it in the bin the moment they see my work history? And if I get to the stage where I would have to do an interview, what could I tell them if they asked about it?

This is going to be less about what you do with your resume and more about what you do with your actual work.

The first thing you need to do is to build up a stable job history. That means that you probably need to take whatever you can find right now and build up some tenure there — stay for at least a few years. While you’re there, you should work your ass off so that you can can start (re)building your reputation.

And if you can’t find jobs you’re really excited about — which might be the case, because your work history is going to be a challenge right now — then be willing to look at jobs that you’re not as enthused about. Depending on how much trouble you’re having finding work, that might mean looking at things like retail, call centers, and other jobs where it’s (often) easier to get hired. You might not love what you’re doing, but if you can get work and stay there for a while, you’ll go a long way toward canceling out your previously spotty job history.

While you’re there, find every way you can to be awesome. Be the most reliable person on staff, display good judgment (no screwing around on Facebook or taking sides in other people’s office disputes), volunteer for extra assignments, take any opportunity offered to you to expand your skills or increase your responsibilities, and tell your manager directly that you’re looking for ways to grow in the position (but wait until you’ve been there six months or so before saying that; you want to prove yourself first before you start asking for more). Basically, be the employee that managers are devastated to lose.

That said, putting in, say, three years in a call center isn’t going to be an automatic stepping stone to a job in a different field. In fact, it will be harder than if you’d been working in your field all along, because you’ll have less industry experience than other candidates applying for the same jobs. So you also need to be finding other ways to strengthen your resume and your network: do volunteer work, learn new skills, become active in your community, and expand your network as much as you can.

If you do all that, you’ll be in much better shape. And if you’re asked about your earlier history in an interview, you’ll be able to honestly say, “I managed my career badly when I was younger, but I’ve changed dramatically — which you can see from what I’ve accomplished in my last three years at XYZ Company.”

(Plus, once you have a stable tenure somewhere, you can leave those earlier jobs off altogether, so this will fairly quickly become a non-issue.)

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 27 comments… read them below }

  1. FD*

    Nothing to add here, but good for you on admitting to your past mistakes and deciding to change them going forward. Best of luck to you!

  2. PPK*

    This goes along with Alison’s suggestion of being awesome. There are many “low skilled” (I put this in quotes, because all jobs require some sort of skills whether people realize it or not) jobs where simply showing up on time every day and doing a good job will bump you up the ranks. I have several friends who have moved up because they were willing to do the job and do it well. These include a working at a debt collection company, working for a shipping/receiving dock, food service, etc. Maybe the job isn’t the long term career, but it was a stepping stone from an entry job to a better internal job to a better resume/experience.

    I wish the best of luck to OP!

    1. tcookson*

      Maybe the job isn’t the long term career, but it was a stepping stone from an entry job to a better internal job to a better resume/experience.

      This. When I was younger, I left college after my sophomore (took a year’s leave of absence and never went back . . . until I was nearly 40). Anyway, during that time I applied for numerous entry-level office jobs, and quickly realized that two years of college qualifies one for absolutely nothing. So I worked for one year in fast food, one year as a convenience store clerk (a little more responsibility than fast food, since there is only one person per shift), and then for two years at a wholesale natural foods warehouse as an ordertaker (which gave me my first “office”-type experience). The manager there really taught me what is expected of people in a professional office environment.

      With that experience on my resume, I applied at the state university’s internal temp service and got assigned to assist a department head whose own assistant was going on maternity leave. When she decided not to return, the job search was opened to the public and I applied as the internal candidate and got the job (my current job). I’ve been doing it for six years now, and am looking forward to moving up to other EA jobs at the same university. There are still several positions of upward mobility available to me even on the assistant track.

      So, without a degree I wasn’t able to start out in the type of job I wanted, but I got there via the type of circuitous route that Alison recommends to the OP. If I could deliver a message to my younger self, though, I’d say, “Get the degree while you’re young — it doesn’t get easier when you throw a husband, kids, and the need to hold a full-time job into the mix!”

  3. BGirl81*

    I too was a job-hopper in my much-younger days and this is excellent advice. I can vouch for the fact that this strategy will work! In my case, I took an administrative job that paid less than what I wanted, stayed for three years and then was able to say that I learned from the error of my ways.

    I would also say that the OP should take some time to think about what her ideal job is, be it the industry, the culture, etc. and think about how his/her experience in a less-than-ideal job can translate. Let’s say the OP would love to eventually work in a start-up tech company and says, “At Retail Job X, I really thought about how we could use the technology we had to make scheduling easier, harness it to help with loss prevention and give our customers a better experience. I talked to my coworkers and managers and we came up with some great ideas together.”

    Good luck and know that it can be done!

    1. Jazzy Red*

      “I talked to my coworkers and managers and we came up with some great ideas together.”

      Sharing the glory is always good, too!

  4. Ed*

    In addition to finding a job and staying there, I would attempt to find a job at a large company with room for advancement. When an internal position opens up, your work at that company will most likely be weighted very heavily in the decision.

    This is similar to finding work after getting fired. I was fired once (not for cause) and it seemed like every interviewer was obsessed with it. We would cover and it move on then another person in the room would be like “soooo, getting back to how you lost your last job…”. It destroyed my confidence going into interviews. But eventually I found a job (better and higher paying), stayed there 2 years until layoffs, got another contract job for a year and now that original job isn’t even mentioned during interviews because the jobs I had after it were better and relate more to what I’m doing now.

    1. Jessa*

      Yeh sometimes you get stuck, all you can do is keep explaining it til you get something past it.

  5. Joey*

    What’s interesting to me is the op thinks there’s something he can do or say right now to make his crappy work history look better. There’s no way to hide it or explain it away. You’ve got to take what job market will give you and prove yourself.

    1. MR*

      I see it as the OP realizing he had a problem and was looking for the best way to deal with that problem.

      Being honest with him/herself and realizing that s/he screwed up is a great way to begin moving forward.

      1. Tinker*

        Yeah, this is one of those cases where the standard advice is “Do not X” but if you have already X then it’s not as if you can throw yourself on the pyre — you still have to go forward somehow, and I think seeking advice on how to do that is reasonable. There are, after all, still more and less effective ways to address issues even if they are unequivocally negative.

  6. Courtney*

    I agree that trying to find an entry level position in a big company with lots of room for advancement might be the best way to go.

    Another option is to try to find a consistent volunteer role with an organization you are passionate about, so at least you can show that you can stick with SOMETHING.

  7. nyxalinth*

    One thing too: those less than ideal jobs can sometimes turn out to be something you enjoy. Not everyone’s cut out for Big Office Jobs. And that’s okay, too.

    1. Laura*

      My husband is one of those guys. Between the 2 of us we represent the 2 extremes in business. I work for a huge company with a global presence, and he runs a machine shop with 6 guys.

      When I tell him about some of the corporate BS I have to deal with, he just shakes his head and says, “I would so not fit into your world.”

      1. BGirl81*

        My father is a small manufacturing business owner and I get the same thing from him all the time! My personal favorite was the following:
        Dad: Good luck on your interview tomorrow! How much does this one pay?
        Me: They haven’t said.
        Dad: Did you ask?
        Me: That is Not Done.
        Dad: Whaaaaaaaaaaat?! When I call someone I might want to hire, that’s the first question they ask me! And why shouldn’t it be?! Are you volunteering to be a candy striper for chrissakes?

        He’s…not wrong haha!

    2. Jean*

      Heck, yes! If everybody tried to be a Big Office worker, who would provide society with the products of machine shops? Visions of all sorts of technical items (cars, photocopiers, health care equipment, and devices used in laboratories where new solutions are found for some of humanity’s many problems) grinding to a complete halt. We would have inoperable sewage processing plants, motionless vehicles, frozen fax machines, and all sorts of aggravation!

  8. tom*

    Since I was downsized in 2008 from a job I was at for 8 years, I have worked 3 contract positions that ended when the contract ended. My resume makes me look like a “job hopper” since the recession started (or ended) I have had a hard time explaining to lomg term employed interviewers and hiring people that in the real world you do get laid off through no fault of your own.

    1. KellyK*

      I would list your jobs as short-term contracts specifically on your resume if you’re not already. E.g., “Chocolate Teapot Specialist, Teapots, Inc., 05/2008-05/2009 (One-Year Contract)” That might help make it clear that it wasn’t job-hopping.

  9. tom*

    Thanks for tip, but I have done that. I recently had interview where the hiring manager was a 30 year employee and I just could not get them to understand that lay offs, downsizing, etc. do happen.

    Of course if you didnt figure it out, it was a govt. position.

  10. MA*

    I’m in a similar situation (or at least, that’s one of my theories). I only had a couple short-term jobs when I was younger (which was dumb of me because I was being too damn picky); then, I moved to another country, and I’ve only been legally able to work there for a few years.

    I’ve been job searching for about 2 years now and could probably count on one hand the number of interviews I’ve had. I don’t know if it’s the work history, or that my resume is crap, or that my degrees are kind of useless in a workplace environment.

    I have worked hard and made myself invaluable to my current workplace; however, there are literally no real advancement opportunities there, and none of the industries I am now interested in will give me the time of day. As a result, my confidence about what value I would add to a new workplace is pretty much ground to dust.

    Either way, I kinda know how the OP feels…if only we had known then how much we’d be paying later…

  11. What?*

    Wait, so the advice for someone who can’t get a job because of their resume, but wants to get one and stay there….is to get a job somewhere and stay there??

    1. Anonimus*


      When there’s so many people competing for jobs nowadays, including entry-level work and retail, if you don’t have a great work track record, they’ll go for someone who has a better record. Unfortunately, it’s the best thing someone can do if they have a bad job history. With a new job, they can somewhat wipe the slate clean and start anew and try very hard to gain good traction.

      It stinks, but that’s the reality.

  12. Temporarily*

    The job market is fierce! I also feel like I have a bad work history. I am currently working temporarily with a staffing agency. I had 2 2- 4 month jobs with a lot of 1 day to 1 week positions. I was wondering how to put it on my resume. (the work consist of data entry, filing, writing letters with the President of the co.! lol etc. I currently have it like :

    Freelance Worker
    Same Staffing co.
    – what I did for the smaller co.’s, listing the best achievements for each company but not really saying what co?

    Title (Temp)
    company via Same Staffing co. – 2 months
    – accomplishments

    I tried the other way suggested on AAM but I don’t want it to look messy by putting every company I ever worked for. Any help would be worthwhile. First job here I come, I hope. Thx AAM for blogging!

  13. Jim K.*

    “Work your ass off???” Poor use of grammar, if not totally inappropriate, especially when used by a “professional”.
    “Work your butt off” would work just as well.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      That’s not grammatically incorrect. It’s profane, which you might object to, but the grammar is perfectly correct.

      Professional swear too!

  14. Michael*

    Muddy the waters! Many employers never check beyond the last reference. As long as you have a consistent and well-thought through story no one will ever know. You can say you worked for a year in a company that folded. Employment gaps can be explained by travelling (if you’re from Europe you can say you travelled around the EU and there is no way of verifying it because passports aren’t stamped). Don’t listen to these arseholes and be a victim, be creative. Company’s are not honest and do not have integrity. They will let you go in the drop of a hat if business priorities change. Take what you can from them.

    1. Joe*

      I agree with this strategy. It’s not like life throws many bones for people. Maybe someone has a bad work history because they found out after they got the job that it wasn’t what it appeared to be from the outside perspective. I know, one could say that a person should better research the company they are applying for. But how could one know that they are entering a hostile work environment? Honest mistakes are made and if employers are going to be stiff with this kind of stuff I agree that candidates don’t always need to be 100% honest, especially if the candidate knows that 100% transparency will kill their chance of being hired. And yes, many companies want to throw stones at candidates when they themselves live in a glass house in terms of ethics/moral compass.

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