5 red flags in your job history – and how to combat them

featured-on-usnWhen employers screen job applicants, they might spend as little as a few seconds scanning your resume before moving on to the next. If they see red flags during that initial look, you risk that they’ll just move on to the next candidate – so it’s important to make sure that any red flags in your job history are addressed right up front.

Over at U.S. News & World Report today, I talk about five of the most common job history red flags and how to combat them — including unexplained gaps in between jobs, being fired, lack of experience, and more. You can read it here.

 

{ 84 comments… read them below }

  1. Goldensummer

    I’d also suggest spelling your own name consistently throughout your resume. I had an applicant who quite obviously had done no proof reading and had his own name spelled in 2 different ways on his resume and email. One way was still a standard spelling of the name but was pretty obviously a typo based on context. I couldn’t get past that kind of lack of attention to even read the rest of the resume.

    1. Mike C.

      Ok, my full name is difficult to spell, but even my dyslexia-addled mind can manage to spell it consistently and correctly.

      I think. ;)

    2. some1

      I think it’s a good idea to ask a friend who excels at grammar and punctuation to proofread your resume and cover letter if possible. Spell check isn’t going to help you if wrote “there” for “their” or “could of” for “could have”.

    1. Anonymous

      I think you don’t always have to leave off a job you were fired from. And if it is a few weeks or a month or two then leaving it off makes sense. But if I’d been at a job for 3 years and then I was fired I think I’d rather have it on my resume and explain it.

      1. The IT Manager

        +1. If you have been at a job for a long time before firing, I hope you have some accomplishments to highlight.

              1. fposte

                That’s why “short term” isn’t really a specific enough phrase.

                How much of an issue it will be depends on how recent it is and what’s on your resume since then and before then; it’ll also depend on whether you’re filling out applications that ask about being fired anyway and the circumstances of the firing.

              2. Trixie

                I think it’s still short enough to omit, unless you have some accomplishments you want to include on your resume. Was this your most recent job, or did you go on to something else after that?

    2. TTT

      I have a 6 month gap because of a job I was fired from and I don’t it list on my resume. I tell interviewers I was at home taking care of family. Interviewers have not probed much and just seem to want a reasonable answer. I did rehearse my answer before doing interviews to make sure I could deliver it in a matter-of-fact manner. I do read the application carefully before signing it to make sure I am not getting in trouble there. I’ve secured 2 jobs since the firing.

  2. Mike C.

    So related to the issue of “job hopping” is the issue of staying at one place for too long. I don’t believe it’s that big of an issue, but others do and I had a bit of an epiphany on the topic yesterday.

    I really think that the issue of staying on too long in a particular job or company and the risk associated with it has a great deal to do with the length of time it takes to complete various projects at that job.

    Say your job is to write and design advertisements. That’s generally seasonal if not more often. Lots of turn over in terms of the work being done, things happen very quickly. There it makes some sense (not a lot, but some) because it’s easy to get stuck in a rut. The same with jobs where many of the responsibilities are ongoing and regular. That isn’t to say there isn’t any innovation or efficiency gains going on (because there certainly are!) but a candidate looking to move on should make sure that such gains are made well known.

    Compare this with a job where the projects take years to complete. Maybe you worked with the team who sent people to the moon, or you’re designing civilian aircraft or you’re the lawyer that took down the tobacco industry or bankrupted the KKK. Those are projects that take years, if not decades to complete. For projects like that to be successful, low turnover is key, and it makes perfect sense that if you’re working a handful of projects of that scale and magnitude not only will you have been at your job for a really long time, but you’ll have plenty of company. Projects like that take an enormous amount of effort from a lot of different people at all sorts of experience levels.

    Anyway, it was just a thought of mine that seemed appropriate to share here. What do you folks think?

    1. Anonymous

      I had a job for a nearly 10 years and it was my first job out of college. Every 3 years or so I’d have finished off big projects and would start looking for a new job and then something huge would come along, and it was really like I had a new job every 3-4 years when I was there. (It was a tiny org so only had 1 title.) I sometimes worry that it does look bad to have on my resume just 1 (now 2) jobs taking up most of it.

      Most of the stuff we worked on were projects that would take 2-3 years to come to fruition though so maybe that is part of it.

      1. Anonymous

        I might do sub-headings on your resume for the different projects and list accomplishments for each. I did something similar on my resume since I did so many different types of tasks as part of my previous job. It made things clear and organized and worked well to stress the variety.

        1. Anonymous

          That’s what I’ve tried to do on my resume. I do worry a little that my preference for staying at the same place while doing all the cool new work I can do within that sphere might hold me back next time I need to transition. (I don’t mind new work love it really, but once I learn how to deal with people I prefer to not change that up very often at all.)

          1. Julie

            I feel the same way. I, too, wonder whether my 11 years (so far) at my current company will hinder me when I want to find a new job. My experience here has also been similar: An interesting new project seems to come up every time I think about moving on. Also, I have hit the jackpot in terms of managers, so that’s another reason I’m reluctant to leave.

            1. Jennifer

              Yeah….my 11+ year gig has been good to me, though I have switched positions/gotten status raises during that time. I have looked for other jobs, but I haven’t gotten them, as my skill set is apparently not very transferable and there’s always at least one thing they require experience in that I don’t have, or they want me to handle payroll (hell no). But I’m not bucking to become a supervisor and I have nothing else going for me really and I’m in a rare industry where people don’t care if I don’t change every few years if I’m not going for management, so whatever.

    2. Cat

      I don’t think that people with jobs with short deadlines necessarily have to leave every few years either, though you may be right that it’s easier to set up businesses where they can. For instance – my dad is a journalist. He has daily deadlines. But he’s worked at the same place for 30 years and been happy doing so because -even though he’s someone who likes constant change and new challenges – his job gives him a chance to do that. He can always be taking on new and different projects.

      Obviously, it’s harder now because of the job market (particularly in journalism). But I’m not worried about my dad’s employability – he’s kept himself up-to-date and adapted to new media despite working at the same employer. To me, that’s the key, not working at different places all the time.

      1. Mike C.

        Let me clarify to say that I agree with you that those with short deadlines shouldn’t have to leave quickly, but rather that they just might have more to prove. Still, it’s just a hypothesis on my part.

        1. AB

          Mike, I’m not sure if hiring managers take that aspect into consideration when they are concerned about a person who stayed too long with the same company.

          I have noticed that potential employers like the fact that I spent a “safe” number of years in each of my jobs: 2 years on the first, then 8 years in the second, and 5 years on the next (I’m now one year into my current job).

          A history of 2 years each with multiple employers, or 20 years with the same employer, would not be seen as positively, even though the type of work I do is relatively short-term projects (which means I could stay for many years with the same company without getting into routine work).

          The thing that seems to matter most for hiring managers, at least in my experience, is exposure to different environments and organizational cultures. Many have told me they like the fact that I got exposure to companies of different sizes and in different industries, which makes them believe I can more easily adjust to a new environment than a person used to only one culture / way of doing things.

          1. Mike C.

            To be honest, I think those hiring managers are seriously mistaken. When I work with people here with their 25 year pins, they’re the ones who have the drive to do the hard work and the knowledge base to back themselves up. They aren’t stagnant in their positions but are oftentimes the ones called on to perform difficult and unusual tasks because of their reputation.

            At the same time, those folks are well compensated and respected for their hard work, so that’s why they stick around.

    3. Windchime

      I was at my previous employer for 22 years (I can hardly beleive it!). But within that employer, I held 5 different roles of increasing responsibilty. So I wonder if that would be viewed negatively? Fortuntely, when I came to this employer, they knew me well and knew my track record, so they didn’t have a problem with me having stayed so long at the previous place.

      1. AB

        Windchime, it may be more difficult for someone to find a new job after 22 years with the same company, than for someone with a history of 5 years in a company, then 8 in another for example. There are managers who do worry about the ability of someone to adapt to a different organization after working for so long for the same employer (the fact that you got promoted within the same company doesn’t prove you can adjust to different cultures and environments).

        However, after you made the jump to another employer, you are safe. The next time you are looking for a job you will have evidence of adapting to different workplaces (as long as you don’t try to leave too soon from the second job, which could make hiring managers wonder about your ability to change).

  3. Sophia

    Since your advice for 1-3 is based on answers, do you also think this should be mentioned in a cover letter? It seems as though practicing verbal answers will help a candidate once they get an interview, but they may not get past that initial glance of their resume

    1. JJ

      I just came to comment with a similar thought: while Alison’s advice helps you prepare for answering the q in the interview, how can you address this in the initial screen to make sure you have a chance at getting an interview instead of being immediately tossed out?

      1. Chinook

        I had a resume that had one interviewer ask if I was on the run from the law because I had moved so much, so I learned to broach this topic in my cover letter. I not only explained why I moved so much (DH’s government job) but would go on to explain that we had plans to stay for a while (not a lie – we plan to say but TPTB are the ones who get to decide). I then highlighted the pros to this type of lifestyle: quick learner, never say “at my old job…” and experience in various industries brings a unique perspective. It seems to work.

  4. Anon for this

    Well, based on that article, I’m screwed :( And on top of that, these difficulties have affected my self-confidence, which I’m sure is further complicating things. My only hope right now is to kick butt in my volunteer activity.

    1. Elizabeth West

      Don’t worry about it too much…I have flags myself. I’ve been through two layoffs, a business closing, and a firing and it was all on the same resume. I got Exjob with all that hanging over me, and even though it sucked really bad at the end, I was there for six years. Yes, you should kick butt in your volunteer activity–but I’m sure that’s not your only hope. :)

    2. Rana

      Yeah, that’s how I generally feel when I read these things. My resume consists almost entirely of a bunch of one- or two-year academic teaching positions (so I could get more work there, if I thought it was still worth the bother, which I don’t) with freelancing on the side (now full time), plus the additional handicap of extraneous degrees. I might as well just stamp a big “inexperienced and overqualified” on the top of it, and file it in the shredder, so as to not waste would-be employers’ time.

  5. Karen

    I was a member of the 99 week club in 2008/2009. I cannot believe the amount of interviews that I had where I was questioned with WHY I was out of work for so long. Hello! Turn on the news! And especially in an IT Project Management position where jobs were being off-shored.

    I am now looking for another job, and I am still questioned about WHY I was out of work for a year and a half in 2008 and 2009. Seriously??!!

    1. Jane Doe

      I wonder if they’re asking just as a formality or to make sure you weren’t fired, although I’d hope that even then a firing 5 years ago wouldn’t matter if you had a recent stable job history.

    2. Elizabeth West

      Gah, me too–last year (2012). Thank God for those extensions.
      Of course, last year they were talking about it a lot more–I think some people forgot that it really started back in 2008.

      1. JM in England

        Have just secured a job offer after one year of unemployment……..Yay!

        What surprised me though was that my interviewers did not ask me directly why I was out of work so long. The question was asked by my agency contact when they phoned later that day to say that the employer would like me on board. My reply was along the lines of “Hello……….tough job market!!” but put more diplomatically than that of course!

          1. JM in England

            Thanks Emma, I hope so too!

            FWIW, I got good vibes from the place and everyone I encountered there.

    3. Lynn Whitehat

      Just because they ask doesn’t mean you’re doomed. From their point of view, they have to do their due diligence. What if you were fired for stealing, and they didn’t know because they didn’t ask?

  6. Ed

    I was fired a while ago (technically “asked to resign” but nobody leaves a good job during a recession) and I had a hard time interviewing after that. I rehearsed my answer to that question so many times I think it sounded like I was also trying to convince myself. Finally I made peace with it and then I landed the next job.

  7. AdminTO

    It still puzzles me that some hiring managers actually prefer that candidates are employed when seeking new employment. Do they not expect their own employees to be loyal? I’m sure they wouldn’t like it if most of their employees were actively seeking new jobs and interviewing so why is it such a red flag if a candidate has been unemployed for a few months? At least I’m not going behind my employer’s back to do it.

    1. JM in England

      I’ve never got my head around this either. Wouldn’t an unemployed person be a) more grateful for the job and therefore be more likely to stick at it and b) be more readily available than someone who has to work a notice period?

      I now accept this thinking as just one of those facts of life with no logical explanation!

      1. JM in England

        PS

        Here in the UK, the latest figures claim that between one-third and one-half of current jobseekers have been looking for a year or more.

      2. Jane Doe

        I think their reasoning is that someone with a job has made themselves too valuable to be laid off. Then there’s the complication that layoffs are sometimes seen as an opportunity to get rid of people who managers/coworkers don’t like, who are difficult to work with but don’t really deserve to be fired, etc.

        I don’t think having to work a notice period is that big of a draw for employers unless the person they want to hire has a contract. Most employers will wait two weeks for the person they really want, and honestly I’d think it was kind of odd if a company hiring for a full-time, permanent position wasn’t willing to wait two weeks (although I understand the typical notice period is longer in some countries).

        I’m not saying this is the right way to hire people; I definitely think it’s dumb not to consider people without jobs.

        1. JM in England

          Here in the UK, the typical notice period is one month but can be as long as three months when quitting a senior management role.

    2. Rana

      I think the “reasoning” is that if someone’s not currently employed, it’s because something’s wrong with them. I disagree with that logic, but I suspect that’s what’s at work.

      1. JM in England

        Agreed Rana!

        When I was aked *that* question, I detected the undertone of “What is it about YOU that’s putting employers off?” (apart from just simply being unemployed at the time)…………..

  8. JJ

    Re #5: Does it look bad if you’ve been unemployed for quite a while but have still done volunteering, but you haven’t been earning your own income for a year (or however long)? When job apps require you to put in your current salary for the year, does it make you seem less appealing if you have to write $0?

    1. Trixie

      Possibly, but it could also speak to a healthy savings for just such a situation or planned leave/sabbatical.

  9. Dang

    So what’s the threshold for the length of unemployed time employers see as reasonable? I’m at 3.5 months and seeing no end in sight, but it’s not as if I’m not trying really hard… There’s just almost nothing out there that’s a match.

    1. Elizabeth West

      Keep trying–when I lost a job in 2004, I didn’t start worrying until about six months. When I was laid off last year, I worried right away, but it didn’t take as long to find something (a year vs. 1-1/2 years). I still got hired even with that huge of a gap.

      Of course, it may not take that long now–who knows? Keep looking, keep applying. Don’t give up!

      1. ThursdaysGeek

        On the other hand, my sister was laid off in about 2008/09, worked a few temp jobs since then, but hasn’t even had any nibbles for the last couple of years. She finally did give up and is now calling herself retired. So she’s no longer considered unemployed — yay, the economy is improving!

        1. Elizabeth West

          It’s so dumb that the gubmint counts that as an improvement. If anything, it’s a sign of a huge, gaping sinkhole of doom.

          What does your sister do? A lot of long-term unemployed people have had to make career switches. Would she be able to do that with some ease and maybe a short course of training, or would it involve starting over from scratch?

  10. Anon JB

    What if you don’t have a positive answer for #1? What if you have an employment gap because your stressful divorce caused stress at work which eventually led to you being asked to resign. Then you worked a series of part time gigs, eventually landing in a low-paying factory job which you’ve held for almost 2 years.

    Now that you’ve gotten your life back together, and have started applying for jobs in your original field … what do you tell a potential employer about your employment gap and erratic history? How do you convince someone to give you a chance?

    I try to approach this question as matter of factly as possible, emphasizing the good work and steady praise at the factory job, but even applying for entry level work in my original field has gotten me no results.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      How about, “I had some family issues that I needed to focus on during that period, so deliberately took lower-responsibility, part-time work for that time. Now those issues have been resolved, and I’m eager to return to my field.”

      1. Julie

        Alison, It’s so helpful when you give sample wording for these situations! What a relief to know what to say and what not to say while conveying the pertinent information. I think sometimes also we’re so close to these situations and so emotionally invested, it’s hard to think of what would be appropriate/useful to say.

        1. Ask a Manager Post author

          I am convinced that having help figuring out the language to use would solve 80% of job hunting dilemmas and 99% of management dilemmas. The language to use is so often what trips people up.

  11. LV

    Gaps between jobs is something that I have been thinking about a lot recently. I just finished my MLIS last spring and while I was lucky enough to get a librarian job right out of school, it is a short-term contract (and ends in 3 weeks, actually). All the other job postings I’ve seen in the field in my city are either way beyond my level (head librarians, library directors, etc) or also temporary. In fact, I have yet to see a position I’d be qualified for that was scheduled to last over a year.

    I am fortunate to have a spouse with a very stable and well-paying job, and we have few expenses and decent savings. We would be just fine if I didn’t work. Sometimes it is very tempting to suspend the job search and just let myself enjoy a few months of voluntary unemployment rather than perpetuate this cycle of a 6-month job here, 4-month job there, and applying for every position in the field in between. It’s exhausting.

    But then I worry about what I would say during an interview when I did decide to go back to work. If an interviewer asked me about a gap between jobs, I would feel really weird/stupid saying, “Well, I didn’t have to work, so I didn’t.” But I’d be lying through my teeth if I said I was caring for a sick family member or traveling…

    1. Jennifer

      Yeah, and once you’re enjoying being unemployed, you just kind of…keep sticking with that. I have one friend who, well….I think she’s enjoyed not working enough that she hasn’t been super hardcore on her job search. Now she’s run out of unemployment money AND just had a freak accident happen to her so she is now forbidden to work–and that happened just as she got a job offer. Ugh!

      I dunno, I’d rather keep plugging away at the job hunt so at least I felt like I was doing something rather than falling into the “fuck this, I’m going to enjoy today…and tomorrow…and the next day…I don’t really have to job hunt, right?” mental trap.

    2. Amanda

      For what it’s worth, I have a friend who “took a break” after getting let go (she was fired although the reason was absolute BS-the company was having financial issues and were clearing house). Between substantial savings, unemployment and a wealthy fiancée, she didn’t have to rush back to work. She spent six months traveling and visiting friends and when she finally launched the job search, she found something right away.

  12. JM in England

    Regarding #4 “You don’t have much experience”

    It is soul destroying to be stuck in the no-job-hence no-experience cycle!

    Everyone has to start somewhere don’t they? During an interview during a long period of unemployment in the early 90s, my frustration got the better of me. When the interviewer asked me why nobody was taking me on, I turned it back on him and said “Wasn’t there was once a time when you had no experience and someone took a chance on you? ”

    Needless to say, didn’t get that job! :-)

    1. Emma

      Hey, good for you for responding with some reality. I hope that made the interviewer think twice – about asking that question AND about his own good luck in having someone take a chance on him.

      In my old city we had adverts on the local buses that said something like “remember when someone took a chance on you?” regarding hiring. I thought it was a good PSA. I wonder how effective it was?

      1. JM in England

        Thanks Emma!

        At that point in my early working life, interviews came along infrequently and my main fear was of blowing them and losing an opportunity. Consequently, I was taking a lod of s**t from interviewers (because I then *wrongly* believed they held all of the cards and it was up to me to impress them) However, at this particular interview, I felt something “snap” inside me when that question was asked and thus I responded the way I did.

    2. Ruffingit

      I did the same thing once, but with a different outcome. I was just out of college and had interviewed a few different places and finally I was so tired of the “You have some great credentials and your work-study job looks good, but you just don’t have the experience…” Finally, I said to one woman “I can’t get experience without getting a job so telling me I don’t have the experience is rather odd when you’re not willing to give me a job to get the experience you want.” I got the job.

      I’m not recommending that everyone do that, I was young and frustrated at the time, but it worked. I was tired of the party line of “no experience so can’t give you the job, but can’t get a job without experience.”

  13. blu

    I think #6 could be “you have a series of unrelated positions on your resume.” You see it sometimes with job hoppers, but it can also be longer unrelated stays at different employers. Your cover letter is going to be critical there to explaining why you want this particular job.

    1. Amanda

      Ha, that’s me. I haven’t been super focused because I still dont know what I want to be when I grow up. And I’m not sure how to focus without pigeonholing myself.

      1. Anonymous

        This describes me to a tee. I earned my bachelors in accounting in 2012, and took a job in purchasing because that’s all that was available to me. I quit last June (terrible work environment…really unbearable) worked our little farm business, and in the fall started substitute teaching. It’s all on the resume with my waitressing experience and tax internship. Talk about unfocused. Now employers won’t even look at me sine I don’t have experience with accounting software. Seriously? Because I can’t learn anything new, ever? Starting a temp job tomorrow…in purchasing. Pigeonholed. Sigh…

  14. Tara T.

    Employers are SO wrong to discount people who are out of work. There are people who are traveling, studying for degrees, or taking care of kids for a year or two – or a couple of years. It should not count against them, and it should not count against people who are looking for a job for more than a year if they are taking temp jobs or volunteering while job hunting. As long as they have the required experience in their field, it should not matter if they take a few years off.

  15. Anonymous1

    Sadly, for 99% of my applications, I don’t ever get the chance to explain my red flags at an interview (even if I mention in my cover letter I’m looking for a career where I can settle down).

    Much of my hopping has been due to changes in financial circumstance (bills becoming too high, either on my end or the employer’s end). I probably have more flags than just that, though.

  16. Rob New Homes

    This is the first real time comment site I have found, Some good advice. New home sales have really been a struggle the last 6 years. Was with a big builder for 17 years. Laid off in 2008. Bounced around with various wanna be builders and recently after a almost 3 year stay with a local was “Fired”. Never gave me an exact reason, although I can guess. Paid a draw but I never could get too much in front of it. They just did not want to front the money to me anymore. Even though my backlog exceeded my owed draw. Said we needed to part ways. It would be good for me and my family and the company to do so. Too small a company to keep me on. Sold in a very tough neighborhood, just wanted more sales and thought fresh person would do so. Acted like they loved me all the way to the front door. What suggestions out there for what to tell next interviewer for the reason I left? 56 years old. Looking for the last 3 months and 18 days. ????

  17. Tara T.

    Rob New Homes – SAY THIS as your reason for leaving: “I was laid off. The company was very small and could not keep me on.” Also, call your former boss & ask him to confirm if called for a reference. (No need to tell interviewers that they got a “fresh person” later. The amount of business probably fluctuates anyway.)

  18. Helen

    #1 and #4 are the problems I am having. I went through undergrad, held two full-time jobs, and an internship, then went to law school (hindsight: shouldn’t have done that,) had a clerkship through law school, but it’s been 1.5 years since graduation, and no full-time employment. So, been unemployed for longer than a year, with gaps, and am a newbie with no experience and no luck even being able to get started with a career. I have had my resume reviewed and revised by different centers, but still no one bites on a job application. I have taken a couple short-term/freelance work (not through a temp agency,) but those last maybe a month. I keep trying to figure out how to put that on my resume, to make it seem less gapy, but, I am not sure. Ugh.

  19. Tara T.

    I agree with Anonymous (Sept 18, 2013): “I think you don’t always have to leave off a job you were fired from. And if it is a few weeks or a month or two then leaving it off makes sense. But if I’d been at a job for 3 years and then I was fired I think I’d rather have it on my resume and explain it.” Do not list jobs where you were fired if they were only 6 months or less. Just explain the reasons for being fired from the long-term jobs, and leave the long-term jobs on the resume (but have some good excuses ready for why fired!). As for Anonymous (Jan. 13, 2013), with the B.A. in Accounting but no knowledge of the new Accounting software – look for a smaller company that cannot pay well & agree to take the smaller salary, because they would probably be willing to train.

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