you can stop stressing out about these job search worries

Job searching is stressful – prepping for interviews, figuring out how to sell yourself while simultaneously having to evaluate whether you even want a particular job or to work with a particularly company, feeling like you’re constantly being judged, and the agonizing wait to hear back from employers. But job seekers often make the experience even more stressful than it has be, by worrying about things that truly don’t matter.

Here are seven of the most common things job seekers worry about that really don’t need to be stress points at all.

1. Explaining every gap on your resume. It’s true that employers will wonder about large gaps on your resume, especially recent ones. But at some point job seekers started worrying that even very short gaps or gaps from long ago will be a problem, or that gaps for any reason are bad. Neither of those things is true. Yes, if you have a large, recent gap between jobs, employers may ask you what happened – but if you have a perfectly understandable reason like moving to a different state or dealing with a family health issue, that’s generally going to put any concern to rest. And if the gap is a few months or shorter, it’s unlikely that you’ll even be asked about it.

2. What to say when a job application asks “can we contact your former managers?” Some applications will ask you to list all your past jobs and for each one will ask whether your former manager there can be contacted. People sometimes worry that they need to answer “no” because the logistics of reaching the manager will be difficult (for example, the person is retired, traveling internationally, or just doesn’t have current known contact info). But this doesn’t warrant answering no. The question “can we contact this manager?” is about your permission, not about the reference’s availability. So in general, you should default to saying yes, because saying no signals that you left on bad terms or otherwise fear what the reference will say. The exception to this when we’re talking about your current manager, as you’ll see in the next point.

3. Letting your current boss be contacted as a reference. People often worry about letting a prospective employer contact their current boss, because they don’t want to tip off their boss that they’re job searching. The good news is that it’s very, very normal to ask that your current employer not be contacted. Reasonable employers understand that contacting your current employer could jeopardize your job, and they’ll generally respect requests to use other references instead.

4. Tracking down the hiring manager’s name for your cover letter. Job seekers are often advised that it’s important to track down the name of the hiring manager to show initiative and creativity. In reality, most hiring managers don’t care at all whether you bother to do that. If the name is easily available, by all means go ahead and use it when addressing your cover letter. But otherwise “dear hiring manager” is just fine.

5. Leaving a job off your resume. Job seekers sometimes feel that they’re supposed to mention every job they’ve ever had, even ones that were short-term or irrelevant or one they got fired from. But a resume is a marketing document; you’re not required to list every job you’ve ever held. If including a job doesn’t strengthen your resume, you can leave it off. Of course, it won’t always make sense to do that; if removing a job leaves a six-year gap, it probably makes sense to leave it on even if it’s not related to what you do now. But in general, you get to decide if including any given job will hurt more than it helps.

6. Explaining that you were out of the workforce because of illness. If you’ve been out of the work issue because you were dealing with a serious health matter, you don’t need to explain all the details. It’s sufficient to simply say, “I’ve been dealing with a health issue that has since been resolved, and now I’m eager to get back to work.” That’s it! Employers are very unlikely to ask for details, especially since doing so can put them into sketchy legal territory.

7. Coming up with a detailed case to justify asking for a higher salary. If you’re like most people, you probably assume that salary negotiation needs to involve lengthy justifications of why you’re worth more money than the employer has originally offered. But most of the time, that’s really not necessary. The majority of the time you can simply say, “I was hoping you could go up to $X. Is that possible?” or “Do you have any flexibility on the salary? I was hoping for $X.”

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 66 comments… read them below }

  1. monday anon*

    Regarding the point made about contacting references who are retired or traveling, do you mention this when it is time to give references?

    One of my old bosses is retired, but said I could still use her as a reference. However, she travels and usually without internet connection when she travels. I have a backup reference in case, but I’d still like to give her name first because she’s the one I worked closest with for a few years. But I don’t know if I should tell recruiters or hiring managers that she might be traveling. Thoughts?

    1. Rob Lowe can't read*

      This isn’t exactly the same, but in a previous job search, when the time came to provide references, I included a not about how one of them was based overseas and that he preferred to be contacted via email to set up a phone call. (This was necessary both because of the time difference and because of something related to using his office’s VOIP system.) I’m not certain he was ever contacted, but I felt it was important to note that for reference-checkers.

  2. bassclefchick*

    I’m so glad small gaps won’t matter. I’m planning on leaving the job I just got fired from off my resume entirely. It only lasted a month, anyway, and won’t do a thing to strengthen my candidacy for the next job. It will just look like my last assignment with my temp service ended in June (on good terms! Really!) and I haven’t found anything yet.

  3. Florida*

    The salary part is so true. I can think of three times in my life where I said, “I was hoping for $___,” and didn’t offer any reason for why I deserved $___. Each time, it worked.

  4. Confused job seeker*

    Is this a red flag? Jane graduated college in 2000 and started working at chocolate teapots in 2012 but she’s applying for a job where she needs 5 years experience and wants to omit her prior job. Is this too large a gap for Jane to omit?

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      So she’s been working there from 2012 until now, and she wants to only list that job and nothing else? If so, then no, she should list more. Listing only one job when she graduated in 2000 is going to seem off.

      1. Confused job seeker*

        Thanks that’s what I was thinking. Is there a general rule of thumb for how long is “acceptable” of a gap on a resume? Such as a 2 year gap doesn’t raise a red flag but 5 will? Sorry just trying to navigate all this!

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          It depends on how recent it is. People aren’t likely to care about a five-year gap that was 15 years ago. The more recent it is, the more likely they are to ask — but also, note that I’m saying “ask,” not “be alarmed.” It’s not really a red flag; it’s just a thing to ask about, because there are all kinds of reasonable explanations.

  5. Adam*

    The negotiation part has tripped me up as I literally have never negotiated a job offer. Ever. The last two times I potentially could have I was so desperate (as in $300 left in the bank account desperate) it took all I had not to break into song when they offered me the job in the first place.

    Now I’m in the new position of being able to look and negotiate and ultimately say no to things and it feels weird. Just the thought of asking for more money without turning off the employer feels like I’m playing an intense game of Stratego (which I’m not particularly good at :P).

    1. Lanya*

      It’s so nice to be in a position where you can walk away from a job offer that’s not quite right. My first few jobs were taken out of desperation, and they were terrible fits…but being older, wiser, and more financially free to be picky makes a huge difference in getting what you want. Also, Alison’s great advice about interviews being a two-way street have really helped me change my perspective about job hunting.

    2. Florida*

      It is extremely rare that an employer would withdraw an offer because you try to negotiating. I’m sure it happens, but it’s as rare as getting all the numbers of PowerBall. So I tend to approach it as the worst that could happen is that they will say, “No, our offer is final.”

      It’s sort of like a garage sale. If someone says, “Will you take $5 instead of $6?” You can say yes or no, but as long as they are nice about, it isn’t really offensive that they asked.

      Maybe you have a mentor who would be willing to practice with you a little bit.

      1. Adam*

        That’s a good way of looking at it. I think what trips me up the most is that generally no matter what I research it’s pretty hard to figure out what a job actually pays. So I don’t usually know what it is until I’m actually talking with an interviewer, and they’re always asking what my expectations are first so coming up with a non-awkward answer is hard.

        1. Audiophile*

          This is so true. If you live in a metro area, it can be very difficult to get an accurate picture of salary.

          Lately, I’ve tried to take my last salary and increase it by at least 5k-10k.

      2. Al Lo*

        Heh. We’re moving and selling a bunch of stuff online, and the only offers that I get offended by are the ones where they combine bad grammar with a ridiculous offer. A sound system that we’re selling for $100, and I get a response to the ad that says just “$30 cash now”. Um, no. You don’t get a response.

        (I can’t believe the number of people who don’t even respond in sentences!)

        1. Florida*

          Career counselors take note. There’s a new rule for negotiating salaries: be sure to make your counteroffer in a complete sentence. :)

  6. Pwyll*

    Among a series of red flags, I recently had a telephone interview where they asked for permission to call my current supervisor. I told them that I could not, as I did not want them to know of my search. The interview responded, “Don’t worry, I’ll say it’s a character reference for some kind of volunteering.”

    I let him know that it was outside of hiring norms to contact a current manager, and that I did not give permission for him to call and lie to my boss. He sputtered about not lying, per se, and I sent a kind letter withdrawing my candidacy pretty soon after I got off the call.

    Seriously. Don’t call current employers.

    1. Megs*

      Wow, good call on your part. I had an interview recently where they pushed back on my desire to give my current employer two weeks notice. It was one of a number of flags which led me to be not at all upset when they ghosted me (for example, ghosting after three interviews? FLAG!).

      1. Pwyll*

        I seriously don’t understand this mentality. You want me for at least 2-3 years absolutely minimum, but 2 weeks is going to kill you?

        1. hbc*

          Really. If it’s that much of an issue, only interview people who are unemployed.

          For what it’s worth, every time I’ve seen someone get pissy about 2 weeks, they’ve had a hiring process take at least 8 weeks, and they are in no way prepared whenever the new hire does finally arrive.

      2. Anonsydance*

        I just had something similar happen. I was on an interview and the topic that I was still employed came up and they were like, you know that if there was a person with your exact qualifications that can start on Monday (this was actually a Saturday interview), we’d hire them over you. That should have been my clue to peace out on them, but I stuck it out for a few more hours and it turned out to be something I wanted nothing to do with and I turned the position down. No way am I dealing with that kind of company.

        1. Megs*

          I’m honestly curious if this was what tanked me, but I’ve decided not to feel bad about it because (1) not respecting two weeks’ notice is BS and an absurd reason not to hire someone, and (2) as I mentioned, there were other flags, a couple MUCH more serious. Bullet dodged!

      3. all aboard the anon train*

        I keep wondering if ghosting after several interviews is becoming more common because I’ve had three employers do it to me over the past 6 months after I went in for in-person interviews. A few where it’s happened after a phone interview.

        I’m okay with never getting a response to an application I sent in, but I don’t understand why you wouldn’t at least respond to tell me you’re not continuing with me after we’ve had an interview. It’s rude.

        1. Chickaletta*

          I’ve had that happen to me too. I wonder if it’s part of a larger cultural norm these days to not respond or follow up. Fewer and fewer people RSVP anymore (the bane of all moms planning a children’s party), work emails with questions in the body go unanswered…. It’s like you need a meme and ‘like’ button to get anyone’s reaction anymore.

          … oooh, I just saw the future of job searching…

          1. all aboard the anon train*

            Honestly, it gives me such a negative view of the company when they don’t respond. If they’re not going to respond to candidates you had go through two or three or four rounds of interviews, how do they treat their actual employees?

        2. Ask a Manager* Post author

          It’s actually been pretty common for a while now, unfortunately. It’s really rude, but it’s been a thing at least since I started writing AAM nine years ago.

          1. all aboard the anon train*

            I guess I’m noticing it more now because I’m getting more interviews than I did a few years ago when I was last interviewing. I will say that 2 of the 3 times I’ve written a negative review on glassdoor about never hearing back (even after following up), I received an email apologizing for never getting a response.

            1. Megs*

              This is actually the first time I haven’t received a response after an interview, but it’s also the first private employer I’d interviewed with in a while – I’ve mostly been interviewing with state agencies, and in my experience are very good at getting back to people who interview. Heck, most of them even get back to people who apply, though sometimes it can be months later.

    2. Lemon Zinger*

      Ugh, you didn’t want to work for them anyway. That’s a huge red flag, and I’m glad you saw it!

  7. Jennifer*

    I dunno, my friend told me this weekend that employers have told her that any gaps at all mean she’s unhireable (in Silicon Valley).

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I would press her for more details on that before assuming that’s true. Loads of people have gaps and are perfectly employable. No sane employer cares about a gap of a few months. This sounds like something that might have gotten exaggerated in the telling (to you).

      1. the gold digger*

        I had a gap of five years and have gotten three jobs since then.

        As far as Silicon Valley, my (electrical engineer) husband used to work for a company there and I was worried that his time off would mean he couldn’t get another job. His former company has hired people back after they have taken a year or two off (one engineer took off two years to stay at home with her kids). A friend who is an engineering director at AMD in Austin said she wouldn’t even think twice about seeing a gap of a year or two – that she is so desperate for experienced engineers.

      2. Stranger than fiction*

        I’ve kind of sort of got this feeling before too – that certain employers were not inviting me to interview because I wasn’t currently employed. I always thought this is why I always get jobs at smaller companies and not large Corps.

        1. Audiophile*

          I feel like corps are like advertising, media, and digital agencies – if they don’t see a “name” they won’t touch you. I’ve had connections to numerous agencies and still can’t even get an interview.

    2. Dzhymm*

      To tell the truth, I hardly ever notice gaps in a resume. I look for what the candidate did and the approximate vintage of their experience (e.g. they did chocolate teapots in the 90s, then enamel teapots in the early 00’s and most recently they’ve been working in glass teapots). I don’t really see gaps unless they jump out at me (“hey, wait, how did we get from 2001 to 2012 here?”)

  8. SkyBlueAndSunshine*

    Speaking of job searching worries – just how bad is it to get your own phone number wrong on your CV?

    I was notified of this mistake when a recruiter contacted my current HR today (they shared my details on a network because my contract is soon ending) but couldn’t get through. I’ve been using the same version for so many job applications including a pretty awesome sounding one last week. *sad panda*

    The worst part is, I had fixed the typo two years ago when I first spotted it, but I must have used an old copy to update for this recent search.

    1. Audiophile*

      Eh it’s a mistake. I’ve had most companies contact me via email if they can’t reach me via phone. Hopefully they reach out to you that way.

  9. Not an IT Guy*

    So if it’s OK to leave certain jobs off your resume, is it OK to leave certain roles within a company off as well? I’ve been with my current company for almost nine years, however I believe that one role I held is very damaging to my candidacy and would love to leave it off if that’s acceptable.

        1. Ask a Manager* Post author

          Hmmm, yeah, that’s long enough that I think you do have to include it because otherwise you’d be incorrectly implying that all your time there was spent on the other jobs. But you don’t have to give tons of details about it; you can keep the focus on the other role(s).

          1. Not an IT Guy*

            I actually never received a job title for that role, so I would have to make something up anyways. But I just have a strong feeling that no hiring manager in their right mind would ever hire someone who says they worked in an IT department for as long as I did and have nothing to show for it. That’s what’s holding me back on job searching.

            1. TL -*

              If the company promoted/moved you to another role and kept you on for another 6 years, that’s a good sign. And especially if it’s not relevant to the jobs you’re applying for, I don’t think any employer is actually going to care. (if you’re applying for IT jobs, it might be a little different.)

            2. Megs*

              I don’t know the specifics, but as TL said, six further years of employment isn’t nothing to show for it. Assuming that you have concrete accomplishments in your six years as a teapot painter, the fact that you spent your first three years putting in some dues shouldn’t matter.

  10. skip2mylou*

    It has become common in the past few years within at least the IT sphere of higher ed to make the job offer contingent upon the background check and contacting your current manger. As someone who is looking, in part, to leave my current role due to the change in management after a reorg, this is very frustrating.

  11. Sherrooooo*

    But since the current trend is to NEVER give job applicants feedback on what they do right or wrong, how do we know what to stress about?

    I have no idea why I’m not getting callbacks or offers, except a saturated market. It’s so frustrating!!!

    1. BRR*

      A good number of places do give feed back though. If you interviewed and didn’t get an offer it’s totally reasonable to email the hiring manager and ask for feedback but to be clear it’s only for feedback as you apply to other positions. Not everybody will respond but it’s far from unheard of. I also check to see who did get the job so I can see how my qualifications compare with their’s.

      1. Stranger than fiction*

        I assume you mean Linked in to see the other persons qualifications, otherwise how would one know?

  12. Alton*

    Regarding the thing about granting permission to contact former managers, what about instances where the former manager really wouldn’t make a good reference?

    I struggled with this when job hunting after college. I had one job that I’d been at for the past five years, but my employment history prior to that consisted mainly of a very short student job (only lasted a semester) and a job working for my parents’ small business. I didn’t feel it’d be appropriate to let employers call my mom as a reference. These days, I’d just leave that job off my resume, but at the time I felt like I needed to include it because I didn’t have that much experience and the job I’d had for five years while in school was very dead-end.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      You still say yes in response to the “can we contact this employer” question on an application, because it’s about permission. But when you get to the reference checking stage, you’d supply different references and you’d explain that manager was your mom and so not on your reference list.

      1. Anxa*

        This has come up before, but is it really that common to have a “reference checking stage.” I haven’t had many successful interviews, but I’ve never had an employer talk to me about providing a reference list before after any sort of interview. References were requested/submitted as part of the application and checked before the interview or not at all. Also, I couldn’t move forward with an interview at some places until my references submitted questionnaires.

        Is my experience likely an anomaly?

  13. Andrew*

    Should I still put “yes” in the response for “can we contact this employer” even if it was a retail job? I was still working my retail job part time up until 2011 and most job applicant sites still want 5-10 years of recent employment. With retail stores changing management so often, the managers and most of the staff that were at the store I worked at aren’t even there anymore so if an employer called, would they be able to verify employment?

    1. Megs*

      I wouldn’t worry about it. They may or may not be able to verify employment, but any reasonable employer should know that’s often the case with jobs like retail. When I’ve had to list that far back, I put a front desk or HR number and write a note along the lines of “Main line – former supervisor no longer with company.”

      1. Megs*

        And by wouldn’t worry about it, I mean yes, do click the box. That looked backwards as soon as I said it.

        1. Andrew*

          Thanks! I guess I’ll have to put the HR number instead of the local store’s number instead. I’ve been putting something similar to what you mentioned, about the former manager no longer at that store.

  14. learningToCode*

    What’s the rule for contacting your current manager when this is the only job you’ve had?

    The 2 jobs I had as a student weren’t really managed, per se, and the supervisors would be uncontactable. So the only person that has ever managed me directly is my current manager. He has said before that he’s cool with being a reference, but in practice I doubt it’s smart to keep him in the loop on a job search.

    My coworker who has seniority is all for being a potential reference, but I know the only ideal person would be my current manager…

  15. Regina 2*

    I had a 6-month stint at a place about 8 years ago that I left to go back to my previous employer. I ended up staying with the previous employer for a total of 5 years; when listing it on my resume, is it better to use just the years given it was a fairly lengthy stint, or stick to month/year as normal and just leave the gap of 6 months completely unexplained?

  16. Isabel C.*

    Nice article!

    On leaving stuff out: I have a gap of about a year and a half. Got laid off in January 2009, because 2009, had a combination of temping and short-term stuff until May of 2010, and worked steadily from then until this June. Currently I list that as “assorted temporary positions, Agencies A, B, and C”. Should I just get rid of it and figure prospective employers were watching the news back then? :)

  17. Michelle*

    Agree with all the points except who to address your cover letter to. Granted, this may vary per field. In journalism, however, it’s like a cardinal sin. Most of the time the contact editor or HR rep is listed on the job description, but since journalism is a very detail-oriented field, I’ve always been told not to address your cover letter as Dear Hiring Manager or To Whom It May Concern. You’ve already done the research on the publication anyway to tailor your resume and cover letter, so you might as well flip to the masthead and find a senior level editor or section editor to address your letter to, even if they’re not the right contact it shows you’ve done some homework. I’d just err on the side of finding the best contact at that publication than to do the generic address. Again, I’m sure it’s fine in other fields, but I always try to find a name at the company. With LinkedIn and company websites with a staff or about us page, it’s really simple. Just make sure to spell the contact’s name correctly. Many editors have told me personally that it’s their pet peeve to get letters with their names spelled wrong, even though their names are in the email address you’re sending your application to.

  18. L*

    What if your current job isn’t related at all? For example, if you’ve had to take a “for now” job to pay the bills during a really long search, at what point is the gap worse than unrelated experience (and obvious underemployment)? 6 months? 9 months? 12 months?

  19. stevenz*

    Re: gaps on resume. I spent a year in Law School long ago, but I have never put it on a resume thinking it isn’t relevant, and not wanting to raise the question of why I left. The nagging thought is that it can be pretty hard just to get into law school, so having done so is something of an accomplishment. Should I put it on? I should explain that it was a miserable year, one of the worst of my life, and I decided early on that it was all a big mistake I really didn’t want to be a lawyer. But the idea of “Law School” on my resume is so enticing…

  20. Dee Williams*

    re: not contacting your previous manager. I left my most recent job (after 7 years) in large part because I could no longer work with my manager (who screamed & yelled & told lies about me to HR). Before I left, I asked another executive if I could use her as a reference, and that’s who I’ve been putting down when people ask. This person was not my boss, but clearly I don’t want to use my ex-boss as a reference. Is that a problem? All my previous bosses can give me stellar job references, but I recognize that 7 years is a long time…

  21. Burkleigh*

    After the interview for my current job, the hiring manager wanted to contact my then-current boss (and I think I later overheard someone say that that was company policy–yikes!). So I asked if instead, I could give the names of current coworkers who knew I was job searching and would be willing to give me a reference. Luckily that worked, and I got the job!

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