interviewers want to know how I’ve been spending my time out of work … during the pandemic

A reader writes:

I was laid off in May 2020 (along with so many others, of course). My industry isn’t directly affected in the way the restaurant industry is, but it is indirectly affected, and of course more unemployed people just means more competition.

I’ve been applying to hundreds and hundreds of jobs, interviewing like mad, and have made it to the reference check stage of four interviews. I’ve had a provisional offer, but they’re waiting to see if they win the (government) bid. I was a live-in nanny for a few months, but have otherwise just been on unemployment and trying to get a job.

Recently, probably since I’ve been unemployed so long, interviewers have started asking (sometimes in multiple, probing ways) what I’ve been doing since being laid off. Given the circumstances, these questions (phrased like, “So have you been consulting?” or “What have you learned about yourself in this time?”) strike me as tone-deaf. The answer to that question is, of course, that I’ve been trying to take care of myself mentally but haven’t had the motivation to pursue a ton of activities that I’m not sure will lead to anything. Between the general malaise of the global situation, nationwide protests and reckoning on race relations, once-in-a-generation political turmoil, and my own personal issues (including the loss of my job!), I just really haven’t been in the mood to do unpaid work or write blogs or intern , when I could conceivably get a job at any moment and all that would end prematurely. Without the structure and routine that a regular full-time job provides, I just don’t have the drive to do things for the fun of it, without knowing it will bring something useful.

My responses have been something like, “I’ve worked to stay connected through X board position, and I’ve been nannying which I have really enjoyed since I love working with kids whenever possible, and have been becoming a pretty amazing cook!” But I just feel so deflated when that’s asked, as if I’ve just been sitting on my bum by choice. What can I say when I haven’t actually been consulting, or interning, or whatever — I’ve just been looking for a job?

Agggh, you’re right that this question is weirdly oblivious to Everything Going On and how it has affected people. Frankly your answers — both the unvarnished one and the one you’re giving in interviews — sound a lot better than the answer would be for many people (“I’ve been trying to keep myself and my dependents alive, crying in the shower most days, and losing a lot of hair”).

I’m sure you’re right that you’re starting to hear this question now because you’ve been unemployed for a while. And that would make sense in normal times. But these are not normal times, and someone needs to tell these interviewers to pull it way back. Unfortunately, that someone probably can’t be you, so I think you’re on the right track with your answer. I’d try to throw in a little more work-relevant stuff if you can — you’ve been working on deepening your network, taking time to reflect on lessons you’ve learned from your career and what you want to do next, blah blah — or even just say that you had the ability to take some time off and now you’re eager to get back to work … but it’s a crap question right now, and you shouldn’t feel deficient for not having a more exciting answer to it.

Also, you should feel free to ask in response, “How has your company been managing through the pandemic, and what have you been doing to support employees who are struggling?”

{ 412 comments… read them below }

  1. AdAgencyChick*

    “What have you learned about yourself during this time?” SERIOUSLY? I’m sorry, OP. That’s terrible.

    1. hayling*

      I’m gainfully employed at a pretty supportive company, I don’t have kids or anything that makes WFH particularly terrible, and I’m not high-risk or anything…and I wouldn’t be able to answer that question with a straight face.

      1. KHB*

        I’m gainfully employed, and my employer asked us all pretty much that very question (and also “How do you plan to carry that experience forward into 2021?”) during our 2020 year-end reviews. I said I reject the premise of the question: As far as I’m concerned, the pandemic has been horrible in every respect, and I’m looking forward to moving on from it as soon and as completely as possible. Not everything has to be treated as a character-building opportunity.

        1. Librarian of SHIELD*

          “Not everything has to be treated as a character-building opportunity.”

          I agree with this SO HARD. Sometimes bad things happen and it’s all you can do to survive it and come out on the other side. You shouldn’t need to have a narrative about being a stronger and wiser person because of it, survival is enough.

          1. Metadata minion*

            Nthing this. Sometimes what does not kill you just wounds you and sets back your progress on whatever character growth you were engaging in when things were going well.

        2. Roquefort*

          I was filling out a survey for a local university about how people in my state have been dealing with the pandemic. One of the questions was something like “what positive changes have you noticed as a result of the pandemic?” I guess I kind of get the point in that some people might see tiny silver linings in their immediate environment (local communities pulling together, employers being more accepting of remote work, etc.), but the way it was phrased just felt really tone-deaf.

          1. Salyan*

            Debit machine sticks at fast food joints. Very useful, but somehow doesn’t make up for the rest of the year.

          2. PT*

            If it’s a community survey being conducted as part of research, it makes sense that they’re asking it, because they want a full picture of what is going on. Who had good things happen, who had bad things happen, who had good and bad things happen, etc. They can’t quantify the full impact of the pandemic without that information.

            1. Anonapots*

              The question is too broad to be quantifiable in the first place. How would you even code that when you have to input your data? There could be 1001 answers that are all different. It’s a bad question and badly designed.

              1. triceratops*

                That’s what qualitative researchers do – take 1001 different answers and find common themes among them.

          3. Xenia*

            There’s a great video on empathy by Brene Brown that had a line which has stuck with me: “empathy rarely comes with ‘it could be worse’”. My big takeaway from that was that the only person who can find a silver lining in a bad situation is the person in the situation. When other people try and find silver linings for you, it doesn’t help AT ALL.

            1. Tidewater 4-1009*

              Yes, I’ve found a couple of silver linings that are personal to me. One of them might lead to a better job than the one I was laid off from in December 2019. I know it’s worse for many people, and they have my sympathy and support.

            2. Green*

              So much this. Each of us gets to fish a silver dollar out of the pile of crap that is our own painful experience, if we can. But someone else standing to the side and pointing at where we should dig – not cool.

        3. Clydesdales and Coconuts*

          I am in a very similar situation to the LW and have had these tone deaf questions as well. I tell them I have taken advantage of every possible online course I can to keep my skills and knowledge updated through sites like linked in and shrm, as well as just trying to keep myself from going stir crazy with all the negativity and callousness in the world right now. I agree with the other poster who said not everything has to be a character building experience. The pandemic has been hard, and I feel like a casualty of it. Its It’s the first time in my life I’ve ever lost a job, admit doesn’t feel good. I like Allison’s suggestion of asking how they intend to support their employees who may be struggling with pandemic fatigue.

        4. Glitsy Gus*

          “Not everything has to be treated as a character-building opportunity.”

          So much agreement on this. Realistically, in a couple of years I may be able to look back and say that yeah, I did come out of all of this with a better appreciation of X, Y, and Z or whatever but right now I do not have that perspective. No one should really expect anyone to have a good perspective on this while we are still in the middle of it. If you managed to teach yourself how to tune a piano and completed a hostage negotiation course that’s really great, but if you couldn’t, if you’re just getting through this that is really great too. Sometimes things just suck, it isn’t a personal moral failing.

        5. kitryan*

          We had a big lull in work in the spring, as so many industries did. This continued for a number of areas at my company but my little 2 person department was back to normal work volume in the summer. Then they laid off the 2nd member of my team.
          By fall, there was even more work than ‘normal’ and it was pretty much just me. Through this, starting in the spring, in that initial lull, we were supposed to list our ‘objectives’ for ourselves and since my role is primarily responsive and ‘keep responding’ is not really something that worked with the format they wanted, none of my core job duties fit the bill for these objectives. So, right along with going into an incredibly stressful personal/work/global time, I was forced to come up with another 6-12 things I could fail to do well enough at work and semi regularly report on how I couldn’t do any of these things I said I’d (try to) do.
          I say to myself ‘at least I have a job’ on a pretty regular basis, however it doesn’t help quite enough :/

          1. JustaTech*

            “Respond promptly to emergent needs” is the phrase I’ve used for years to mean “deal with whatever hair-on-fire thing comes up this year that I can’t predict but know is coming”.

            1. Quill*

              The last few years my mom taught in a public school she turned in personal goals statements such as “LITERACY: same goal, new kids!” (Note: she was out of fucks to give at this point) Which strikes me as more applicable to a lot of jobs than managers want to admit, since it seems like they’re incentivized to constantly exponentially increase productivity.

        6. Chilipepper*

          My employer gets a gold star, they asked something like, “did you do or learn anything that has gotten you through quarantine?” It is for a new, cheerful org wide newsletter that is really well done.

        7. Rectilinear Propagation*

          Not everything has to be treated as a character-building opportunity.

          This needs to be on a t-shirt. Or possibly tattooed onto some people’s heads.

          Also, can I say that straight up saying you reject the premise of the question is pretty bad ass?

          1. KHB*

            Thanks. Although the goal was not so much “be a bad ass” (although that’s always fun) but more “push back against problematic leadership in ways that less established employees might not feel they’re able to.” I’ve built up some capital with my employer over the years (at least, I hope I have…), so I’m better situated to take risks than some of my colleagues are.

        8. Birdie*

          Totally agree. Literally the only work thing I’ve learned from this is that there is no reason for me to waste almost two hours of my life commuting every day when my job is exactly the same when done remotely. If my boss wanted an answer beyond that…I’ve got nothing.

        1. Green*

          You learned to drizzle it with oil and squish the hell out of it, right? So delicious, and therapeutic.

    2. anon for this*

      I’d have to lie, since they probably don’t want to hear “increasing my therapy sessions and adjusting my anti-depressants on a frequent basis”

      1. Crisy*

        I finally got diagnosed with ADHD last year after the shift to WFH really highlighted the things I already struggle with! I think that’s pretty impressive, but unfortunately I worry that a lot of employers wouldn’t feel the same if divulged that way…

        1. The cat came back....*

          I’ve suspected I have ADHD since my son was diagnosed. Since working at home I really suspect that I have it. But it’s not something I will ever tell anyone at work. I am going to talk to my doctor about getting the diagnosis so I can try to see if medications will help.

          1. kitryan*

            My dad has been cleaning out the parent’s house and dropped off a folder of old report cards and other misc childhood stuff. Looking at it all together, it seems pretty obvious to me that I probably have ADHD. There is *so much* about my not doing homework, not being able to memorize stuff, being distracted, being a distraction, going off topic, lacking focus, not doing homework (did I say that already), and just generally being a bright and capable student who had a lot of trouble doing things that were rote tasks or required independent focus to meet a deadline, but was good at participating in class discussion and absorbing and presenting info. My sister had a diagnosis when she was young (she’s younger than me and I think that there was a bit more screening then?) and along with the new info about how it presents in girls… I’ve been thinking about what might have been.
            I’ve built up a bunch of coping mechanisms now and mostly get by, do well even, but a lot of it is based on guilting myself into things, which *works* but isn’t maybe the *best* approach?

            1. cat wrangler*

              TotallyADD has loads of useful information and resources on ADD and ADHD. (Patreon members have access to guest speakers and live chats several times a month as well.) My kid was diagnosed, and it’s likely it came through me….

            2. Ermintrude*

              HAHAH. Yep.
              I was diagnosed at about 10 years old, but wasn’t really given any tools to overcome those difficulties.

            3. Simonthegreywarden*

              This. I was ‘lucky’ in that I had a diagnosis, and fairly young (I was apparently 4; this was in the early 80s). However, my otherewise-wonderful grandmother, a nurse, convinced my parents I couldn’t possibly have it because “I could focus so well while I was playing”. I was never medicated — I wasn’t even told about the ADHD until I was a teenager — until I chose to go in for medication just after college. I was always bright, and I liked doing homework so I got very good grades, but SOOOO many report cards about how I wouldn’t stay seated, would talk out of turn, would read books for fun during class (because I would have already read the whole textbook and my classmates read so slow….) talked at a loud volume, etc. I’ve been off and on medication for around 15 years now (off at one point when I lost insurance, and off when I was pregnant) and my psychiatrist had weaned me off my adderall because she thought it was impacting my anxiety (I think the pandemic was impacting my anxiety but whatevs) and I just managed to convince them that I need it again.

              I have a ton of coping skills. My lists have lists. I have a million calendar reminders and alarms on my phone. I verbalize everything because if I hear it I remember it better. I work in an office with at least one other person who has it (her kids are diagnosed, she isn’t but she’s sure she has it; as a Black woman in her 40s though she’s found she doesn’t get listened to about it). My husband and my partner both have it.

              At times it is a blessing — I have a job that changes hour to hour in terms of what I may be doing because I’m directly working with students, tutoring and teaching. I have to be able to flip between a lot of subjects and come up with different ways to accommodate and assist students depending on their abilities or limitations. I come up with stories and write them constantly. But then I get home from work exhausted. I sit on my couch and lose track of time passing and my house is a mess. Remembering to pull out things to thaw to cook for dinner is almost impossible. I can’t sleep at night so that impacts my focus the next day. Times like that, ADHD is a curse.

          2. TardyTardis*

            I got most of the linen closet shelves reorganized and gave away two huge bags of sheets and pillowcases we no longer use…

        2. Metadata minion*

          If you really wanted to, I think you could swing that to be something along the lines of “the change to WFH really made me reexamine how I work best and gave me the chance to develop new and more effective productivity workflows”, even if you don’t mention that one of those productivity tools is medication or ADHD-focused coaching or whatever.

        3. Glitsy Gus*

          Me too! I’m still int he diagnosis process, but moving to full WFH really made me realize that there are a lot of things I have been down playing and ignoring for a really long time that make normal office life really hard and are holding me back a lot more than I wanted to admit. It’s been more than a little bit of a relief to start actually doing something about these things, even if I’m still at the beginning of the process. I’m not about to share these things with a prospective employer, though.

        4. cat lady*

          I was diagnosed with ADD in high school but adderall gave me panic attacks, so I developed coping mechanisms that saw me through college, master’s, and PhD unmedicated, but WFH has been too much. I finally found a psychiatrist (telehealth sessions are the best!).

        5. Magc*

          I was first diagnosed about a decade ago, but guessed it was a possibility 30+ years ago while reading a book on ADHD to better support a sibling who’d just been formally diagnosed (I was late 20s, sib was early 20s). This was before ADHD was split into sub-types, but I remember thinking that I had most of the symptoms outside of the ones relating to physical hyperactivity.

          I was formally diagnosed about a decade ago but never followed up on medication after a job change led to crap medical insurance. The past few years have involved increasing work / personal life stress (due in part to an increasing work / personal life workload), with a corresponding decrease in my ability to function which was already well underway before the pandemic. Sadly, I didn’t get around to looking for a provider until early last November and didn’t have my first appointment until late January. I’m now almost three weeks into a second foray into medication.

          It’s not a magic panacea, but so far it does give me enough of a boost that I’m finally getting to certain projects / chores which I have been copying from one to-do list to the next for anywhere from months to years. I’ll still need to learn and utilize non-medication-based techniques, but it does feel that I’m at least starting to make a little headway.

          A co-worker recently admitted to being diagnosed after her husband told her she should probably be assessed for ADHD after her daughter was diagnosed with it.

          Telehealth is wonderful; I suspect I would have done this earlier if I’d known it was an option.

          1. Lizzo*

            I think most insurance would not cover telehealth services the same as they would regular in-office therapy visits until the pandemic hit. I know our state issued some mandate that it had to be covered the same once we were in lockdown. (Thank goodness.) Our therapist doesn’t even have a physical office anymore.

            1. Magc*

              It had definitely been an option for MDs and ARNPs under Medicare before the pandemic (and thus likely under commercial insurance). However, the telehealth platform had to be HIPAA-compliant, and until the past few years that meant a specialized and not inexpensive setup on the healthcare provider’s end, so it wasn’t generally available.

              With HIPAA enforcement currently relaxed regarding the telehealth platform being used, free or inexpensive options like Zoom have made telehealth more accessible. Many counseling services are now allowed to be provided via phone call as well, but I’m sure that both of these changes are temporary and will no longer be allowed once pandemic-related risk factors aren’t as much of a problem.

      2. Green*

        I laughed way too hard at this. Same here, my friend, same here. Plus add in “long overdue trauma therapy”.

    3. Sam*

      OP here – yeah, that one I was particularly gobsmacked by. The real answer is “I’ve learned I need money to stay alive,” but I responded with “I thrive with structure and purposeful tasks.”

      1. Lady Meyneth*

        Wow, you did great in your answer. I’d probably have completely frozen up, because the words in my head would NOT be interview appropriate. At all. I am in awe of you!

    4. Ches*

      “I have learned I am incredibly resilient and able to endure difficult changes, both professionally and personally.”

      1. Creamsiclecati*

        I was just about to say the same thing. “I’ve learned I prefer mon-pandemic times”. If I got asked a question like that in an interview, I’d absolutely turn it around on them and ask how they’ve been ensuring that safety protocols are met and how they’ve been supporting their employees.

        1. Anon Lawyer*

          Would you? I mean, I think we’ve been doing pretty well – everyone has been remote since March 13th last year and folks who can’t do their jobs remotely have still been getting paid. We’ve worked with employees who have had covid scares in their family and related mental health crises. And we’ve done more mundane things like extend out vacation time so it didn’t expire at the end of last year. So I’d feel totally fine with giving that answer to a candidate, and I would then wonder why they refused to answer my simple question.

          1. Librarian1*

            @Anon Lawyer- it’s not a simple question. Unemployment is emotionally taxing during the best of times, it’s so much worse now with the stress of a global pandemic and other major societal and political issues on top of it. It’s really crappy to ask this.

            1. Anon Lawyer*

              I guess where I come out is that it would be crappy to insist that someone account for every moment but asking and accepting a vague answer along the lines LW is giving and other people are mentioning they’d give does not seem like that big a deal to me. Also, playing gotcha with your interviewer is never going to work. I guess if the question being asked is a deal killer for you taking the job, have at it, but don’t assume the interviewer is going to break down and say “you’re right, we haven’t been taking the pandemic seriously” like they’re Jack Nicholson in a Few Good Men.

              1. Cassidy*

                I suspect you’d feel much differently if you were UNEMPLOYED DURING A PANDEMIC.

                As for “playing gotcha with your interviewer is never going to work” – seriously?


                1. Anon Lawyer*

                  I mean, I can’t prove a counterfactual , so who knows. I’m sure it would be stressful and horrible to be unemployed during a Pandemic, the same way it was in 2008. But as I stand here today, I don’t have any reason to think that I wouldn’t have been ok saying “oh, I took the time to volunteer with some campaigns via phone and text,” which happens to be true.

                  And yes, if you want the job, coming back with snappy retorts during an interview isn’t going to work. Seems fairly uncontroversial.

                2. Cj*

                  Asking how the company has been handling the pandemic should be something you ask whether or not they ask you a “what did you learn about yourself” type of question. It is not a snappy retort.

                3. disconnect*

                  “Snappy retorts” are not good. I mean, duh. But “how’s your business been affected, and what are you doing to reduce further risk to your bottom line?” is a reasonable question to ask, is it not?

                4. Autumnheart*

                  That’s just it, I think Anon is getting at–if someone’s unemployed, they probably aren’t going to want to offend a potential employer by making pointed insinuations during the interview.

                  We can all think in our heads, “What did I learn? Well, I didn’t die and I now have the 30-second handwash down pat, how about that?” but when you’re trying to get a job, you don’t necessarily have the luxury for le mot juste.

            2. Requisite Recruiter*

              Sometimes it is a simple question, aimed at getting to know the candidate better. If even discussing the past year is too taxing, that’s a red flag.

              1. Student Affairs Sally*

                A red flag of what, exactly?? That someone doesn’t want to discuss their ongoing trauma at a job interview? Frankly I think it’s much more of a red flag that an employer would ask such a question right now.

                1. TechWorker*

                  See I don’t get this perspective either? Yes the pandemic adds extra crap, but being unemployed is always hard, plus you can never know as an interviewer what personal circumstances someone has. It’s not a red flag to ask someone what they’re doing. If you’re referring specifically to the ‘what have you learned about yourself’ wording then maybe I can see where you’re coming from?

              2. HoHumDrum*

                “If even discussing the past year is too taxing, that’s a red flag.”

                If this is what you think you are incredibly privileged. I know someone who has lost two of her children to COVID, both 20-somethings. I know folks who’s parents or grandparents died alone in nursing homes this past year. Folks who had to ration food this past year. Folks who are currently on the brink of freezing to death on top of fighting COVID.

                This has been a truly traumatic year, I am suspicious of anyone who *doesn’t* find discussing 2020 taxing on some level.

                1. EchoGirl*

                  It also may not be an issue of “taxing” so much as “too personal”. It may not be necessarily that it’s too hard or painful to talk about, but also that some people’s answers get into very personal life details they may not want to share with a prospective employer.

                2. LimeJello*

                  Thank you for this. I was leaning towards agreeing with the poster above that asking the question shouldn’t be a big deal, especially because I dealt with a precarious employment situation during the meltdown of my industry during the 2008 fiasco and I think it would be completely fair for an interviewer to ask me how I was keeping myself busy and continuing to improve my skills during my unemployment. Your comment changed my mind and made me (as the youths say) check my privilege. I appreciate the perspective.

                3. Simonthegreywarden*

                  Yep. It was unrelated to COVID (or at least he never had a positive COVID test) but my son got diagnosed with a seizure disorder during this time period, and the fear of taking him in for MRIs and EKGs and general doctor visits during a pandemic when I was the only parent allowed in with him was hard. It wasn’t the whole pandemic, but it was still hard. My husband lost his job because he had to ask for time off to take our son to the hospital (he was probationary still). My office’s grant didn’t get renewed due to several factors so for a few months it looked like I would not have a job either (right now I do, but the funding is cobbled together and who knows about next year). My dad recently was diagnosed with Covid, my partner’s mom had it, my father-in-law we suspect had it but the test came back negative. I lost two friends to depression during this time. “Sucks” isn’t strong enough. And I still count myself one of the lucky ones!!

          2. Mary Richards*

            Not the person who said that, but I wouldn’t hesitate to answer “I’ve learned that it’s important to make sure that my employer takes safety seriously. How has XYZ company handled the pandemic?”

            1. Tidewater 4-1009*

              I wouldn’t put it this way because an employer who isn’t taking it seriously might lie. I think it might be better to just say “How has XYZ company handled the pandemic?”
              If they don’t mention sufficient safety precautions, then say “How is your company ensuring the safety of employees?”
              This way you’re not tipping them off to what you want to hear and are more likely to get the truth.

          3. Roquefort*

            Because “what have you accomplished during the global pandemic that’s appropriate to tell an interviewer about” is not as simple a question as you seem to think it is.

            1. Anon Lawyer*

              I admit, I’m kind of baffled by this. Most of us have been stuck at home except for work for 50 weeks straight. If we had a job (which the LW did), we can say that. If we were caring for family, we can say that. If we were on the front lines helping people, we can say that. I don’t know anyone who literally spent 12 months watching Netflix with nothing else they can mention.

              1. Metadata minion*

                I’m a bit confused by what you would be expecting to gain from the answer to this question, particularly for someone who’d been unemployed. If you’re interviewing someone who’s been working during the pandemic, I think it can be a potentially interesting question to hear how they’ve been managing the shift to WFH or implementing new safety procedures. But if they’re unemployed, the pandemic is mostly just going to make things suck even more than it normally does when you’re unemployed. As you say, they’re probably going to be doing the usual things most people do when unemployed. If they’re volunteering full-time or something like that, it’s probably going to be on their resume or otherwise come up, and otherwise the truthful answer is probably an unsurprising but unhelpful “searching for jobs and trying to figure out how to pay rent”.

                1. Anon Lawyer*

                  Well, for instance, the LW said some useful things such as staying connected through a board position. I’ve had people mention that they really focused in on things like renewable energy law or tribal law or something by attending bar-sponsored events (which are now being done virtually). Or the question mentioned consulting – if that’s something a lot of people in that industry do between jobs (which is true in some industries), you might hear about some interesting projects that weren’t big enough to take up space on resumes. A friend took on some diversity and inclusion training jobs, for instance, which would interesting to talk about now.

                  I’m sure some jerks have used it as a “gotcha” question, but in my experience it’s usually just literally about what someone was doing and not expected to be the equivalent of a full time job (which we know would be on the resume). And, as I mentioned elsewhere, any decent person would take the an answer of family or medical obligations at face value and leave it there. Not everyone is decent, of course, but that would be true regardless of whether they asked this question, I think.

                2. Clydesdales and Coconuts*

                  Yes, this… one could respond with how well they learned to budget their expenses while they waited 18 weeks for the unemployment payments to start…

                3. Anon Lawyer*

                  Yes, to be clear I have no problem with the question. My reading here was that it was being phrased as a snappy retort; apologies if that wasn’t the intention.

              2. Ace in the Hole*

                From my perspective, the problem is that this has been an incredibly stressful and often traumatic time for most people… and it’s still going on. It’s not appropriate to ask someone who may well be in the middle of grieving what they’ve learned from the ongoing disaster.

                Similarly, for a great many people the real answer to “what did you accomplish” was “hung onto my physical, mental, and financial survival by the skin of my teeth while the world fell apart around me.” Of course there are ways to spin it that make it sound better. But again: this is an ongoing trauma. Asking people to put a positive spin on the worst disaster of their lifetime DURING THE DISASTER is just too much to ask.

                1. SlightlyStressed*

                  Yeah, this is like asking someone what they’re thankful for while their house is actively on fire behind them.

                2. LifeBeforeCorona*

                  “I’ve been waiting over a year for the chance to properly bury my mother.” Because that’s what I’ve been doing, trying not to think about because when I do I want to cry. I don’t think that’s the answer that many interviewers want.

                3. Tidewater 4-1009*

                  @LifeBeforeCorona, I’m so sorry for your loss and these circumstances! I hope you get your chance soon.

              3. chocolate lover*

                Technically, we’re discouraged from going many places or doing many things, certain in-person volunteer activities have been reduced or eliminated (hopefully just temporarily) for safety purposes, so it’s not like everyone can wander about and find alternate activities. I have family members who don’t have computers or internet access in general, plus a couple who cancelled service due to expense, so they couldn’t do things remotely either. I literally don’t know what my father did during the time he was furloughed, since he doesn’t read, watch tv, or have computer access.

                I’ve been in a position where I CAN work from home, even though I hate it beyond belief, but I do know people who would not be able to honestly answer that question with an “interview appropriate” kind of answer. And frankly, some things I’d have to spin just because it’s more personal than I’d want to share with an employer.

                1. Suzanne*

                  Yeah who is volunteering in a pandemic? I mean I’m sure it’s still going on but that question is really tone-deaf now when it’s 10 times harder to do anything. I think it’s tone-deaf at any time because obviously the answer is looking for a job!

                2. Ace in the Hole*

                  Suzanne, most people I know are volunteering, myself included. Most volunteer work (at least in my area) is essential and could not be put on hold for a pandemic – if anything, more volunteers were needed in order to manage safety protocols. Some people are continuing volunteer work they were doing before, some have taken on new things as more volunteers are needed to manage online efforts. I know several people who have taken on volunteer work at new homeless shelters, food distribution, or shopping for elders.

                  BUT. Just because some people are doing those things doesn’t mean everyone should or can! Plenty of people are thoroughly consumed just by taking care of themselves or their loved ones… having no energy or resources to do “extra” work right now is 100% normal. I agree with you that it’s very tone deaf to ask people a question like this.

                3. EchoGirl*

                  @Ace in the Hole, I’d also add that even if the volunteers were still needed, some people would have to self-select out because it’s too great a risk for them or members of their households. Bringing that into the equation is teetering extremely close to discriminating against people with health conditions.

              4. Lasciel*

                I’ve had a close friend pass a few months ago from Covid, I think if an employer asked me this question, I would have a really difficult time not breaking into tears…

                I work full time WFH but it’s been emotionally and mentally difficult overall and I can’t imagine what it would be like for someone who has to worry about losing their home, their next meal, or a job to provide for their family during this pandemic.

                I understand your reasoning but it seems like you’re adamant about defending your position without the empathy needed during this time for so many people. The lack of empathy I see in the world is so painful.

                1. Anon Lawyer*

                  I don’t think talking on a work blog about interview questions says anything about my empathy towards people in the world, frankly. I am sorry about your friend.

              5. tangerineRose*

                If we already had depression and found that living through a pandemic increased that, we might be doing our best to get through this alive and sane, which might include a lot of naps and TV-watching.

                1. 10Isee*

                  We might also hypothetically spend a lot of time rocking back and forth in the dark and crying. Do interviewers like to hear about that?

              6. Philly Redhead*

                I’m baffled that YOU’RE baffled. Some people are struggling to put food on the table. I doubt very much that they’re sitting back thinking of ways to improve their skills or learn new ones at the moment.

                1. Anon Lawyer*

                  So, but, those are answers. I get that they’re not pleasant to talk about, but there is nothing wrong with saying “I’ve been very focused on finding a new job in XYZ industry, which is why I’m so excited to see this posting, but in the meantime I’ve been taking on temporary and contract work [or looking for it] even though that’s not what I’m ultimately interested in doing.” That is honest and reasonable.

              7. Green*

                When there are young kids, that’s… most all you do, in pandemic times. And that’s not something parents want to harp on, especially moms. The parenting penalty is real.

          4. Rectilinear Propagation*

            So asking someone what they’ve been doing while unemployed during a pandemic that requires people to self-isolate as much as possible is fair, but asking how the company has been handling the pandemic is a “gotcha”? Why? How is asking an individual how they’re handling this OK but asking a company with money and resources how they’re handling this somehow unfair?

            It’s also baffling to me that you somehow know enough to extend pay & vacation time and work with folks having mental health crises but don’t get how asking someone you know has none of those resources, or even income, how they’ve been handling the pandemic is tone deaf.

    5. Empress Matilda*

      Oh, I would be so tempted to truth-bomb them, and tell them EVERYTHING I have learned in this past year! But I don’t imagine that would go down well in a job interview.

      OP, I think your canned answer is perfectly fine. And I do love Alison’s point about asking them what they have done to help their employees during the pandemic – that’s a perfectly valid question, and it gives you important information about how they treat their employees. Good luck in your job search!

    6. AVP*

      I’ve learned that I don’t love being in a pandemic, cannot bake sourdough bread for shit, and just how much it’s possible to despise looking at the same walls for another day….do I get the job?

      1. tangerineRose*

        I learned the name of a few birds who came to my backyard to eat birdseed. I don’t think that’s going to help with most jobs.

        1. Cat Tree*

          I found an app that is like Shazam for bird calls, and I learned so much about the birds around my house.

          1. Relentlessly Sorcratic*

            I have been wondering for years if something like this existed–and now I have to go search for it. Thank you, Internet Stranger, for giving structure to part of my pandemic-ridden day.

      2. Anonny*

        I’ve learned there is an upper limit to the amount of kisses per session my dog will tolerate. In my defence, I need the comfort and she’s both cute and soft.

    7. Roquefort*

      I mean, I learned that I have some pretty serious unresolved trauma from my childhood, but I don’t think that’s quite the answer they’re looking for.

      1. Tidewater 4-1009*

        I am very lucky I got my 5 years of EMDR therapy in before all this happened! Especially since my therapist moved out of state to help her family around spring of 2020.

    8. Cat Tree*

      I used to think my house was a mess because I didn’t have time to clean. During the pandemic, I learned that I just don’t like cleaning.

      1. LabTechNoMore*

        In that same vein, I learned how to make my apartment appear clean via Zoom through judicious use of cramming junk behind things.

    9. Temperance*

      “I’ve learned that everyone who has ever made fun of me for being a hardcore germaphobe was wrong, and all of my worst anxieties actually CAN happen! Isn’t that fun? I don’t have GAD, I have ESP!”

      Really don’t say this, though. LOL

      1. Green*

        ““I’ve learned that everyone who has ever made fun of me for being a hardcore germaphobe was wrong, and all of my worst anxieties actually CAN happen! Isn’t that fun? I don’t have GAD, I have ESP!””


    10. nnn*

      The real, dog-honest truth of what I’ve learned about myself during this time is that if I let myself cry, it only takes a few minutes, but if I try not to cry I’m fighting off the tears for hours.

    11. Anonymity*

      It’s a bad question but I think they want to weed out people who are maxing out unemployment benefits intentionally versus those who truly want to work and will be committed to a job.

      1. Student Affairs Sally*

        I feel like doing thorough reference checks would be a much better way to gauge this, especially since someone who is intentionally trying to max out unemployment benefits probably wouldn’t feel too many qualms about answering this question with a bald-faced lie.

      2. Keymaster of Gozer*

        Err, how would that question tell you anything about whether an interviewee had been claiming benefits, for how long or if they were obtained falsely?

        If that’s the logic I wouldn’t be surprised if they asked for full details of what a person had done to ‘treat’ a disability just to make sure they weren’t faking having one.

      3. Delphine*

        If they’re at the interview, can we not assume they truly want to work? This is a gross assumption on many levels.

        1. Anonny*

          I mean, some work benefits do make you apply for jobs that aren’t suitable for you (e.g. travel costs make it virtually non-paying, or you have sensory processing disorder and working in that environment would drive you literally insane) and then you have to accept it if they interview you and offer you a job, but the trick there is to tank the interview. Y’know, turn up in a bunny girl costume, answer every question with references to Star Trek, and poop in the interviewer’s plant pot on the way out.

    12. Keymaster of Gozer*

      One of the managers here at work actually told his staff ‘nothing bad happens, it’s all just opportunities for growth’.

      I went CRAZY last year while unemployed and watching friends die to Covid. What possible benefit am I supposed to derive from that?

        1. Keymaster of Gozer*

          He was talking in general about the pandemic, disabilities, illnesses…anything he thinks is a ‘challenge to overcome’

          He’s very lucky I work in a different office to him. I have a bad reaction to the ‘the only disability is a bad attitude’ mindset.

          1. JustaTech*

            Jaw dropped.

            I thought the day the yoga instructor kept saying “everything happens for a reason” was bad enough, but to hear that from someone I am supposed to work with?

            My pet ball of moss has more empathy than someone who thinks that this pandemic is an “opportunity for growth” for everyone. Sure, it’s an opportunity for growth if you work in pandemic prevention planning. The rest of us? Not so much, even if we haven’t lost anyone.

    13. Green Tea for Me*

      What have I learned about myself?

      That I can cry quietly enough I won’t disturb anyone else in the bathroom.

    14. Software Engineer*

      ‘I’ve learned what it feels like to live with existential dread every day~!’

      ‘I’ve learned just how far the bad psychic vibes travel in my house when my daughter is in another room refusing to do her schoolwork and being mad at the world!’

      ‘I’ve learned how many things I can put pancetta in and how much my children hate it!’

    15. Quill*

      I have learned that making bread is easy but washing the dishes is endlessly hard.

      Probably because the reward for baking is bread, but the reward for dishes is having to do it again tomorrow.

  2. Rayray*

    As someone who was unemployed for almost five months during this pandemic, I totally feel for OP. This is a tough question, and I the ink many people who haven’t actually experienced unemployment expect that everyone should be taking classes, volunteering, and more. Unemployment is tough, and this pandemic has been tough. Keep answering the way you are, OP.

    And what Alison mentions about asking how the company has handled the pandemic is fantastic. I asked this at all my interviews and it is great insight to how they treat employees. I think it will be a great question to ask for the next couple years, in past tense hopefully!

    1. shannanigans*

      Yeah, unemployment is not a sabbatical. You don’t know when it’s going to end and what it will look like when it does end.

      If you knew, I’ll have six months off and then make $X salary – sure, maybe you’d travel, or invest in training, or take on some short-term freelance projects.

      But when you’re unemployed you don’t know when you’ll have income and when you’ll need to be available for interviews or start dates. That makes it pretty hard to invest time or money into anything.

      Not to mention how emotionally and intellectually exhausting it is to job hunt, or the emotional stress of being unemployed.

      Just applying for hundreds of jobs over the course of months shows tremendous grit and resiliency.

      1. Rayray*

        Exactly! It’s time consuming to search job boards, LinkedIn, indeed etc every day. It’s exhausting to keep searching just hoping there will be new positions opened up. Then you have to fill out the applications after uploading the resume that you also had to tweak and tailor to the position. There’s also time spent researching the company, writing cover letters, practicing for interviews, etc.

        I did a few little classes for fun on LinkedIn learning and Khan Academy but I certainly didn’t have time for a full course or new degree.

      2. Texan In Exile*

        I lost my job on Dec 31, 2019. I was very lucky to get into my state’s unemployment system before everything went to heck. Until it ran out in December, the UI was just enough to cover our $1,200/month COBRA payment. We are otherwise financially OK, even though my husband had quit his job six months before I lost mine because I forgot to use my ability to see into the future.

        Even so, there has not been one single day since Jan 1 2020 when I woke up and thought, “How shall I spend this amazing gift of worry-free unemployed time doing something fun and relaxing?”

      3. A Simple Narwhal*

        Exactly! A few years ago I was out of work at the same time as a friend and we both found jobs at about the same time after ~6 months of unemployment. We lamented that it didn’t feel like we really took advantage of our time off, but we realized that it was only with the benefit of hindsight that it looked like a missed opportunity. If we knew we’d have six months of unemployment and then we’d find a good-paying job, then there was a lot of things we’d each have done differently – gotten a certification in a recreation we enjoy that takes a lot of consistent training, taken a long-ish term volunteer opportunity, heck maybe even traveled.

        But in the moment, you just have no idea what the future holds! And if you’re hoping to get a job soon, how can you start a training program that you might have to quit at any moment, or commit to six weeks of a daytime volunteering event? Or convince yourself to spend money on a trip or any activity when your job search might take a lot longer and that money should be saved just in case?

        So overall it’s really important to not view unemployed time off as a sabbatical, like you said. You’re kind of just stuck in limbo, with no way of making long-term plans past basic survival and constant applications. It’s easy to look back in hindsight when everything turned out ok, but you had no way of knowing things were going to be ok at the time.

        1. jojo*

          Here in Mississippi max unemployment is 200 per week, minimum is 35 per week. Unemployment is not enough to pay rent, let alone utilities. Unless you empty your retirement account, if you have one, you will not be doing anything that includes going out your front door.

    2. meyer lemon*

      Not to mention, a lot of the classes, volunteer work, professional development opportunities, and networking events that one might normally try to do while unemployed do not currently exist.

      1. Autumnheart*

        Agreed. I signed up for a few Meetup groups in my industry because I wanted to improve my networking opportunities. Um yeah. Now it may as well be groups called Stayhome because that’s what we’re all doing.

      2. Simonthegreywarden*

        Or they cost money (the classes, dev ops, networking) that — guess what — you don’t have. Because you are unemployed.

  3. Anon Lawyer*

    I mean, I’m not that outraged by this. Yeah, the last year has sucked, but its been a year – those of us who have been employed have worked through it even if not as productively as usual and, in general, life has proceeded. And the LW actually has plenty of useful stuff to say, even if it doesn’t account for every hour of every day (which nobody ever asks for at any time). And, indeed, recent events spurred a lot of people to volunteer for political campaigns or do a lot of reading on issues like history and diversity and inclusion. Sure, you have to be careful about how you frame those answers for some interviewers but you can usually spin something, and plenty of employers you could say that outright.

    1. Sam*

      I’d say that they’re clearly looking for answers that are basically “I made myself do work as if I were still employed” – If they were looking for “I did some reading” or “I volunteered for a political cause”, I think they wouldn’t be asking about consulting jobs(!)

      1. Anon Lawyer*

        That seems like a stretch. They might be asking about consulting jobs because those are common in the field and that’s what lots of people do when out of work. Which makes sense since people do need money. But it doesn’t necessarily mean they’d penalize someone who didn’t.

        1. JM60*

          I would think a candidate would probably consulting work performed since being laid off on their resume if they did any. Perhaps some would keep it off because it’s short-term work, but I would think most would include it.

    2. ThatGirl*

      The problem I see with “what have you learned about yourself” is that it implies that you should be As Productive As Possible At All Times — that if you’re not learning new skills or freelancing or volunteering or whatever that it’s been a waste. And so many people are just trying to SURVIVE – losing a job is hard enough, but doing it during a pandemic, and political and global turmoil, when you may have gotten sick yourself, or lost friends or loved ones, or god knows whatever else… it just seems tone-deaf.

      1. Anon Lawyer*

        I wouldn’t ask that version of the question under any circumstances because I don’t think internal self reflection is my business in a job interview, but I don’t necessarily think it implies all that. It could just call for a single lesson – the LW’s answer upthread about thriving with structure seems fine.

        1. ThatGirl*

          I’ve been thinking about this a little more.
          Yes, LW’s answer is fine. But also, it never hurts for anyone — random internet commenters, interviewers, etc — to have some empathy for what’s going on in the world at large. To recognize that for many (most) people this has been an extremely stressful and fraught year, and there are better ways to either ask the question or get the information you really need.
          I’m someone who’s been extremely lucky the past 12 months – my family and friends with covid have all recovered, I actually did get laid off in November but started a new job 6 weeks later with no real financial interruptions, my spouse and I have both been able to work from home amicably and we still like each other. But even for me, it’s still been stressful and I haven’t taken up any exciting new hobbies or bettered myself in any significant way. I can’t imagine asking a loaded question that expects productivity at all costs to anyone right now, especially not knowing how the past year has actually gone for them.

          1. Anon Lawyer*

            I do think that’s an admirable approach. I haven’t interviewed anyone during this Pandemic (sadly we’re not hiring for economic reasons), but I hope if I did, I would be empathetic in my approach. I guess I just think it’s a high bar for a potential employer and that a lot of very decent people are not always attuned to every connotation of what they ask. I think a lot of people might ask that question just thinking hey, might spark something interesting about their experience, let’s find out, rather than expecting a demonstration that productivity is the most important thing in life.

      2. Sam*

        Yeah, this is what I was trying to get at – “it’s been a year” just means it’s been a year of hard times for people, not that you should be back to standard productivity by now.

      3. mf*

        Strong agree. If it’s been a tough year for you, you should able to focus on surviving, not growing, and that’s 100% OK.

        Also, a lot of people don’t have work-appropriate answers to “what have you learned about yourself” this year. It wouldn’t be comfortable in an interview to say, “I learned I get super depressed when I don’t have a job for months on end.” Or, “I learned that financial stress is taking years off my life.” Or, “I learned that American continues to suppress Black people and that my mom is a crazy conspiracy theorist.”

        1. Anon Lawyer*

          I guess this is where I come down that it’s ok to BS in an interview, covid times or no. Like, you could have been employed for a year not in a Pandemic and not have learned anything useful in your last job. Just make something up like “I’ve been thinking a lot about organizational structure and how best to encourage communication across the organization.” It’s ok not to just say your unvarnished thoughts.

          1. Mary Richards*

            But if you’re willing to accept BS like that in the interview, what’s the point of asking the question?

            1. Anon Lawyer*

              Well you’re not supposed to make it recognizable as BS. As I said upthread, though, I wouldn’t ask that particular question, covid or no. But nor would it outrage me to be asked it.

            2. Autumnheart*

              The point is to see if you can handle yourself professionally and provide a palatable answer even in a tough environment. If that’s not a soft skill, I don’t know what is.

              1. JM60*

                I think there are better ways to evaluate someone’s soft skills than to ask them questions which they likely need to give BS answers to. The exception might be if giving BS answers is a core part of the job, like if you’re a press secretary.

                1. Allonge*

                  The thing is, this does not necessarily need to be a BS answer. They are not expecting the hardest truth you learned in 2020, cross your heart.

                  I know it’s hard, but it might make sense for everyone job-seeking to come up with a sentence or two about what they did in 2020 that can be applied for these type of questions (even the less tone-deaf variants of them).

                2. JM60*


                  What if the non-BS truthful answer is “I took a vacation/sabbatical”? I’m sure there are better or worse ways to say that, but I’m guessing that most interviewers who ask that question would penalize someone who admits to primarily enjoying their time off rather than working (e.g., advancing their skills) during their unemployment.

                3. Allonge*

                  What would you answer if you took a sabbatical in any other year?

                  I would e.g. say that I took time to take care of family / personal matters (there has to be somehing you were doing that can be mentioned, in general terms), but now I am ready to get back to work.

                  I would not assume that anyone who asks a question about what you were doing in 2020 is an evil, bad, terrible person who thinks all people should be robots, and you should at minimum have gained two PhDs last year. For a lot of people on this post, it seems that that is the general take – anyone who even dares to imply that an interviewee might have gotten anything done last year is the Worst Person Ever. I don’t think that is a constructive interpretation. Can a question like OP mentioned be a red or orange flag? Sure. But it’s not necessarily so.

                4. JM60*

                  I would e.g. say that I took time to take care of family / personal matters (there has to be somehing you were doing that can be mentioned, in general terms), but now I am ready to get back to work.

                  That’s how I would answer it too, but that would stretching the truth of, “I didn’t have to work, so I didn’t,” and polishing it a little.

                  Reasons I can think of for asking the question roughly fall into a few categories:
                  1) They want to know of any relevant work/skill development you did but did not include on your resume.
                  2) They want to know if you had a valid excuse for not working.
                  3) They want to know if you have the soft skills to give a BS answer if you didn’t have an excuse.

                  I think 1 is the best reason to ask the question. It’s reasonable to want to know all significant work the candidate did that is related to the job. However, I would think that if candidates did so something relevant since their last job, it would be somewhere on their resume. So I doubt 1 is the main reason why someone would ask this.

                  For 2, there are many reasons why an employer might want to know what made you leave your previous job, but that can be asked directly without asking about what you’ve been doing about in between. There are also some jobs where you have to be practicing constantly to be able to perform the job (e.g., I think pilots need to be logging so many flight hours to be safe and legal to fly). However, I think many people looking for an explanation/excuse with this question would probably penalize someone a least a bit for just enjoying not having to work.

                  The person I was responding to thinks 3 is usually the reason for asking the question, but I think asking a question that you expect a BS answer to, merely to see how well they can give a BS answer, is usually a bad reason for asking a question.

                  Considering the reasons above, there can be good reasons for asking what someone has been doing since their last job, but I think it’s reasonable to suspect the person asking it has a bit of a “you must always be working” attitude.

                5. Allonge*

                  I agree that it can be suspicious and it could indicate unreasonable expectations from the company. As always, in all interviews ever, you are evaluating the company just as much as they are evaluating you (general you).

                  I personally don’t think that it’s useful to focus on the worst possible motivation they can have when I am answering the question, in the moment. If they are a crappy company, so be it, good to know. I would still answer the question as legit. I cannot avoid trick questions if they want to ask trick questions – I can avoid the company if they think this is a normal way to operate.

                  Honestly though, in most cases of hiring I have seen or heard about, the questions are not put together with an enormous amount of detailed work. It’s like, ‘hey, so if they are out of a job, we’ll ask what they have been doing since, right?’ ‘Right.’ ‘Ok then.’ Most people I know would not delve deep into what kind of implications this might have. Which is not necessarily good, but like everyone else, managers do the last amout of work possible in most cases, so…

          2. mediamaven*

            Agreed. The goal of an interview question isn’t to provide a completely comprehensive and truthful answer and pretty much anyone can come up with something that should satisfy the interviewer. Just spin it a little. Most people have done something productive even if it wasn’t working.

          3. mf*

            I agree it’s fine as a candidate to offer BS answers to these kinds of questions.

            But if you’re an interviewer, you’re doing a poor job if you’re asking a question that invites BS. It’s also really shitty to put a candidate in a position where they have to dodge an overly personal or sensitive question.

            1. TechWorker*

              I think my take here though is that it’s really difficult to know as an interviewer what a too personal question is. Maybe ‘what have you done since you’ve been unemployed’ people would always put in that category but I can imagine some people *do* put lots of effort into finding a job, doing online courses, keeping ontop of industry developments etc and would want to talk about it?

              Other questions that could be personal or upsetting & some would dodgy:
              – what did you do during this career break on your resume?
              – why did you leave x job on your resume?

          4. Ri-Tog*

            You all (except for Anon Lawyer) are missing the point.

            This question is not meant to say that the company will only hire people who spend the pandemic leaning Mandarin, differential equations, or so on. It *is* meant to gauge resiliency: how the potential employee deals with crises.

            While I hope the pandemic is the worst crisis we will face in our lifetimes, more minor crises happen all the time. Companies need employees who can roll with the punches. If a candidate’s reaction to crises is to shut down completely, that candidate may not make the best employee.

            So yes, your answer should be along the lines of what Anon Lawyer says. Yes, you should, at the very least, try to read a couple of articles about your field and be prepared to discuss them.

            “I’m not doing anything other than trying to stay alive” is not an adequate answer for the vast majority of people who have not developed Covid, or even severe Covid.

            “I learned I prefer non-pandemic times” (duh) is not an adequate answer.

            “I learned there are marginalized groups in society” is not an adquate answer. That may be true, but it is irrelevant to the position you are interviewing for (unless you’re in social work or what not).

            You also need to think about the competition. If you’re one of (say) two finalists for a position, and the other person can answer this question intelligently (“I kept abreast of trends in my industry by reading journals X and Y; here’s what I thought about those trends”), and your answer is “I did nothing,” who do you think sounds like the more attractive candidate *for the company*?

            1. Mustang76*

              I’m not sure anyone is missing the point at all, though – if you want to gauge how people deal with crises, then… you can ask about that without referring to the biggest, longest lasting crisis in any of our lifetimes (yes, the Great Recession was horrible, but people weren’t dealing with the twin threats of unemployment *and* a pandemic). I don’t think asking people about their reactions to an unprecedented black swan event tells you anything you need to know about their skills and reactions to a typical workplace crisis, because those crises are guaranteed to be different in both degree and kind.

              “If a candidate’s reaction to crises is to shut down completely, that candidate may not make the best employee.”

              This is true, but it also handwaves all crises as being created equal. How an applicant is handling the craziest, longest-lasting global crisis of their life (which also caused them to be unemployed for however long) doesn’t necessarily reflect on how they’ll handle the crises that will actually come up in the course of their job. The interview questions should be geared towards figuring that out. It’s an ineffective interview question that also makes applicants feel insecure and internally conflicted. It’s just bad all around.

              Allison’s advice is, as always, spot on, but commenters aren’t wrong in observing how… jarring this interview question is.

              1. Beacon of Nope*

                longest-lasting global crisis

                It has been a long-lasting crisis. We’re nearly a year in – if someone hasn’t adapted to the situation even a little bit by now, and is still stuck in the “rocking back and forth on the floor” stage, I think that says more about them than it does about the situation. People need to be able to count on each other in the workplace, and I wouldn’t feel like I could count on someone like that. I’d be walking on eggshells around them.

                1. Delphine*

                  This kind of thinking shows that your empathy is limited to what you have experienced yourself and that you are incredibly privileged. People have lost loved ones, sometimes multiple family members and friends. They’ve lost their livelihoods, their homes, their health. They have been stuck in a loop of endless trauma, to this day. That’s not something that you “adapt” to a year in. That’s trauma that reverberates for life. You don’t think you could “count” on someone who has struggled every day of this past year? Says more about you than anyone else.

                2. Ri-Tog*

                  But if you are an employer you are ultimately hiring for someone who can get the job done, not for “empathy.” And “you are privileged” is not ultimately an argument. If I am privileged in getting to choose who I want to hire so be it.

            2. J.B.*

              I have been employed but my children have struggled with their mental health. I am worried about suicide. I would be tempted to burst into tears rather than answer something like that, and I am more resilient than most people have any hope of being.

      4. carrie*

        Honestly, yeah. I used to write as a hobby, but since I’m not actively working to monetize my writing (don’t need to–my career pays the bills easily and I like it too) I have trouble staying focused and spending time doing it. It used to bring me joy and now brings me anxiety because I keep thinking of all the other things I could be doing instead that are actually productive. I’ve read quite a bit about how hobbies aren’t really as big in younger generations because we’re encouraged to constantly “level up”, promote our brand, monetize everything etc. If you are crafty how many people will chime in with “you should open an etsy shop and sell your stuff!” I guess I have kind of derailed this as for many, having a hobby is a privilege. But I just wanted to pipe in and say I agree.

        FWIW the last time I actually got my writing creative juices flowing for more than afternoon was when I was laid off, but then I felt guilty every second I wasn’t applying to jobs :/

    3. Mary Richards*

      But like…no? Because people have had a LOT of different experiences this year. My cousin has a colleague who posted a family photo from 2 years ago and said that she was the only person in the photo who hadn’t succumbed to Covid. I don’t think it’s fair to expect that person to have done much of anything this year.

      And before someone jumps on me with “well, that’s ONE person,” that’s exactly my point. There is no cookie-cutter pandemic experience, and a question like this unfairly disadvantages anyone who hasn’t basically been sitting around for a year (which is a really rare experience, anyway).

      1. Anon Lawyer*

        Wait, what? How does it disadvantage anyone who hasn’t been sitting around for a year? The question is asking what you’ve been doing, so if you haven’t been sitting around, you can say that.

        And I think the issue I have is that people have terrible years all the time – yes, it’s more this year. But I have 100% interviewed people in non-Pandemic years and casually asked “so what have you been working on for the past year” and had them answer “oh, I took time off for a [family or medical] crisis that’s now resolved.” And we’ve moved on and its been a non-issue. I think I’d be a jerk if i didn’t move on, but the fact that so many people have had bad years should make that answer even more acceptable. If it’s not, that’s the issue.

        1. Student Affairs Sally*

          You said in another comment that you would never ask that question, COVID or not, so I’m confused how you would never ask a question that you’ve 100% asked people in interviews?

          1. Anon Lawyer*

            We’re talking about two different questions, I think. I wouldn’t ask people what they learned about themselves over the past year but I’ve asked what they’ve done with time that isn’t accounted for on their resume.

            1. TechWorker*

              Yes, me too. It’s basically policy to ask it at my company! It’s not at all saying the only acceptable answer is saying you were sitting around doing nothing, quite the opposite, that’s one of the few answers that might be viewed negatively.

        2. Mary Richards*

          Sorry, what I meant was that a large number of people haven’t had the time to just sit around and, by extension, do things that would reflect well on them as candidates. Heck, even people who have had the time to just sit around haven’t really necessarily done anything that will reflect well on their candidacy.

          1. Allonge*

            Ok, but learning about things is not limited to situations when somebody has the time to sit around. I don’t think that the question posed to OP was a good question, I think that in job interviews there is always the possibility to meet a less than ideal to horrible question and you would need to do something with it. And what you do in these cases is interpret the question as something you can answer – not as the worst possible version of the question that practically nobody could. Or, if it is such a horrible question, you stand up and leave the interview, or say ‘I would rather not answer that’. It’s still a two-way street.

    4. BRR*

      I’m kind of not outraged either. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s an awful question. I would wonder if my interviewers were aware of current events, if they had any common sense, how awful of a workplace this is if they think people are just building sills right now etc. But I guess I just sort of understand, even though I 100% think it shouldn’t be asked.

    5. MsClaw*

      I also feel like this is one of those things that people are reading too much into because (understandably) everything is just fraught right now. These are very basic boiler-plate questions much along the lines of ‘how was your weekend’ or ‘what are you doing over the holidays’ that can *feel* very pointed or personal but really aren’t. Arm yourself with a couple of responses for how you spent your time or what you learned about yourself, and try not to let it feel like it has so much weight. They may take on a weirder tone now, because obviously a *lot* of people are having an unprecedentedly bad time but they are also pretty standard questions you would likely ask anyone who has been out of work for a stretch.

      1. Student Affairs Sally*

        The difference, as you yourself note, is that this year isn’t like any other year. Anyone who is out of work right now is a) not likely in that position by choice, and b) is likely dealing with a lot of emotional and mental turmoil because we ALL are, and being unemployed (again, not by choice) is just going to add to that. Sure, it’s a perfectly appropriate question in “normal” times, but these are not normal times!

        1. MsClaw*

          I’ve never known anyone out of work who was not incredibly stressed out by it. For all my friends who have gone through periods of joblessness, true answers would be ‘trying not to cry every second of the day and worrying about whether I’m going to lose my house’ then as now.

          The circumstances are different, but the point of the question really isn’t. And while it may be tone deaf given…. reality, the way you respond to it really doesn’t change that much. Just have a canned answer in your bag of tricks.

          1. Student Affairs Sally*

            But if a majority of candidates are going to respond with a canned answer, what’s the point of asking the question?

            1. Natalie*

              Believe it or not, interviewers haven’t always thought deeply about every single question they ask. They ask questions they’ve been asked themselves, that they found on lists of “good job interview questions”, that they heard someone else ask, and so forth.

              1. Student Affairs Sally*

                It’s interesting that employers expect employees to be able to adapt to changing situations, but can’t be bothered to adapt their interview questions to major global developments (obviously not all employers, but any that would ask this question at this particular point in history)

                1. Natalie*

                  You’re literally just as free to take this into account as the interviewer is – if the idea of the hiring manager not having scrubbed all their interview questions for covid relevance bothers you enough, you don’t have to accept the job. Literally my only point is that it’s more likely they just haven’t thought very closely about it, than that you’re being subjected to some kind of test or trap.

            2. Ri-Tog*

              Because they want to know how candidates thinks on their feet. Because they want to know whether a candidate can answer off-the-cuff questions from clients intelligently. There are plenty of good reasons.

      2. Librarian of SHIELD*

        Yes, it’s a boiler plate interview question. But we don’t live in a boiler plate world right now. I don’t think it would be unreasonable to ask a question like this when the world is mostly as it ever was and the person’s unemployment period hasn’t taken place in a period of unprecedented global upheaval. But a pretty high percentage of humans right now are experiencing their highest ever levels of anxiety and depression. To ask this specific question during this specific period of human history is not great.

        Is it the worst thing ever? No, of course not. But I would at least side-eye an employer who didn’t feel the need to review their standard slate of interview questions to make sure they were taking the current state of the world into account.

        1. mf*

          Yes, thank you. If an employer isn’t taking the current state of the world into account when they are interviewing, you can sure as hell bet that they’re not doing in their management style either.

      3. meyer lemon*

        The issue is, normally you don’t know what a stranger might be going through, but at the moment, there is a fair chance that anyone you talk to might be dealing with something terrible in their personal lives. Even when I’m emailing with people I don’t know well, I try to exercise some tact and not open the conversation with normal chirpy stuff like “I hope you had a really fun long weekend!” or whatnot. I feel like it’s a pretty normal, empathetic thing to do to calibrate interview questions in a similar way.

      4. Ri-Tog*

        These are very basic boiler-plate questions much along the lines of ‘how was your weekend’ or ‘what are you doing over the holidays’ that can *feel* very pointed or personal but really aren’t

        Remember that we have folks ’round these parts who think the greeting “good morning” is an outrage.

    6. D3*

      You say “in general, life has proceeded”
      That should be qualified. YOUR life proceeded.
      Lots and lots of people have had very different experiences than yours. It’s been traumatic and damaging to mental health for many.
      So to be asked how they spent their time in a way that implies it dang well better show initiative or the ability to see good in all things, of whatever shit interviewers expect from this question is a problem for many, if not for you. To be in a high-pressure situation and asked to spin your ongoing trauma or crisis is an awful experience. Interviewers should avoid putting people in that situation.
      Please understand that as someone who has stayed employed and “in general, (your) life has proceeded” you are LUCKY. You are privileged. You really need to wake up to the reality that not everyone has had it as relatively good as you did. Your lack of empathy in defending your point speaks volumes about you.

      1. Anon Lawyer*

        I’m not going to respond with a long defense of myself but I do think that most people have had to move on with life in some fashion. Even when it’s been hard and crushing. And I don’t think it’s unreasonable for an interviewer to assume we’re going to talk about those aspects of life instead of trauma that, yes, employed people have also experienced. Yes, there are exceptions and I think, as I’ve said, saying “I’ve been dealing with a personal/family/medical crisis” is appropriate to say just like it was before. But again, in general, interviews are not about every facet of your life or assessing everything about you as a person. They’re specifically about about one small segment of your life and it’s expected that everyone involved is compartmentalizing.

        Similarly comments I make about a specific interview question in response to a specific letter on a workplace blog are not about my entire life or everything about me as a person! The fact that you seem to think that it does – or the fact that I stated that most people have done “normal” work related things in the last year speaks “volumes” about me as a person that- is maybe the issue I’m talking about. Not everything has to be about EVERYTHING.

        1. J.B.*

          Ok but here’s the thing. If your true answer is that your relatives died and you are struggling, that is killer for an interview. The balance of power is such that bringing something depressing up as a candidate is likely to kill your candidacy.

      2. Anon Lawyer*

        I’ll also add that I find it frustrating that this kind of pretty vicious attack in response to comments saying, literally, that I think a fairly standard interview question is mostly ok albeit not ideal is considered acceptable.

        1. Roci*

          I don’t think it’s vicious, I think it shows the level of frustration and anger this kind of question will engender in most people.

          You are right, in a normal year, “What have you been doing since your last job” is a normal question to ask.
          But it’s not a normal year. Most of the things you could have been doing, you can’t. Many people have lost family and friends, or they are sick and may never get well. Governments around the world have failed to economically or medically support individuals and businesses. Shortages in essential goods like food and toilet paper and PPE at hospitals. Race relations, civil unrest, widespread misinformation and conspiracies, protests, an attempted coup. While almost every single person has been more socially isolated than usual.

          This is like interviewing someone in 1918 or 1930 and asking “what you’ve been up to”. It’s a level of tone-deafness that is frankly staggering. Most people are trying to survive.

        2. Delphine*

          In a year where even more people have likely been working through some sort of trauma, this standard interview question should be taken off the list by any sensitive interviewer. It’s not even a useful question.

      3. Green*

        Yeah. I hear that statement and my mind fills with a long 2.5 million person list of everyone for whom life hasn’t processed, in the last year – and that’s just the COVID deaths.

  4. EPLawyer*


    Not everyone used this time to write that novel they have been meaning to, learn a new language or baking bread. Most of us are just trying to get through the day without completely LOSING IT. And I say that as someone who has been gainfully employed this entire time with an actual INCREASE in business (who knew lock downs would increase people’s desire to NO LONGER BE MARRIED TO THAT PERSON I AM STUCK IN THE HOUSE WITH NOW [well actually a lot of divorce attorneys]). Even I am just trying to … cope with the ongoing fear that I or a loved one may catch Covid and DIE. If you got up and got fully dressed this morning, you are doing good.

    1. Rayray*


      One thing that many people don’t realize is that depression doesn’t always manifest it’s self by making you feel super sad and crying all the time. Often it’s that you lose all motivation and you have no passion or excitement for anything. A lot of people are going through this right now and are just going through the motions of life. They don’t have the will to learn a new skill, it’s hard enough just to get up and go to work each day.

      1. tangerineRose*

        Exactly. Sometimes I think it’s like having weights constantly attached to yourself. They drag you down. Sometimes I power through and sometimes I even feel good enough that the weights don’t matter that much. Then after work, maybe I lie on the sofa and do nothing because getting through that much of the day was all I had emotional energy for.

        1. Lyudie*

          This is basically the metaphor I used with my therapist earlier this week. Everything is heavy, just a constant sense of being weighed down.

      2. Ursula*

        Or as I have recently experienced, depression can manifest without any emotional component at all. I felt fine, neither sad nor numb, but I just mysteriously couldn’t get out of bed for about 16 hours a day, like gravity had massively increased specifically on the bed or something.

      3. Quill*

        Or get up, plan to go to work, and instead take 1 inch of new snow as a valid excuse for telecommuting instead while your boss asks what the heck is up with last week’s teapots.

    2. Rose*

      I was laid off. I am writing a novel, about 1/3 way through. I always mention it when interviewers asked what I’ve been doing.

      I’m not encouraging anyone lie to get out of asinine questions, I’m just saying that no one has ever asked more than one follow up question.

    3. Lady Meyneth*

      Add to that, not everybody *wants* to write that novel, or learn to paint, or have any productive hobbies at all. And that’s fine!

      Since this nightmare started, my severely-immunocompromised self had to deal with the loss of a cousin and an old friend, my husband’s anxiety spiraled all the way down, and my own mental health is at a all-time low from not leaving the house at all. And I’m one of the lucky ones since we both kept our jobs, so no finantial issues and no employment gaps to explain. But if playing old video games kept me mostly sane, it’s not a random interview’s business that it’s not the most perfectly productive hobby! (sorry, rant over)

    4. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

      Shoot. I have been working full time, practicing my 2nd language, learning a new programming language, and learning ArcMap (can you tell I deal with stress through distraction?) and this question would still bug me. This has not been a time where people should be expected to do more than hold the fort and keep themselves and their families afloat. If people have done something relevant to the job, it will be in their cover letter or on their resume. If there is nothing there, then assume it is surviving as best they can

      1. Autumnheart*

        There’s really no upper limit to what a particular employer might expect out of a person. If I spent the time working FT and developing some other major accomplishment in my off-time, what happens when that’s the bar? “Oh, well, you learned how to make a killer Beef Wellington and you rebuilt an engine from scratch, but what will you take on THIS quarter?” Come on. I don’t need to be Thomas Jefferson to do whatever mid-level/individual contributor thing you’re hiring for.

      2. Third or Nothing!*

        I’ve been staving off panic attacks and the looming sense of impending doom through exercise. I logged 740 running, hiking, and walking miles last year which is double my previous record. Took up trail running. Got an impressive array of scars from falling on rocks and stumps. Pretty sure the only interviewer who would care about that would be someone writing an article on running. IDK what on earth I’d say if someone asked me what I’ve learned about myself through all this because the answer is that I don’t do well when all my other sources of stress relief are taken away and all I have left is running.

      3. Hil*

        I also deal best by keeping as busy as possible. I don’t even like it about myself. It’s a maladaptive coping mechanism for me. The fact that society acts like its such a great thing makes everything worse.

        But also… YOUR USER NAME. Love it.

    5. allathian*

      Uugh, indeed.

      I’ll preface by saying that I feel very fortunate. Nobody I know personally has been diagnosed with COVID so far, although most of my friends and acquaintances have been tested at least once. I’m lucky enough to work in a government job that hasn’t really been affected by the pandemic, except for being mandated to WFH since March 2020. It hasn’t really affected our work processes, although admittedly our VPN was overloaded early in the pandemic, but this has significantly improved since then. Also, except for 2 months last spring, elementary schools in my area have been open, so I’ve been able to mostly focus on working when our son’s at school. My husband and I decided early on in our marriage to put most of our assets into a single-family home in the suburbs, and this investment has really paid off now, we have enough space and internet bandwidth for three people to be on video calls at the same time in separate rooms. Both my husband and I are fairly introverted and we haven’t suffered from being stuck at home. I do miss seeing my parents, in-laws and friends, but not being able to see them doesn’t send me into a spiral of depression or anxiety. Our relationship is strong and our son’s doing well in school.

      Yet, in spite of all the privileges that I’m extremely grateful for, a question like “what have you learned about yourself during the pandemic” would disgruntle me. An honest answer would be something like “I’ve learned to value my family even more than I did before, and that as long as they are healthy and reasonably happy, I have pretty much all I need in life, in addition to a job that allows me to maintain my current lifestyle.” I wouldn’t say that in a job interview, though…

      I completed a professional certification last year. What with that and the general weirdness of living in a pandemic, I really haven’t had the energy for much professional development. I really hope that I can use that certification as a reason to coast for at least two years before I’ll need to look into doing any significant training. I’m not counting our mandatory annual organizational trainings in this, though. It’s also one reason why I’m not actively looking for a new job at the moment, at my current job I can get away with putting in maybe 80 percent effort, but that wouldn’t fly in a new job where I’d be learning a lot of stuff from scratch.

    6. sb51*

      Also, for those of us who have thrown ourselves into hobbies as a distraction — they’re not necessarily anything useful for work? (I was able to buy yeast before it went out of stock and still joined the sourdough brigade! Baking as a stress-relief has always been a thing I did, so it was wacky to see the entire country join me, but I’ve definitely been doing it. But it’s absolutely not a work skill for my field. In fact, as a woman in a male-dominated field, I’m cautious about even letting people know I have it sometimes.)

      (I’m as-happily-as-can-be-expected all set WFH for the duration, so I am not being asked this by horrible interviewers, but I am trying to push back a little at work on some of the expectations around our annual goal-setting process needing to give people a little more grace this year.)

  5. TomServo*

    I really like the “I had the ability to take some time off and now I’m eager to get back to work,” phrasing.

  6. Jester*

    I totally understand the frustration, but your answer seems great! Mine would be, “I’ve been mostly watching Criminal Minds on repeat, soooooooo…”

        1. Criminal Minds is Great Comfort TV*

          I’ve made it up to series 13 and I’m sad because that means it’s nearly over lol

          (I think partly why I love it is all the characters are just really nice to each other? Like I miss my friends and colleagues but at least they’re all working together and supporting each other).

    1. Ali G*

      I mean, I’m working and still there is a lot of Grey’s Anatomy going on over here. There’s only so much to do when you can’t leave the house!!! Ugh.

      1. Ryn*

        Oh I’m so glad I’m not the only one whose comfort show is Grey’s, I’m currently rewatching the 11th(?) season. My response would have to be somewhere along the lines of “I learned the consequences of sleeping with your boss and also that brain tumors are bad.”

        1. Librarian of SHIELD*

          In that case, mine would have to be “I recently rewatched all of Nikita, so I’ve learned that when you’re a disgraced superspy on the run from your former organization, you always have to stay one step ahead.”

    2. Clumsy Ninja*

      I was off work for medical leave when the pandemic started, and that was one of my accomplishments! Finished the last 2.5 seasons and started over.

    3. Curiouser and Curiouser*

      You mean “I discovered 9-1-1 and am working toward an unintentional goal of watching every documentary on HBOMax” isn’t what they’re expecting?

  7. Hypnotist Collector*

    I feel for the OP. The question is incredibly tone-deaf and it sounds like they’ve handled it really well. I’ve been unemployed since July, when I lost a decent-paying job with great benefits. I’m 63, and had hoped to have that job for a few more years (despite an extreme commute and a bully of a boss) and not have to face the reality of ageism in hiring, but it wasn’t to be. Almost all of my much-younger colleagues have found new jobs. I have not. And the whole interviewing process seems pretty terrible right now. I feel like asking an interviewer how they’re taking care of employees who are struggling would kill any chance I had; they’d assume that meant I wouldn’t be up to the job.

    1. Jennifer Thneed*

      Make it past tense! “What did Company do last spring, when everything shut down? What did company do over the summer and fall as we had re-openings and re-closings?” Because that will tell you pretty closely what they’re doing right now.

    2. KuklaRed*

      Hi HC – I send you my sympathies and encouragement. I am 62 (63 in April) and I understand how it feels to be undervalued and over-looked. I am one of the lucky ones in that I got a new job in December after a lot of interviewing and rejection. But I know it is really hard out there and I hope that you find something great very soon.

  8. Mmmkay*

    I was shocked when I was interviewing last summer while laid off and was asked by two different interviewers at different companies what made me leave my job in March. I understand it’s a basic question to ask, but why did anyone leave their jobs last March?

    1. Rayray*

      Lol! I got asked that too.

      “Well, you see, I was wrapping up my work for the day and also a huge project we’d been working on. My boss asked if I could drop something off on my way home, but to move my car around closer to the doors. When I came back, she shut the office door, told me my position was eliminated, gave me a severance check, and asked for the parking badge”

        1. Rayray*

          Oh it’s all good! I actually hated that job and that boss. I had a few months of unemployment and got a better job.

          Funny thing is, I’d gone to a job interview that morning (didn’t get it) and I’d come here to the open Friday thread to ask for advice. Everyone was so nice and wished me luck and told me to report back how it went.

          Truly, that layoff was the best thing that could have happened. I hated the job and boss so much that I literally lost hair and was very depressed.

      1. Name (Required)*

        There was an epidemic (pun intended) of this on LinkedIn when the stay at home orders started.
        “Look how I’m using my free time to boost my career interests”. Didn’t play well in industries facing mass layoffs.

        I would hate this question because it would be hard not to answer with full snark. Don’t ask people that have been unemployed for months questions like that if you won’t take “attempting survival” as an answer.

      2. Mary Richards*

        If you told me this in an interview, I’d ditch the rest of my questions and we’d talk about that the rest of the time. And I’d almost certainly bring you back. :)

        1. Rayray*

          Oh she was something else. I complained about her in many Friday open threads.

          I think when it happened I was in a daze of shock but also relief. I had been trying to get out for a while but I was so beaten down that I thinking showed in interviews that I had no confidence at the time.

    2. BRR*

      I wouldn’t ask anyone why they left their last job if the end date was anytime in the last year but I think there can be some value in just setting the stage and also hearing how a candidate frames it. I was just on the hiring side of things for a role and we didn’t ask but the candidate dropped in “when I was laid off in August” and carried on. It was basically saying “water is wet,” (although these days I’m sure some people would disagree) but I guess I found it helpful to just have it confirmed and also thought it reflected well on the candidate.

      1. KuklaRed*

        I have to say that even before the insanity of the pandemic, I noticed that I wasn’t being asked the “why did you leave your previous job/s” question anymore. I’m not sure if that has to do with my geographical area (NYC/LI) or my industry (eDiscovery), but I haven’t had to walk anyone through my tragical history tour in a long time. I hope it is a continuing trend.

    3. MyBossSucks*

      In a beginning of the year goals and achievements meeting, I got asked, “So why didn’t you meet your the goals you set out at the start of 2020?”
      I sat there, dumbfounded, and said “The pandemic. The fact that I reached over half of my goals is a significant achievement.” But yeah, people ask stupid questions.

  9. RealPerson01*

    I obviously don’t ever want to condone lying in a job interview. But this question is certainly one where I would lie, lie, lie and lie some more.

    1. BRR*

      There are some questions in an interview where I think you get an appropriate answer for the question. Either situations like this where the question is awful or when the honest answer isn’t an acceptable answer (can’t say you’re leaving a job because it’s toxic) even though it should be acceptable. Crap in crap out

    2. In my shell*

      Agree! I’d say it’s not even lying really – it’s the natural consequence of playing stupid games and winning stupid prizes. Ask me a BS question and you’ll get a nicely packaged BS answer in response (GUILT FREE and I’m probably judging you and your company for asking it!).

    3. kitryan*

      Ok, I was reading along and got to this comment right as what was playing in the background was a cover of ‘The Boxer’ by Simon and Garfunkel and it’d just gotten to the bit where it goes: “Lie-la-lie, Lie-la-lie-lie-lie-lie-lie, Lie-la-lie, Lie-la-lie-lie-lie-lie-lie, lie-lie-lie-lie-lie…”
      I am now giggling helplessly.

  10. Ali G*

    I also think the answer you are using is good. You could take it a step further and add “and obviously I’ve been considering what is important to me in my next role, and that’s why I am interested in this position….”
    That may at least get them off this line of questioning and you can pivot back to more meaningful topics.
    And please, yes make sure you also grill them on what they’ve been doing.

    1. Cat Tree*

      For me to cry in the shower I would have to shower more regularly…

      Nothing wrong with old-fashioned crying in the living room.

      1. Keymaster of Gozer*

        A good old depression cry in bed because I literally couldn’t even get up some days. And those weren’t the worst days either. There’s been weeks I’ve gone without showering last year, I spent over a year unemployed because I couldn’t even face looking for work.

    2. Pandemic Teacher Tired*

      I read that and thought, “Wow, I’m not the only person losing wads of hair in the pandemic!” Is this a thing? WHY IS IT HAPPENING? How do I fix it? Ugh.

    3. TX Lizard*

      I started taking prenatal vitamins and biotin to try and mitigate it but I don’t think they’re doing anything

    4. Also a crier*

      I’m not much of a shower crier, but I did learn that wide-legged child’s pose with my arms stretched out in front of me is a great yoga pose for crying! That’s probably also not the kind of answer they’re looking for.

  11. mf*

    OP, can you read a self-help book related to leadership, career development, etc, so that when you get this question, you have something recent to discuss? “I’ve been focusing on education and learning, especially when it comes to leadership skills. Last month I read Start with Why by Simon Sinek, and it really inspired me to think about my own why and how I want to be the kind of leader who inspires others through my own passion.”

    Even if it’s mostly bullshit, it at least demonstrates that you’re interested in developing yourself! Plus reading one book is way more manageable than, say, finding a consulting gig or doing a bunch of online networking.

    1. COVIDLife*

      Even just like… scan the high points of one. Or just lie and say you read it. It’s bullshit, but it sounds like you did it, and I frankly think the idea that OP has to be doing personal development during these difficult times is nonsense.

      1. Felis alwayshungryis*

        Or even just listen to a couple of his TED talks and get the gist. “I’ve been listening to TED talks and I liked what Simon Sinek had to say about understanding your WHY.”

        Fully agree about personal development. Just getting through each day should be enough personal development. I’m fortunate enough to be living somewhere that’s no longer in lockdown, but when we were I had my hands full entertaining my not-quite-three year old. While other people were furiously journalling, making noodles from scratch and learning French, I was reading Dr Seuss ad nauseam. (I suppose I could just start reciting The Fox in Socks and see how far that got me..!)

  12. Escapee from Corporate Management*

    I’ve seen this from people who have been gainfully employed and able to work from home. They look at the stresses of their lives (work/family balance, semi-homeschooling kids, etc.) and think what a pleasure it must be to not have those pressures. Of course, they aren’t facing the overwhelming combination of unemployment, a horrible job market, and for many, social isolation. So they think people must be using all of this wonderful isolation and free time so productively. Ugh!

    1. Escapee from Corporate Management*

      BTW, I wish I could give this answer: “I’ve been using this time to gain weight, drink more wine than I should, buy books and never read them, hyperfocus on the US election and its aftermath, and binge-watch reruns from the 80’s and 90’s. How else would you deal with this disaster?”

      1. Sparky*

        I’m buying books and not reading them too! And gaining weight, but that’s a lot of us. I didn’t know others were doing this too.

    2. Ray Gillette*

      I don’t know how to talk to my unemployed friends these days. I’m too emotionally numb to cry in the shower but that’s not their fault (or yours).

    3. allathian*

      Ugh indeed! I just wish people would be able to accept that this pandemic is hard for the vast majority of people, for different reasons. Either it’s social isolation or else being stuck at home with the same people 24/7/365, or having a job that can’t be done remotely and being stressed out from having to risk exposure every day…

      Pretty much the only people who have perhaps benefited a bit are those who have been living in conditions approaching lockdown even before the pandemic. I’ve read blog posts by parents of immunosuppressed kids who’ve seen how other people have a deeper understanding of their situation, because they’re living the same way now.

  13. Glomarization, Esq.*

    I’ve been legit spending the past year working on a professional credential, so I can truthfully say that I put job-hunting aside while I devoted my energies to studying. But if I had to say something that would sound more impressive than “I watched a lot of Netflix, painted the bathroom, and tried some new facial masks,” I would straight up invent an accomplishment. Why? Because this is a terrible question and doesn’t deserve a completely truthful answer. If I had to make up something on the fly, I think I might say that I’d joined a Great Books reading club that meets once a month on Zoom, or that I was working my way through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, like in that movie

  14. Exhausted Frontline Worker*

    Ugh, yeah this isn’t great. There are SOME contexts where an interviewer asking these questions about handling the pandemic could make sense–like if you were previously in a director level position managing your team’s transition to work from home and are applying for another position of a similar level, or if you were somehow directly involved in pandemic response and are applying for another job in direct response. (I personally would love to talk in interviews about the COVID-related health education I spearheaded within my org in an interview, but I also understand that I’m more the exception than the rule!) But asking these questions of someone who has been laid off is pretty tone-deaf, although FWIW I think how you answered the question was perfect. Sorry this is happening, and I hope something comes through for you super soon!

  15. Librarian1*

    ARGH. This makes me so mad. I was unemployed for a while during the ’08 recession and this would have been awful THEN. It’s even worse now. Like, how much can you do during a pandemic? Also, jobs will come back when the pandemic is under control and people can gather together indoors again. What is WRONG with these interviewers?

    1. RC Rascal*

      People who have never been laid off can be remarkable tone deaf. They also, to the one, over estimate their own employ ability.

      I was laid off in 2009, along with a lot of other Americans. I was lucky in that I found professional part time work almost immediately but it took me 4 years and 1 month to get another full time job. In that time I made more than 500 networking contacts, was a finalist for 11 different jobs, all without an offer. I also volunteered a lot.

      By the end I was starting to field questions about whether or not I WANTED a full time job because hadn’t worked full time in four years. It was all I could do to stop myself from reaching across the table, shaking them, and screaming, “I’ve been working part time and volunteering for 4 years because no one will hire me!”

  16. Budgie Buddy*

    The petty part of me loves the suggestion of answering and using that to transition into “And how did your company go above and beyond to support employees?” to turn the spotlight back on them.

    Gahh so much sympathy for anyone dealing with weird optimizing questions like this during a job interview :/

  17. RB*

    I mean, would they be any happier if you said, “I’ve cleaned and reorganized my garage and basement twice, I’ve purged all my closets, and I’ve alphabetized my books?” Not sure what more they could expect from people… I would just start rattling off a list of all the books I’ve read that I’m sure they’ve never read.

    1. Maggie*

      I mean you totally could say something like “I’ve learned I thrive in a more organized home environment and took some of the non working time to do these 3 projects and here’s how they helped me”

  18. CurrentlyBill*

    It doesn’t feel like a terrible question to me.

    I mean, sure, we can’t expect everyone to have acquired new skills or been super productive during all *this*. It’s important to recognize that.

    At the same time, some people have been able to gain new experience, learn new skills, and otherwise extract some value from lock down/pandemic/protest time/etc.

    And if someone has been able to do that, isn’t that relevant to an employer? Especially if it is career related?

    If you had to choose between two candidates of roughly equal skill, would you be more likely to choose the candidate who managed to enhance their professional skills during 2020 than one who hadn’t?

    1. Ryn*

      But see I think that last question you pose is exactly why this interview question is a problem. You’d then be inadvertently screening out people who’ve been struggling with mental illness, people who’ve had to become full time caregivers for elderly parents, folks who’ve been traumatized by racial violence this year — just to name a few. I think it’s well and fine for a candidate to bring up growth or accomplishments over the past year, but to make it a question feels really ick to me.

      1. Lawyer*

        To be honest, though, that’s no different than in ordinary times – there are always people who become unemployed due to the need to be a family caregiver, due to mental or physical illness, etc. And ultimately, if I am an employer, my primary concern hiring someone who has been unemployed long-term is specifically going to be whether they are still career-ready. If I ask the question, they have the ability to answer it and resolve that concern.

        1. Student Affairs Sally*

          But in ordinary times, that’s going to be a relatively smaller number of people compared to now, when it’s probably going to be a majority of people to some extent or another. And I suppose if someone had been out of work for multiple years, your concern about them still being “career ready” would be valid. I highly doubt that OP’s skills have gotten THAT rusty in ~6 months.

      2. Maggie*

        I don’t see why saying you’ve been a caregiver is bad though. Just because its not 100% related to professional work doesn’t mean the employer will disregard you. Truthfully im 90% just watched TV and look at the internet in my free time, but I have done other things and I could share something I learned as well. its unlikely that the someone has done literally nothing but stare at the wall for 10 months. I could say I’ve learned about the importance of strong family bonds and share how my family has kept in touch via zoom and helping my grandparents with that. They just want to know someone relatively productive you’ve done

        1. Ryn*

          Oh I don’t think being a caregiver is bad at all! but there are absolutely people who do not think it’s valuable. there’s a reason it’s usually unpaid labor; society doesn’t value it.

          1. mediamaven*

            Caregiving is not unpaid unless you are providing care to a loved one by way of the relationship. It’s not that society doesn’t value it. It’s just not a job if it’s for a family member.

      3. Roquefort*

        Yes, and this is why I also feel this question is kind of ick even during non-pandemic times, at least if you’re going to expect a “productive” answer rather than Alison’s frequently-suggested “I was dealing with a health/personal/family problem that has now been resolved.”

    2. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

      I’d assume anything they had done that was relevant to the job would be in their cover letter or on their resume, so why ask the question? I don’t really care if they spent their time doing something that doesn’t relate to the position so a blank vs an answer that had nothing to do with the work at hand would make folks equal. I care more about what people did in their past jobs than anything they do in their own time in pandemic or non-pandemic times, since self-guided activities =\= activities done at work.

      1. Natalie*

        This really doesn’t track with how job interviews usually work. Just because someone is in the candidate’s application materials doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t ask about it. Plus I can see people thinking they shouldn’t draw attention to being unemployed.

        1. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

          In normal times, no. But in these times I’m well informed enough to understand that people who are unemployed are in a situation where normal expectations can be hard to meet and know enough about my industry to understand what is now a normal job search time vs normal times. If the unemployment started in 2019/January 2020 I would ask, but in 2020 to now I don’t need to ask

          1. Allonge*

            Except – people got fired for cause in 2020, just like in any other year. People were dismissed because they committed fraud, harrassed others, were incompetent, rude etc. I would argue it’s pretty careless to assume that everyone was laid off due to COVID.

            Asking what happened is not the same as blaming the person for getting laid off.

    3. Joielle*

      I don’t think it’s good to penalize someone who had to take on caregiving responsibilities or was dealing with physical or mental illness or something like that, but I also think it IS good to give people an opening to talk about any professional or personal development they may have done while unemployed. I’d rather an employer bring the person in for an interview and ask what they’ve been up to this year, rather than just tossing their resume because they haven’t been working. You just can’t penalize them if the answer is “family caregiving” or “dealing with health issues” or “getting really into a hobby” or something.

      I might acknowledge the situation right in the question, like… “Of course we’ve been in a pandemic so nobody’s doing anything too exciting, but in case there’s anything you wanted to highlight – what have you been up to since you were laid off?”

      1. Student Affairs Sally*

        I think the way you’ve phrased the question is a LOT better than the interviewers OP mentioned, and that some of the other commenters have voiced support for. I think a big part of the issue with the question is that the candidate has no way of knowing whether their answer will count against them, and so it feels like a trick question – if they answer honestly, they could lose the opportunity for not being sufficiently productive; if they lie or give a canned answer, they could lose the opportunity for lying or giving an answer that didn’t come across as genuine. So there seems to be no right answer. A lot of commenters have said that they wouldn’t hold the answer against the candidate, but how is the candidate supposed to know that? The way you’ve phrased the question signals that you understand that this has been an extremely atypical year and there’s a good chance the answer is “nothing productive”, and that’s okay. I still probably wouldn’t ask it myself, but I think it’s a lot better than just “so what have you been doing since you lost your job?”

        1. Anon Lawyer*

          I agree that’s better phrasing, but I think that you’re maybe getting at the disconnect we’re having here – no, you can’t guarantee that it’s a not a trick question but you can never guarantee that anything isn’t a trick question. I once knew an ahole who asked people the last book they read and then rejected them if it wasn’t intellectual enough. He was a jerk and I told him that, but at the end of the day, job hunting means you’ll run into some awful and irrational people. I think mentally, the best attitude to adopt (except in those rare cases where something is clearly discriminatory and you can lodge a complaint) is to assume people aren’t trying to trick you and maybe just aren’t particularly artful in how they ask things. You can’t do anything about people who are trying to trick you, at the end of the day.

      2. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

        I really like how you put this! It sets that you don’t expect someone to have done all the things, but opens the door for folks that have something they want to bring up

    4. nnn*

      I think the bit about the skills being new or gained during 2020 is a bit of a red herring.

      What’s relevant when you’re hiring is the candidate’s skills. Whether they gained these skills while laid off during a pandemic is not terribly relevant.

      Recency is less relevant when you haven’t used the skills in a professional context, which someone who’s been laid off wouldn’t have, so basically there’s nothing gained by focusing on the pandemic, but there is some potential for harm.

      1. mf*

        This is a really good point. There’s really no reason to ask about professional development or skills development with a candidate who’s been out of work. Anything they have learned while out of work is basically meaningless until they can apply it in a professional context.

  19. PollyQ*

    Here’s another reason this question is awful: A half millions Americans died of COVID in the past year (so far), which means that millions more are mourning the loss of friends and family. Asking those people to ruminate about what they’ve “learned about themselves” based on that experience is cruel. Leave those kinds of “inner self” questions out of job interviews, and just ask people about their professional experiences.

    1. HigherEdAdminista*

      I think this hits the nail on the head! Six of my colleagues have died. More people than I can count in my extended circle of family, friends, and colleagues have been ill or died. I haven’t seen my loved ones (outside of the iron clad bubble we made) in a year. I actually did learn a lot about myself personally during this time, but is something I am still thinking on and it is personal, not something I want to share.

      Aside from the difficulties of this time and the grief, I think this question is extra bad because it highlights something that the pandemic put a really bright spotlight on: the toxic culture of work. People who are working are working in person and putting themselves at risk of getting the virus or they are working from home and (in many cases) seen the demands on them skyrocket. People are doing virtual schooling, trying to coordinate grocery deliveries or strategic tips to the store. Now people are spending a ton of time online trying to secure vaccine appointments for themselves or their eligible loved ones. All while having lost community and leisure opportunities, in large part. And then here is this question that is asking you to reflect on your growth and productivity. It’s another reminder that it’s never enough. It doesn’t matter how hard people are working. It doesn’t matter what challenges there are to survive. It doesn’t matter about the lack of support from governments or communities. Just tell us what you learned! Tell us how you grew! With the implication that these be new skills or productive habits –don’t tell us if you have been crying all day or that you are struggling. Tell us that no matter what terrible conditions you are living under, you don’t stop and rest or pause… you must always be going somewhere.

      Elsewhere in the thread it was said by another commenter that you can always lie, and I think people are just tired of it. Yes, we know the “right” answers that people want to hear, but those answers are only right under a values system that really needs changing.

      1. Divine Ms. M*

        Thank you so much for this. You’re right that our values system could use a reset. So many of our collective problems are a result of systemic greed or neglect. Will we be more fair and kinder at the end of 2021? I hope I will be.

        I think all of you guys are brilliant. Thank you for making me feel normal again.

      2. mf*

        “It’s another reminder that it’s never enough. It doesn’t matter how hard people are working. It doesn’t matter what challenges there are to survive. It doesn’t matter about the lack of support from governments or communities. Just tell us what you learned! Tell us how you grew! With the implication that these be new skills or productive habits –don’t tell us if you have been crying all day or that you are struggling. Tell us that no matter what terrible conditions you are living under, you don’t stop and rest or pause… you must always be going somewhere.”

        YES. Thank you for this. You’ve nailed exactly what bothers me about this question. Our work culture, especially in the US, enforces this idea that you must always give more to your employer. You must always be bettering yourself, and if you can’t do that, it’s your fault for not being resilient enough, nevermind the external conditions that impacting your life. It’s really toxic and blame-y and greed-driven.

    2. Code Monkey, the SQL*

      This is very salien

      “How have you been using your time between jobs/what did we learn this past year” is, on the surface, a boilerplate question. But so, so many things have gone absolutely nards-up this past year that for every: “I worked on a professional certification course and taught my son to drive stick shift” there’s going to be at least one “I orchestrated a Zoom funeral (possibly more than once) and narrowly avoided a nervous breakdown,” or worse.

      1. Fabulous*

        I pre-emptively apologize for my comment due to the nature of this thread, but… your use of “NARDS-UP” made me laugh so hard, LOL.

    3. fhqwhgads*

      Yeah my knee-jerk reaction to why this is a shitty question in this context is, what about the people whose true answers would be:
      Got laid off
      2 weeks later was pretty sure had COVID but couldn’t get a test because didn’t need hospitalization
      Then did need hospitalization, so confirmed it
      Felt like shit for 8 weeks
      Went to Zoom funeral
      Went to a different Zoom funeral
      Trifecta Zoom funeral
      Applied for jobs

      And that’s pretty much it.

      Obviously, that’s not really an answer anyone would want to give in an interview. But also, that’s not exactly a unicorn of a bad year if we’re talking 2020. That’s potentially a very common answer. It’s like if you ask someone in October 2005 why they’re choosing to relocate from NOLA….expect tragedies in answers. Like, read a room.

  20. Des*

    This strikes me as a very normal question I’d be expected to be asked on an interview after about 2-3 months of unemployment. What they’re looking for is likely some sort of self-improvement work in the area you are looking for a job. E.g. if you are in tech, you’d be taking some kind of new online technology courses to keep your skills updated. My attitude towards this question is likely coloured by how fast-paced my industry is, where being unemployed and not upgrading your skills would set you back significantly behind other candidates.

    I sincerely doubt they’re asking about your hobbies or your mental health. They are asking how you’ve kept your skills relevant while not being able to work.

    1. Skippy*

      If it’s important to you then specifically ask them how they’ve kept their skills relevant. General questions about how you spent your time when you were off work may not get at what you want to know.

    2. TechWriter*

      Sure, in a normal year, you might have time for that stuff when unemployed. The point is this is not a very normal situation. When you’re struggling to just keep your head above water due to the entire world being on fire and applying to jobs like it’s a full time job on top of that… You just don’t have the time to keep your skills updated. The employer isn’t going to get the same answers they would in a normal year, and I don’t think they should be penalizing candidates for that. It seems insensitive to ask in the current circumstances.

      1. Des*

        I think my perspective is also skewed due to not living in the US, so while we’ve been locked down, it hasn’t been the case of “the world is on fire” and so questions like this perhaps ring differently?

    3. DANGER: Gumption Ahead*

      It would be a normal question in normal times. These times are not normal. Many people are severely restricted on what they can do thanks to care taking for friends/family/neighbors, covering schooling for kids, own health concerns, funeral planning, etc. and many are unemployed because their entire industry is basically laid off.

    4. PollyQ*

      I don’t see how “What have you learned about yourself in this time?” can be interpreted as anything other than a personal question, if not directly about mental health, then at least about “inner growth.” I think it’d be an odd, intrusive, irrelevant question for any interviewer to ask an applicant, COVID/2020 weirdness or no.

      1. Des*

        My default when faced with “oddly phrased” questions is generally to answer the question the employer was “probably trying to ask”. I can’t imagine an employer inquiring about mental wellbeing in an interview, thus I relate this question to the typical interview questions that have been asked of me in the past (aka about professional development outside of the normal working hours/school). I agree that it’s oddly phrased and that if the interview did truly mean to make small-talk about the challenges of the pandemic, they could have done it without putting the candidate on the spot and discussed how their company has handled it instead.

  21. CatPerson*

    I think that “I’ve been applying to hundreds and hundreds of jobs, interviewing like mad, and have made it to the reference check stage of four interviews.” proves that you’ve been working full-time since you’ve been laid off! Job hunting in a recession is hard work, requires perseverance, and is exhausting. Good luck.

  22. grieving*

    to date I have lost 16 people this year. 11 from covid. I would react badly to the “so, what have you been doing with yourself?” question.

    1. Ro*

      I’m so sorry.

      These situations are exactly why interviewers need to think carefully about what they are asking, they have no idea what someone has gone through. I would advocate bluntly telling them that so they learn their lesson. How they react will tell you whether they are a decent employer who made an error or judgement or whether they are jerks.

      However, I am saying this from the privelaged position of someone who is not grieving and not looking for a job and you are in no way obligated to use your pain to make a point and I hope you are in a position where you don’t need to worry about this.

      Take care of yourself.

  23. Appalled Applicant*

    Yes!!! I have been applying for new roles recently and a few applications have said things like “what do you do in your downtime?” “What do you do for fun?” “What’s the funniest thing you’ve done in the last week?” – crying in the shower is probably my answer to all of them! It all seems so tone deaf. And as a candidate, how am I getting graded on these answers? If I say doing hobbies at home, am I boring? If I say going out and doing things, am I labeled as morally irresponsible? It’s so frustrating.

    1. Daisy-dog*

      I doubt you’re getting graded on these answers. It’s just a way to envision you as a person and not just a resume. Whatever you say as long as it’s not binge drinking or using illegal drugs is fine. There might be a few exceptions – if hiring for an engineer role and expecting engineer-like hobbies – but those managers are probably rare.

      And you can still say hobbies that you can’t do during the pandemic unless they are expressly asking for a recent activity.

      1. Appalled Applicant*

        Oops, I meant to reply to the top-level, not this comment specifically – but yes, generally I’ve been saying something like “when safe to do so, I enjoy…”

      2. Something Something Whomp Whomp*

        But what if I want to be a resume and not a whole person? I mean, all I owe my employer and colleagues is being good at my job and personable. Beyond that, why does the rest of me matter? Why should it be any of their business?

        I don’t do fun because I’m tired and sad, but I can keep my tiredness and sadness at bay just enough to be a good employee. Once I do that there’s not much left for anything else. But why exactly should my employer have an opportunity to judge me on that?

        1. allathian*

          Yeah, this. I’m a fairly private person and I definitely despise the “bring your whole self to work” concept. There’s no way I want to do that. I’m at work to do a job that my employer thinks needs to be done and to be paid for my efforts and performance. Sure, I appreciate it very much that my employer realizes that people aren’t cogs in a machine and doesn’t expect everyone to put the job at the top of their priority list all the time, and our organizational culture genuinely reflects that, but that doesn’t mean that my employer is entitled to anything other than an expectation of a reasonable, agreed upon performance and a reasonably positive, professional attitude to the job and our coworkers.

          1. Roci*

            But “employees who feel they can’t bring their whole selves to work are 37% more likely to leave within 3 years”! Can always bring it back around to money and benefits to the business. /s

          2. sb51*

            Yeah, that was my instant reaction to the “bring your whole self” idea, but then I had it pointed out to me that part of it is really means “understand that marginalized people can’t avoid prejudice at work” — Black employees bring their Blackness to work whether or not they “want” to, because we live in a racist society. Etc. Being able to leave home at home implies a certain amount of privilege.

    2. Des*

      I really don’t think you’re being graded. It’s likely more of a case of “get to know you” and trying to gauge what working with you will be like.

  24. Daisy-dog*

    I’m so grateful that I was only out of work for 3 weeks last April (besides the obvious reasons) because I never had to answer this question. I literally don’t remember what I did in those 3 weeks. And not because it’s been almost a year – I couldn’t remember in May. I think my brain was just too busy processing what a global pandemic means to actually make memories. And that was before the floodgates opened with everything else. If I did have to answer this question, I would probably be vaguely honest – I’ve been applying for jobs and trying to find my next step.

    1. allathian*

      Yeah, a three-week break is nothing to worry over. I’ve had such breaks when I was temping and temporarily between projects.

  25. Lies, damn lies and...*

    I think of this from a what would I have done if it’s been a year and I was without a job and honesty, it would be I was the primary caregiver for my children. So… this question bugs me because it could also elicit those kinds of answers and then have the interviewer turn you down because ew, children.

    Obviously, one can spin something, but it does have a feeling of being out of touch with hello pandemic!

    1. Massive Dynamic*

      This – there are just SO many answers one could give that aren’t things that an employer can/should (legally, sometimes) factor into whether or not you’ll be a good employee for them: child caregiver, other family member caregiver, mourning a death, long-haul Covid survivor suffering from symptoms, dealing with depression or anxiety, dealing with bankruptcy from lost income, etc. etc. I get that employers like to see the *~*~*~hustle~*~*~* but dude, not this year.

    2. mf*

      Yep, this is another good point. This question, when answered honestly, could really disadvantage women who are primary caregivers.

  26. Roquefort*

    I have to wonder if these interviewers are just oblivious to the way this question comes off for some candidates. I’m sure there are interviewers out there who would ask “what have you been doing while unemployed?” because they think people who don’t work while unemployed during a pandemic must be lazy, but it’s also a possibility that they’re just asking the same questions they would in “normal” times and don’t understand that it might read differently under the circumstances.

  27. Lawyer*

    “What have you learned about yourself?” is a terrible question but I suspect they actually asked that in a misguided attempt to find an alternative to asking what the candidate has been doing in the last year. O

    I don’t personally have a strong reaction to asking people who have been unemployed during the last year how they’ve spent the time. Yes, it’s been a generationally awful year. But nonetheless, it’s still valid for a prospective employer to want to know how a candidate has spent the time – what have you done to keep skills fresh, maintain your network, etc. I’d be perfectly happy as an interviewer with the answer the OP is giving. I’d also be perfectly happy if someone answered that they spent the time job searching and otherwise trying to make it through the pandemic. Or that they had spent the year supervising remote school, or caring for ill relatives, or volunteering for get out the vote campaigns. The ability to answer the question is almost more important to me than the substance of what the answer is.

    It seems much weirder to me *not* to ask what someone’s been doing since leaving their last job, tbh.

  28. Qwerty*

    What would be an appropriate question to ask which would give the candidate a chance to talk about things they learned or were able to do to keep their skills from getting too stale (if applicable) BUT without pressuring someone who got stuck in the pandemic? I’m also completely ok with someone’s skills becoming rusty over the past year and taking that into consideration, I just need to know how rusty (so I can plan on the additional ramp up time and weigh if the role has flexibility for that)

  29. Neil*

    I don’t like this question at all! My response to the question would be “Do you want a stupid answer or an honest answer?” My honest response to a question like that would be: “My temporary help contract ended abruptly and, due to the nature of the work I was required to do, could not work from home. My mother was seriously ill so I assisted my father in taking care of her but she ultimately ended up in the hospital where she died. Since then, I’ve been helping my father with estate-related duties. I’ve also been doing a lot of reading, participating in choral activities through Zoom, working on my family tree and basically taking care of my mental and physical health. Although I’ve had job opportunities present to me, I’ve turned them down due to uncertainty related to how I would be provided from the COVID-19 virus.” I do data entry work and there is no way to improve my skills without doing it!

    1. Phoenix from the ashes*

      If it’s any help, your answer would be a lot stronger for me than any line about skills development. It shows honesty, integrity, self awareness and resilience and that’s the kind of person I’d want on my team. But it’s a brutal question to ask at interview.

      I’m very sorry for your loss.

    2. theletter*

      I would hire you just on your ability to participate in choral activities through Zoom. Have you figured out how to sing in a choir over zoom? My choir has given up and turned into a “cold read Shakespeare’s plays” club.

  30. Just Another HR Pro*

    Consulting? Yeah – like those opportunities are just flooding the market right now and not competitive AT ALL.


  31. Wer rastet, der rostet*

    This is usually a normal question to ask. Although I also agree that given the pandemic, these are not normal times.
    That being said, they are asking because the a) want to see if your skills are still relevant, b) to get a general sense of your personal motivation and ability to move forward after a setback like a layoff, and c) because sometimes people really do have something to add that is relevant and might relate to the job they’re interviewing for but didn’t otherwise mention.

    It’s bad thing to ask because those who become unemployed (especially right now because of the pandemic) often have no money to do things that would improve their skills, such as classes, training, or even volunteering because the pandemic has made some things dangerous.

    To be honest though, I get on my husband’s case about this all the time. He’s been unemployed since August because of the pandemic. He has literally done NOTHING to improve his changes of getting a job or improving his skills, because basically he likes to sit around watching television and sleeping all day, interspersed with trips to the pub 2-3 times a week. And believe me, he does not have pandemic stress or legitimate reasons because I am working and his needs like food and shelter are covered. Nor has he been sick with Covid or caring for others during this time. It’s just laziness and wanting to suck unemployment for as long as he possibly can before he’s forced to go back to work again. It drives me nuts, but that’s how he is.

    1. Teensy*

      I don’t know your marriage or your situation, but speaking as someone whose depression manifests in exactly those ways, he may be struggling more than you realize.

      1. Calogero*

        I’d be worried about his physical health, too. “Sleeping all day” is not something that people in good health can usually accomplish, and fatigue can sometimes be the only obvious symptom that something is wrong.

      2. Name (Required)*

        I agree, I am not a lazy person traditionally, but was that person during unemployment. My mental health was shot.

        Your husband might need less judgment and more support.

        1. Allonge*

          I would say that working full time in a pandemic and keeping a roof over their heads is plenty of support. Can we not do the ‘it’s your job to solve you husband’s maybe-depression’ thing?

          1. EchoGirl*

            No one’s saying it’s this person’s job to solve their husband’s problems. I think support in this case just means “consider that he may have actual problems and stop being so judgmental”. Because I guarantee that this person’s husband is fully aware of how his spouse thinks of him, and if he IS actually having mental health issues, the judgment from one of the people he (presumably) loves most in the world is just going to make it worse. Sometimes support is as simple as saying “I believe you and I acknowledge your experience and feelings as valid.”

    2. Librarian of SHIELD*

      You say you know for certain he’s not suffering from “pandemic stress” because your work covers the cost of his food and shelter, but pandemic stress actually encompasses a whole lot more than just “will we cover all the bills this month?” The world is upside down and not normal and that’s causing a whole lot of psychological weirdness for a whole lot of people. It’s possible that you’re right and your husband is just bumbling around the world happy that he doesn’t have to go to work. You’re the one who’s spent the time in this marriage, so you’ve got experience here that the rest of us don’t, and I’m not dismissing your reaction out of hand. But it’s also possible that he’s experiencing some emotions relating to the current state of the world that you may not know about.

    3. Keymaster of Gozer*

      Depression can manifest like that sometimes (speaking from experience !) and berating is actually counterproductive in those situations. Maybe a trip to the doctor who could help get your husband mind back in action?

    4. Des*

      Normally I’d say that being unemployed is more stressful than being gainfully employed and that it sounds like your husband is under more stress than you are due to that. However, if he’s going to the pub 2-3 times a week during a pandemic…. sorry my sympathy just vanished.

  32. Annie*

    What I have actually learned about myself in the past year is that I loathe working desk-bound office jobs and wish I could be a gardener or a barista or a cabinetmaker or something. But since I have no actual qualifications for any of those things and unemployment is running out, back to the beige fluorescent soulless hellscape I go.

  33. Skippy*

    I hate this question even in non-pandemic times, as it sets up the expectation that workers must be productive at all times, even if they aren’t employed for whatever reason, and feeds into the idea that people are unemployed because they are deficient in some way. If someone is the best candidate for a job, who cares how they spent their time while they were laid off? More than likely they were spending a good chunk of their time looking for jobs and trying to figure out how to manage their expenses.

    I’ve only been asked that question once during this job search, and I gave a similarly vague answer: I’ve been working on some projects, doing some writing, reconnecting with colleagues, etc. That seemed to satisfy them, but I also work in a field that’s been devastated by the pandemic, so I think most hiring managers understand that when everything is shut down in our industry that there’s really not a lot you can do.

  34. Philly Redhead*

    “What have you learned about yourself in this time?”
    I’ve learned that I needed to increase my dose of anti-depressants thanks to:
    — the stress related to trying to avoid contracting the novel virus that is more likely to kill me than others
    — the stress about the stability of my job, seeing as our largest client base is small businesses, which have been impacted at a greater rate than larger businesses
    — the stress of maintaining good relationships with the people also stuck inside our home 24/7, including a husband who hates taking his own anti-depressants, and a child with ADHD, who we’re still trying to find the right medication/dosage to manage his out-of-control impulsivity.

    So, no, I haven’t exactly had the emotional capacity to learn a new language, take a webinar on new trends in design, or learn coding.

    So, do I get the job?

  35. anony32839*

    Stay you have been keeping up with your skills, ie classes on Coursera, getting certifications like Lean, reading books that will improve your technical skills , etc.

  36. Alexis*

    So, I was laid off in March and in a similar situation with you. Like you, I didn’t have the energy to write a novel and launch a consulting business while applying to literally hundreds of jobs and trying to survive a pandemic. I just landed a temporary (through June) job last week – not ideal, but better than nothing. Here’s what I did to address the “So what have you been doing?” interview questions — I signed up for some really low effort / low intensity courses online, and did just enough of the courses so that I could tell interviewers that’s what I had been working on. For example, I signed up for a course on Salesforce and completed 3 modules, which took me a total of 2 hours. Then, I felt like I could tell employers that I had started on this course, and it wasn’t a lie. I also started tutoring a few hours a week for an online ESL company, and listed that as a job on my resume, so it filled the gap.

  37. Firecat*

    This is a very annoying question. I remember being peeved by it during 2011 too when many in my generation were unemployed with crushingly fresh student debt.

    It comes across as – we expect you to have a better answer then “living” to account for all of your “free” time.

    Can this go on the garbage heap with “if you didn’t come out of 2020 with a hobby/a degree/side hustle you never lacked opportunity just drive!!!!” type attitudes?

  38. Keymaster of Gozer*

    What have I learnt during the year I spent unemployed and in a pandemic?

    What a psychiatric ward looks like.

  39. IrishEm*

    I am a sarcastic person and if I got asked that in an interview I’d probably come out with “I don’t know if you heard, but there was a pandemic… Idk man it was in all the papers. That p much took up all my time.” And then I’d assume they were the Karens and Chads of the pandemic who assumed that public health mandates didn’t apply to them and NEVER WORK FOR THEM.

  40. Requisite Recruiter*

    Part of an interview is getting to know the candidate on a more personal level, ascertain how they deal with stress, general attitudes, etc. As a recruiter, I wouldn’t ask this question, because it is pretty tone deaf, but I don’t think it’s as egregious and some people are making it out. We’ve ALL experienced the pandemic, and hiring managers/hr/recruiters have also experienced the stress, job loss, furloughs, etc.

    IF I asked the question (and again, I haven’t and wouldn’t), it could be because either there was some sort of red flag that I was trying to suss out, or it fell out as a poorly worded inquiry. However, if anyone responded with any of the snarky comments mentioned above, or inability to discuss the past year/difficult times, that WOULD be a red flag to me…

    1. Student Affairs Sally*

      “This question is tone deaf, but I would hold it against a candidate if they didn’t feel comfortable answering it” is a really confusing position to hold, to me. Either the question is fair game and candidates should be held to a certain standard in their response, or it isn’t fair game. I agree that candidates should respond professionally/not snarkily to any interview question, but some questions just should not be on the table this year – this being one of them.

    2. FridayFriyay*

      It probably should be obvious to people that while we have all “experienced the pandemic” we have not all experienced it in the same ways, with the same intensity, or with the same outcomes. But based on some of these comments I guess that does need to be said.

      1. Nicole*

        Seriously. I’ve experienced the pandemic. It’s sucked. I miss my family outside of my household. I miss socializing. I miss shopping without a mask. But I’ve had no change in income or overall circumstances, and for that, I am incredibly fortunate.

  41. Exhausted Trope*

    OP, I can’t even with that line of questioning! After the dumpster fire that was 2020, they have a heck of a nerve asking what you’ve been doing. Trying to stay healthy? Keeping myself and my family intact long enough to find work? Geez.
    Sorry you had to be treated that way. Good thoughts coming your way.

  42. staceyizme*

    I don’t know if you would be comfortable doing this, but this seems like the perfect opening for mad, MAD humble-bragging! I’d pile on the adjectives, epiphanies and experiential gains. Maybe it would help to quantify things? Rehearse the answer and offer it up in accordance with the pacing of the interview and their interest. (Yes, their question is tone deaf to my mind, too. But, as long as they asked, hit them with your best 3 recipes, top 3 anecdotes from your work with children (Nannies “work with children” don’t-cha know, when they have to translate for other jobs and they feel it’s beneficial. Also, the parent-bosses are your clients. If you’re not averse to upping your vocabulary game a touch in that regard.) Albeit a tone deaf inquiry, it sounds like they might be fishing for evidence of an enterprising spirit that’s emotionally intelligent and not depressed/ drugging/ done in entirely by the events of Covid and its impacts.

  43. sally*

    I’m not surprised they’re asking these questions – this nonsense was common during and after the 2008 recession, too. What grinds my gears about it is that…if I go to an employer and say that I took a course on LinkedIn about Tableau, for example, that would not qualify me to be a data analyst. It would not even qualify me to be an intern for a data analytics team. It would not qualify me for anything! The prevailing attitude is, “your little course is nice and all, but it’s nothing, absolutely nothing, compared to the gold standard of actual work experience in this domain. And in fact, we think you demonstrate a lot of unearned hubris for thinking a self-study online course should matter to us.”

    But when there is a gap to discuss, suddenly you’re insufficiently productive if you are not filling your hours with these kinds of courses! Employers themselves don’t really think these courses count for anything or qualify you for anything or actually improve your skills in any way that would make you more hirable, but you best be stepping to them when you need to demonstrate that you’re a good little worker bee who spends the maximum number of hours per day in productive pursuits. The double dealing here is pretty gross.

    I guess I’m just saying that I’d be completely down with the “they just want to see you’re keeping your skills sharp/developed” excuse if employers accepted this kind of skill development as valid/useful/desirable in absolutely any other context.

    1. nep*

      Good points.
      I would love to take an editing certificate course I’ve been eyeing, but I don’t have the $$.

    2. Rectilinear Propagation*

      I guess I’m just saying that I’d be completely down with the “they just want to see you’re keeping your skills sharp/developed” excuse if employers accepted this kind of skill development as valid/useful/desirable in absolutely any other context.

      Holy crap, YES!
      I’d love to make someone justify the contradiction.

  44. learnedthehardway*

    Honestly, a question that tone-deaf is just an invitation for the candidate to make something up. I suppose that’s a good thing, if you’re looking for someone who will be the corporate spinmaster.

    Or it invites an honest answer like this one: “Oh, I fulfilled my lifelong dream of being unemployed for a prolonged period, worrying about whether I’d lose my house, worrying about whether my elderly parents would die needlessly, and trying to keep my kids engaged in online school, while doing a full-time job search in a dead economy. I’ve learned that shit happens, and all you can do is roll with it.”

  45. RJ*

    OP, I’m in your same situation and can completely relate. I’ve encountered this question at various stages of the interview process with a few companies. Even thought I’ve been able to do a good amount of professional development since being laid off right before quarantine, no matter how much I do it never seems to be enough. It’s a trap of a question where you seem to either welcome change and the personal transitions this brings about, or stand out for being reluctant or unaccepting of change. Employers who present this question don’t seem to take into account that this isn’t a voluntary break or change you’ve willingly taken on – it’s a global pandemic that has changed the work-life dynamic forever.

  46. Who Plays Backgammon?*

    Sometimes it’s amazing how short interviewers’ memories can be. I lost my job at the beginning of the great recession and was unemployed for over a year except for a couple of temp jobs that lasted a couple of months each. Since then I’ve gotten some pretty obtuse questions from interviewers about the “gap” on my resume.

  47. Fried Eggs*

    I was unemployed March-September. Here’s the answer to “What have you been doing since March?” that worked for me:

    Mostly focusing on the job search. It’s definitely an, um… “interesting” job market right now. But I still want to be conscious about finding something I know I’ll be happy doing long-term. For me that means [insert things that are a core part of the job you’re applying to].

    Good luck, OP. It’s rough out there and doing the best you can is more than good enough.

    1. mf*

      I like this a lot. It shows you’re being thought about your job search and it allows you to pivot the conversation away from a bad interview question and towards a better topic: why you’re qualified for this job.

    2. Aspiring Chicken Lady*

      What I like about this answer is that it checks the box for the question and moves the heck on.

      Odds are, the interviewer was not looking for an entire mini-series about your day to day experience of the pandemic, but was giving you a place to say something about what’s going on for you right now … which is, quite frankly, this particular job interview. So, like in any interview, you aim your answers at what do you do well and how will it fit at this company.

  48. nep*

    it’s a crap question right now
    Shout it from the rooftops. Are you listening, employers?
    (Love the idea of asking the employer how they’ve adjusted and how they’ve been helping workers who are struggling.)

  49. agnes*

    In my own company, people honestly do not understand how fortunate we have been to avoid layoffs and how that just isn’t the norm for most companies in our industry sector. (Our executive team has done a great job managing our budget to keep people on–yes, some bosses have a heart!)

    Even our upper level managers think that the economy hasn’t been hit that bad, because they live in a bubble and just aren’t paying attention. They are still asking me ” can you find out why this person has been unemployed for the past year? ” and I am going–“You do realize that millions of people lost their jobs during this pandemic, through no fault of their own, right?”

    That may be what’s going on here. At any rate, feelings aside, you seem to be answering the question pretty well. I know it feels icky, but chalk it up to ignorance and not to anything snarky or sinister.

    1. nep*

      Interesting insight.
      But I gather from the original letter that the employers in question are well aware of the unemployment; the issue seems to be the tone-deafness of ‘Tell me what great initiatives you’ve taken and the outstanding things you’ve accomplished during this deadly pandemic.’

  50. nep*

    Along these lines, I was doing Shipt shops as a side hustle before the pandemic (when I had a very part-time job and was looking for more stable employment). In the past week or two I’ve taken my first shops since mid-March 2020 as a way to earn a few bucks, but I don’t think I’d mention this in a job interview…I guess it depends on the type of job.

    1. OP*

      Yeah, I’ve wavered on mentioning that I’ve been nannying for a few months. It just seems like…a lot of these higher-ups don’t understand that not everyone has money? Or like, I don’t have a spouse to cover my portion of the rent while I’m not earning an income. I need immediate money, not maybe-I’ll-find-a-month’s-consulting-work money.

  51. johnsnowspumphandle*

    I wonder if starting some online courses or MOOCs could give you an answer that would be truthful and relevant. I’ve started online courses in accounting or coding or teapot design.

    1. nep*

      I wonder to what extent these would be considered strong points in one’s favor. I guess it depends on the job, course, and employer.

  52. laowai-gaijin*

    I found “I’ve been working on some personal projects” to be a suitable answer to pandemic questions. It’s vague, and it sounds good, and if they ask, you can tell them it’s personal.

  53. Nicole*

    Wow. I’m really disappointed to hear that this is a thing. I can’t imagine a more completely oblivious and tone-deaf question.

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