Job Talk: How do I explain my work hiatus?
Dear J.T. & Dale: After receiving my bachelor's degree in 2010, I took some time for myself after being in school consistently since preschool. I lived off savings, except for a brief holiday job. Now that another year has gone by without working and I'm starting my job search, how do I address this time off? Is there a better way to word "took time for myself"? — Lauren
DALE: It's not the worst answer. That would be, "I was serving time for the attempted ax murder of my management team," or maybe "Aliens held me in their spaceship for testing."
J.T.: Pay no attention to Dale, Lauren. I can appreciate your desire to take some time off.
DALE: Yes, yes, me too. But I have a serious point to make: You need to assess each alternative explanation against the WPI, the Worst Possible Interpretation. Employers are skeptical of any problem with employment history, and tend to assume the worst. Sure, you'll meet some cheery brightsiders who will think, "That's great that you took some time — I wish I'd done that at your age." It could happen. But consider the WPI: You say, "I took time for myself after being in school," and the interviewer likely will be thinking that college is the best time of life and is a whole lot easier than working full-time, so your answer will be translated as: "I found the pace of college life exhausting; I sure hope you don't expect me to work that hard here."
J.T.: We get your point. Which brings us to what you say instead. As with any hole in your resume's timeline, your goal is to find a way to make the case that it prepared you to be a better worker. In this case, did the time off allow you to ...
A. Get clear on what your strengths are?
B. Identify a career path that you want to pursue for the long term?
C. Realize that there is a problem you are passionate about solving?
If so, these are ways you convince employers that you are ready to go full-time with gusto. It's the reasons we want to work that go beyond the paycheck and benefits that get the attention and respect of employers.
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Dear J.T. & Dale: You recently pointed out that "the person you interview is never the person you hire." Quite right. Job-seekers of course put their best foot forward. This is why many employers automatically discount half of what the job-seeker says. A personal note here: I was always afraid of being caught in a lie, so I was always 100 percent truthful in my replies in job interviews. I had the suspicion that this handicapped me, because if you discounted half of what I'd said, I'd look like a pretty poor prospect compared with the other applicants who exaggerated their qualifications. What do you think: Was I penalized for being truthful? Is a job interview a no-win situation, where you can be penal ized for lying and for being truthful? — Tony
DALE: That comes from an old friend of mine and of this column, Tony Lesce, of Albuquerque, NM. And they're great questions, suggesting that the job goes to the person who can be most convincingly boastful.
J.T.: But that person rarely comes across well. The solution is to talk about accomplishments, giving examples — as the old line puts it, "If you've done it, it ain't braggin.'"
DALE: But me-me-me examples wear thin. Ideal candidates ask as many questions as they answer. That's how candidates demonstrate one critical job skill: curiosity. Companies want to hire learners, people who can evolve and grow, and every manager wants to hire people who are interested in the manager's opinions and knowledge.
J.T.: In other words, you don't impress someone by trying to be impressive; you trade ideas and experiences, and you ask questions. Still, you can't be afraid to bring up your best traits. While no one wants to hire an egomaniac, no one wants to hire a wallflower, either. If you can't bring yourself to compliment yourself, you can blush, then quote former bosses or co-workers.
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