Getting a new job is hard, a resume with red flags can make it even harder for one to get a decent job. Red flags include employment gaps, short stints with multiple employers, or an unplanned departure. So what does it take to win over an interviewer if you get such red flags in your career?
Ultimately, overcoming these red flags comes down to developing and controlling your own narrative. Red flags can – with good reasons – call into question a candidate’s commitment, performance, and reliability. But by unapologetically owning your decisions and planning out concise, forthright talking points, you can proactively address these concerns and make the best possible impression on your interviewer.
The following are some common red flags and strategies to overcome them.
One of the most common resume red flags is an unexplained lengthy employment gap between previous roles. These gaps can sometimes lead hiring managers to assume that you have struggled to land jobs in the past, potentially indicating poor performance or some other shortcomings.
Of course, while an interviewer may assume the worst, there are in fact a number of perfectly valid reasons for a gap in employment. Interruptions in job history run the gamut from taking time off to care for yourself or a family member (including parental leaves), to education or reskilling, long-term unemployment due to a recession or other external factors, or a shift to consulting or contractor role.
There are 2 ways to approach these gaps. First, if you’re not yet back on the job market, think about ways to fill your time with some sort of professionally relevant activity that you can later fit into a consistent narrative. For example, if your primary reason to take time off was to care for a family member, that doesn’t mean you can’t also complete a short online workshop or attend a weekly class at your local adult education center.
Of course, in some cases, it may be difficult to take on additional side projects. In these situations, keep in mind the meaningful way you’ve spent time between roles, and make sure you’re able to clearly articulate them. You may not have joined a formal program or pursued a degree, but did you volunteer? Take a class? Pursue a personal project? Find ways to demonstrate how whatever you spent your time doing does in fact reflect your strong candidacy.
For example, you can use the following as a good explanation for any employment gaps, “since my last full-time role, I’ve had the opportunity to focus on developing my strategic acumen in a few different ways: I completed a Master’s level course on business strategy, and I also consulted with two early-stage companies on their strategic planning processes. Those experiences would be particularly valuable in the Finance role we’re discussing, where I’d play a major role in the planning and execution of the company’s strategy, including the establishment of financial metrics and dashboards to provide visibility on progress against strategic objectives.”
Having multiple jobs over a short period of time is considered another flag for many interviewers. This can raise a couple of concerns with interviewers: Will this candidate struggle to sustain a commitment to a single role or organization? Does this candidate have chronic performance issues? Either of these can make an employer wary about taking a chance on you, regardless of your qualifications. Especially for roles in which it can take 6 months or longer for an employee to fully ramp up in their new role, the employer may worry they’ll be short-changed if you end up leaving after a brief tenure.
Given these considerations, there are a few key strategies you can use to preempt your interviewer’s concerns if you’ve hopped between multiple positions:
- Emphasize how the experience of working alongside different leadership staples has accelerated your learning and professional growth.
- Focus on your accomplishments in each role rather than your time in the role.
- Highlight how the experience you gained by working across industries and exposure you acquired to best practices in different types of organizations increased your breadth of knowledge and competence.
One good example you can refer to is “I’ve recently moved around more than I would’ve liked – but an upside of that are the outcomes I’ve been able to drive with multiple organizations in a short period. I was able to implement sales frameworks, training programs, and incentive compensation models in 2 different organizations and industries, which resulted in revenue growth of 8% and 11%, respectively – all in just a few months.”
Finally, another potential landmine in the job search process is unplanned or involuntary departures. Most hiring teams generally prefer candidates who are currently employed, and will likely assume that a strong candidate wouldn’t leave their previous role without a new position lined up. Given this, if a prospective employer sees from your resume that you’ve recently left a role, they will likely ask you about the circumstances surrounding your departure. Whether you resigned, were laid off, or fired, there are a few key considerations to keep in mind when thinking about how you’ll explain the situations:
- While you may still harbor bitter feelings, leave blame at the door when you step into an interview with a new organization. Instead of focusing on the problems with your last position, do the difficult work of finding the positive aspects of your experience with your former employer: What did you learn? What relationships did you build? What goals did you accomplish?
- Reflect on the environments in which you thrive – i.e., a high-growth company, a focus on innovation, a faster pace. Articulate these needs to your prospective employer, and they will read between the lines that the prior organization did not support you in these ways.
- If you were fired, address it head on. Prepare a concise response to explain why you left – i.e., the company/environment/role was not the right fit, there was a change in leadership or direction that changed expectations/dynamics, etc.
- Emphasized the lessons you learned from your time in the role and how they’ve contributed to your professional development.
See the following for a good reference, “I had intended to be with my former employer for many more years. I was hired to lead several key people initiatives, and during my time there, I made substantial progress toward those objectives. However, the CEO decided he wanted to change our approach and reduce funding mid-stream, but still expected to reach our original objectives. This represented a fundamental shift – one with which I disagreed – and I shared my concerns with the CEO on several occasions. I want to emphasize that I’m on board with shits in strategy where necessary, and I view flexibility as one of my strengths. This particular shift, however, was not supported by my team’s research and data, and I believed there was no way the new approach could be successful. I continue to wish the team well, but I just couldn’t sign on for a direction that I didn’t believe would ultimately drive results. And the CEO was not willing to consider that point of view, so we agreed to part ways.”
With the 3 red flags and the corresponding coping strategies introduced, I want to conclude that all red flags can be mitigated, or even turned to your favor, if backed with a good reason and explained with confidence.