But despite these positive signs, millions of people remain unemployed — and many may be concerned about how to answer questions about their unemployment, career experts say.
COVID-19 Unemployment Gaps
“The silver lining of Covid-19 is that many prospective employers are more open minded and less dismissive of employment gaps,” says Dawid Wiacek, career coach and founder of Career Fixer. Even so, “many of my coaching clients come to me deeply worried their employment gaps will be seen in a negative light and hurt their chances in a competitive job market,” he adds.
Unemployment bias is very real, albeit illegal, a problem, and concerns that potential employers could discriminate against job seekers because of a gap in employment history can hurt people.
Some unemployed job seekers may worry about the impression their unemployment gives off, and have concerns prospective employers could see them as lazy or unemployable; others may fear the reasons they’ve been unemployed could hinder their chance of landing a new job. And nearly all seem to worry about how they’ll answer interviewers’ questions about unemployment.
Those fears can keep unemployed job seekers from being as aggressive as they should be in their job searches. “My clients will usually waste precious time and mental energy worrying how unemployment might hurt their chances,” and won’t apply to jobs because of it, says Wiacek.
But, “if you have made it to the interview stage, the company clearly hopes that you can be the right fit for them,” says Maria Niedzwiecka, career coach and director of Career Rebels. Instead of letting fear stop them, career experts advise unemployed job seekers to set their worries aside — and then follow these tips for answering interviewers’ questions about unemployment.
Prepare to answer interviewers’ questions about your unemployment.
Preparation is the key to interview success — including when it comes to answering questions about your unemployment. “Most concerns are caused by job seekers being unprepared about how to answer tough questions related to their unemployment,” says Niedzwiecka. And the less you prepare, the more likely you are “to be worried about the interviewers’ reaction,” she says.
Before you go to an interview, “map out your strategy on how you are going to tackle the tough questions,” Niedzwiecka says, advising you to brainstorm all the ways you can answer questions about your unemployment. “Select the best approach and write your answers down on paper,” she says. “Polish your response until you are comfortable with it.” Then ask a friend to read your answers and practice a mock interview with you. Not only will practicing build your confidence, "you will get valuable feedback and test your answers before facing the interviewers,” she says.
Be honest about being jobless.
“Just because someone asks about your unemployment doesn’t mean that they're automatically concerned,” says Akhila Satish, executive coach and CEO of Meseekna. So, be honest, she says.
For example, if you lost your job, “emphasize what you’ve learned as a result and how you plan on being invaluable to your next company,” she says. Alternatively, if you chose to leave your last position, “be clear about your expectations for your next position and what you’re looking for in order to thrive at a new company,” Satish explains. “Your interviewers will appreciate the candor, and respect that you’re not just trying to find another job just to pay the bills.”
Whatever you do, don’t appear uncomfortable about your unemployment, warns Joshua Daniel, a career coach at Korn Ferry Advance. “By deliberately hiding details, shifting in your seat, changing your nonverbal posture, or oversharing,” you could draw more attention to the question than it deserves — and make interviewers worry that you’ve got something to hide.
Be concise when speaking about your unemployment.
While you should be honest about your unemployment, you shouldn’t divulge too many details.
“The interviewer is less likely to have further questions when you provide a specific reason for explaining your transition,” says Niedzwiecka. For example, you can explain that you enjoyed working for the company and received positive feedback, but you were ultimately let go after a company restructure, she says. Just “limit yourself to one or two sentences,” Niedzwiecka says.
By keeping your answer short and sweet, you can “direct interviewers’ attention to the positive impact you have made,” she says, advising that you also “select an accomplishment that is most relevant to the job you are applying for” so that you can share your value with the new company.
By contrast, sharing too many details about your unemployment can divert the focus away from the skills you’d bring to a new job, says Daniel. Keeping your answer short may feel counterintuitive, “but less is sometimes more with any question that may be seen as a liability.”
Share how you’ve used your time.
Just because you were unemployed doesn’t mean you didn’t hone existing skills or learn new ones that could make you an asset to a potential employer — and when you’re asked about your unemployment, you should take the opportunity to highlight these skills, career experts say.
“Show how you provided value to the world. Show how you filled up your day,” says Wiacek.
Satish adds that your skills don’t have to be directly related to work. “Behaviors like spending time with your family, learning a new skill or hobby, or taking a class online are all valid ways to spend your time, and they show that you’re not someone that takes your free time for granted — even if you enjoy the occasional Netflix binge every once and a while,” she says. “Even sharing tidbits like that you learned a new instrument … will help you stand out during the interview.”
You might also consider sharing the sacrifices you made, too. For example, if you took time off to care for a child or elderly relative, you might say, “‘While I loved taking six months off to care for my infant or ill parent, and I kept busy throughout the whole time, I do admit that I miss the camaraderie of office life and I’m looking forward to returning to work soon,’” Wiacek says.
Address controversy head-on.
Sometimes, the reason for your unemployment might be unpleasant: perhaps you were fired, or had an ethical disagreement with your boss that caused you to quit. In this case, it’s still best to be honest but brief, career experts advise. Even conflict and controversy can be made positive.
“If there is a controversial reason for your departure, acknowledge your role in it, discuss what you learned, and talk about what will go better the next time, neutralizing the issue at hand,” advises Nancy McSharry Jensen, CEO of The Swing Shift. Then, she says, “talk about what you want to do next. For example, ‘Looking to the future, I want to use my marketing and customer service skills with a company like yours that shares my values.’ Spend a little time thinking where do you want to go and what do you want to do, and then tell them — they need to know.”
However, you should take great care not to disparage your previous employer. You should “be honest in your answers but avoid saying anything negative about your previous job, team, or company,” says Niedzwiecka. “Interviewers are continuously evaluating your experience with your employer and whether you’re critical of it. This goes for how you view your decision to leave — or the company’s decision to terminate your employment.” By taking stock of your attitude toward your previous employer, interviewers try to predict how you’d behave with them.
“Even if your previous employer was the reason you quit or lost your job, negatively talking about your past is an immediate red flag,” explains Satish. “No company wants to risk hiring someone that could eventually tarnish their name.” She recommends focusing on the positive: Zero in “on the qualities that the new position has that you may not have found in previous jobs, such as a collaborative work environment or a client list that aligns more with your interests,” she says. Interviewers may “realize on their own that your last job wasn’t the right fit, and be impressed that you kept your responses classy, mature, and focused on their company.”
According to Niedzwiecka, “confidence in an interview, especially when you are unemployed, is essential.” But confidence doesn’t always come naturally when faced with questions about your employment gaps, she also recognizes. And that’s what practice and preparation are so crucial.
Practice being confident when answering questions about your unemployment. Satish says it’s important to find a balance that projects confidence but not defensiveness. “People that are too overly confident might come off as unwilling to adapt and learn in a new position, which could be a red flag for your interviewers,” she warns. To show your confidence and adaptability, ask yourself a series of questions to identify the skills and attributes you possess that will make you attractive to a potential employer, and practice talking about these things, says Niedzwiecka.
Now that you know how to answer questions about unemployment, find out about other frequent interview questions.