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How to Handle a Bruised Resume

Vicky, I was unemployed for 19 months and I am afraid it will be held against me when potential employers review my resume.  How should I handle it?

The first thing to do about any bruise or blemish in your work history is to be honest with yourself; was the period of unemployment the result of a demotion, a reduction in responsibilities or autonomy, a result of your actions, or did other factors cause the problem? Most potential employers will understand if a reorganization or downsizing resulted in your position being eliminated. The next question will be, “Why were you not moved into another position?” Be ready to explain that there were no other appropriate positions available or that you saw it as an opportunity to look for a new challenge or whatever the true explanation is.  

Things become a little more complicated when you had a difference of opinion with a supervisor that resulted in your departure. You need to be honest with a potential employer, but you do not want to disparage a previous employer. Think very carefully about how you can describe the situation honestly but without making your previous employer look bad. Criticizing a former employer may be taken as an attempt to cover or excuse improper behavior on your part. It will certainly call your loyalty and professionalism into question. A good rule of thumb is to talk about yourself and not your past employer. An example of a good answer: “I had a disagreement with a supervisor in relation to the frequency of contacts with customers and we were unable to come to a compromise that worked for both of us. I was of the opinion that fewer, high quality contacts were preferable to more frequent shorter contacts, and that did not fit the supervisor’s vision.”  

Of course, if there is simply no other way to put it and you were at fault, you need to say so. For example: “At the time I was trying to juggle family, full-time employment, and night school, and I was unable to fulfill my duties to the satisfaction of my employer. Since that time I have completed my degree, and I am prepared to devote my full energies to my work.” It is important, if the problem lies at your doorstep, to be clear how you eliminated the issue, and how you will prevent a recurrence in a new position.

Many people try to cover a period of unemployment by calling themselves a “consultant.” Speaking as a professional recruiter, this is not fooling anyone, especially if it is a short period of “consultancy” shoehorned in between periods of full-time employment. If you are, in fact, a consultant, you should be prepared to provide contact information for clients you have served, point to a website or marketing literature that describes the services you provide, or otherwise demonstrate that you are not just covering up a gap in your work history.

Most potential employers and recruiters make a first cut of a candidate pool by looking only at your written material. So, how do you make the kinds of explanations that account for the bruise on your resume? The answer is, you must, for every position, whether it is requested or not, write a good, succinct, but meaningful cover letter. In that letter you have the opportunity to point out issues that require elaboration, as well as to highlight your affinity for the hiring organization. Cover letters are important enough that time and energy spent fine-tuning them is always a good investment, especially when you need to get past a glitch in your work history.  

All of our mothers told us, “Honesty is the best policy.” When it comes to offering yourself to an employer it is the only policy.  And remember, if a professional recruiter is involved in the search in which you are interested, he or she will be able to advise you on your presentation and will advocate on your behalf if you are completely honest about your work history. Nearly everyone who has an extensive career will have one or two experiences that do not show him or her in the best possible light. It doesn’t have to be an obstacle to advancement if you deal with it openly and directly.

Vicky Ayers is Institutional Services Coordinator for RPA Inc., Williamsport, PA, a private. national firm serving the recruiting needs of higher education and nonprofits for more than 20 years. Vicky has assembled diverse candidate pools for some of the most notable institutions and organizations in the nation.  If you have a question for Vicky you can email her at vayers@rpainc.org.
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