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Learn to Navigate Touchy Subjects

Countering the “You’re Overqualified” Statement

At times when competition is fierce, many veteran jobs seekers complain that they are being told during interviews that they’re “overqualified.” While that may be true in some cases, it is often human resource code for “you’re too old and it’ll cost me too much to hire you.” Here’s how to handle this if it surfaces during an interview: Let the interviewer know up front that you anticipated this issue before you applied for the position. Say something along the lines of, “I have the benefit of enough wisdom and experience to not apply for positions where I’d be bored or where my qualifications would not be put to good use. That would be terrible for you and for me. But in this case, even though I may have more experience than the majority of applicants, here’s why I’d be an ideal asset and here’s why what I bring would serve us both very well in this role.” Then, be ready to share specifics.

Explaining Gaps in Work History

Short gaps or transition periods of up to a few months need no explanation. For example, if you graduated in May and became employed full time in September, there’s no need to account for the three months in between. Likewise, if the hiatus occurred several years ago, followed by some solid experience, it’s not necessary to include it.

Longer periods need details, and it’s best to be short and direct. Common explanations include time off for education, travel, parenting, or caring for a sick relative. In a recession, it’s likely that unemployment is the result of a layoff; don’t be embarassed to confess that you’ve been laid off from you former job and have been interviewing for a new position ever since.

If a period of unemployment has stretched beyond a few months, it’s important to put a positive spin on any accomplishments you’ve made during this time. We know you haven’t just been lying around with a tub of ice cream watching Oprah, right?

If you’ve been training for a marathon, doing volunteer work, gaining proficiency in a computer program, or coordinating your high school reunion, by all means, say so. Be confident of the fact that you were fortunate to have the ability to make those life choices:

“I’m fortunate to have had the opportunity to take a year off to [travel, care for my aging mother]. It was a rewarding time for me personally, and now I’m of course eager to jump back into the corporate world full time.”

If you’ve worked interim jobs while trying to establish a career, that’s okay too. It’s nothing to hide; in fact, it shows drive and a great work ethic. While it’s important not to lie, it’s not necessary to go out of your way to be completely truthful if the reason for your time off may nix your chances at the job. For example, time away to overcome an addiction to drugs or alcohol may be disguised as “travel” or “caring for an ill family member,” even if that relative is you. If pressed, you may be forced to open up in confidence to someone in personnel, which is okay as long as it’s near the end of the hiring process and you’re close to being offered the position.

Avoid sounding skeptical about your time off as it raises unnecessary red flags among potential employers. Do not apologize for those worthwhile responsibilities that required your time and devotion. If you sound positive and proud, recruiters will likely respect your choices.

Explaining Being Fired or Laid Off

Many jobseekers find themselves out of work because of corporate downsizing or the demise of failed start-ups. You can almost always count on an interviewer asking about the circumstances surrounding your unemployment.

If you have been downsized, you will want to attribute your layoff to changes in the economy and the elimination of your position. If your entire division was eliminated, you will definitely want to include that detail. Do not be ashamed or embarrassed to explain that, through no fault of your own, the company made a bottom-line decision that affected you and many other employees. Human Resource managers understand that these things happen all the time, so it will not come as a shock to them.

If you have been fired for other reasons, especially something performance-related, you want to avoid addressing that directly, if possible. Generally the interviewer will not know those circumstances and you can talk around it. “I left the company because I wanted to seek a more challenging opportunity,” “I left my position because I wanted to explore opportunities in other industries,” and “I left that job to redirect my career and learn another line of business” are some possible options. If your application indicates a termination and you must address it, be clear and concise: “While I’m proud of the work I did in that job, the position wasn’t the right fit for me.”

No matter what the circumstances of your situation, the goal is to craft a response that focuses on something positive. Even if you are a victim of downsizing, do not take the opportunity to trash your former employer as unable to compete effectively in their industry. Do not blame incompetence on their part for the shutdown of your division. Explain what you learned from the process and how much you are looking forward to moving on.