Addressing Career Setbacks & Disappointments

Most professionals have at some point encountered events in their career that they would rather not talk about. Unfortunately these are the red flags potential employers want to talk about first. You may, of course, be among the rare few with uninterrupted career paths that are easy to articulate because they just make sense, but perhaps you were having a great run with a straight shot to the top floor of HQ. An economic downturn led to a series of unsatisfactory roles, all of which led you closer to the basement than the boardroom. Or maybe you were happy in your job, but management changes brought instability and mission crisis that wrought havoc when you found yourself officially demoted, doing the same job for a lesser title and lower pay, or suddenly out of a job with no good reference. You may have even stepped off a successful career path to care for an aging parent, only to find it’s not so easy to simply step back on.

Job loss or change can devastate the narrative thread of our professional lives. It can make us question if we ever were any good at what we had dedicated our lives to, and if we somehow missed our calling entirely. We get tossed about by circumstances that leave us unable to define who we are much less explain it to someone else. This kind of desperation tempts people to accept jobs they can do, but don’t really enjoy and shouldn’t be doing. You take the first offer that comes and continue the spiral off course. As you begin to craft the narrative, however, this insecurity and uncertainty will give way to clarity and a renewed sense of where you’ve been and where you’re going. It puts you back in the driver’s seat and in control of the conversation.

Employers will inevitably ask you to explain the time gap, the pile up of too many jobs in too little time, the apparent demotion, or temporary diversion into an entirely new field. When the recession of 2008 hit, we saw countless professionals with pristine resumes tumble into obscure alternative universes where they found themselves having to explain pink slips, jobs that had nothing to do with their careers, and sudden out-of-state relocations. Fraught with emotion, these aren’t conversations that just roll off your tongue. Years later you will be able to speak to it, but right now, nerves are raw, identities are shaken, and if we aren’t careful we’ll get defensive and say too much.

Over-explaining negative events is a common mistake professionals make. It sucks all the oxygen out of the room and typically doesn’t answer the question. Truth is, employers don’t need to know everything that happened, or even what you may have perceived as having happened. They want a brief overview of the event, followed by what you did next.

“I had a great run, we made a lot of great progress, and then our company was bought, new leadership was brought in, and I and many others found ourselves out of jobs. I took a little time to recoup, and helped my brother get his business going while always knowing I would soon be ready to get back in the game. So here I am…ready to go…”

“My 8 years there were great, which I believe three promotions in that time show. Unfortunately my manager left and was replaced by someone with entirely different ideas about the direction we were headed. I tried to sell her on our vision, but not successfully and I soon realized one of us would have to go. It wasn’t going to be her, so I resigned. I still believe in the vision and would love to see it realized within an organization where it would really be useful. For now, though, I’m just ready for a new start.”

“My wife got a great opportunity that we agreed she just couldn’t turn down, so we made the decision to move the family across the country. I loved my job and was sad to leave, but my employers just couldn’t make it work for me to work remotely. I’m excited about the work you’re doing here because it’s very similar to what we were doing and I’d love to be a part of your growth and success.”

If you needed to take time off to care for a sick or aging family member, you can speak to that but more importantly shine the focus on your readiness to resume your career. Avoid emoting about unfair bosses, bullying co-workers, or dying loved ones. An interview isn’t a therapy session, and everything you say reflects on you. Back-stabber, blame-shifter, or walking crisis is not the label you want, so speak to the situation but don’t linger. Use it to illustrate humility, reflection and flexibility.

What has happened to you has happened to others, so move the conversation forward by being prepared with your answer, managing your responses, and not over-sharing. Write down your answers, consolidate and refine them, and try them out on trusted friends. If they say “too much detail” or “you’ve lost me,” keep working at it until you feel comfortable saying it and others are receptive to hearing it. The best answers to tough questions evolve over time, so have patience while you let the process work.

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