Life is unpredictable, and sometimes that includes long-term absences from the workforce but a long-term absence doesn’t have to hold you back. How do you explain an absence to a hiring manager? You start by addressing the issue upfront, according to Find Your Dream Job guest Sonal Bahl. Don’t leave the question open for the hiring manager to try to figure out. Sonal also shares how to present your experiences during your absence as building your skillset, and how to confidently lead the interview conversation.
About Our Guest:
Resources in This Episode:
- If you’re ready for personalized help in your job search, learn more about working with Sonal on her website at www.superchargeyourself.com/
- From our Sponsor: Find Your Dream Job is brought to you by TopResume. Top Resume has helped more than 400,000 professionals land more interviews and get hired faster. Get a free review of your resume today from one of Top Resume’s expert writers.
Find Your Dream Job, Episode 300:
How to Deal with Long-Term Unemployment, with Sonal Bahl
Airdate: June 16, 2021
This is Find Your Dream Job, the podcast that helps you get hired, have the career you want, and make a difference in life.
I’m your host, Mac Prichard. I’m also the founder of Mac’s List. It’s a job board in the Pacific Northwest that helps you find a fulfilling career.
Every Wednesday, I talk to a different expert about the tools you need to get the work you want.
Find Your Dream Job is brought to you by Top Resume. Top Resume has helped more than 400,000 professionals land more interviews and get hired faster.
Get a free review of your resume today. Go to macslist.org/topresume.
It can be tough to return to the workplace after a long absence.
Whether you’ve taken a break to care for family, or you’ve been out of work through no choice of your own, you might find recruiters reluctant to meet you.
Sonal Bahl is here today to talk about how to deal with long-term unemployment.
She’s a career strategist and founder of Supercharge, a career advisory firm. She also hosts the excellent, How I Got Hired podcast.
She joins us from Brussels in Belgium.
Sonal, let’s get started, why are some recruiters reluctant to talk to people who’ve been unemployed for a long time?
There’s a bunch of reasons, and I’m going to get into it.
The very first reason to hesitate is convenience, and it sounds harsh, but sometimes it can be a harsh world. The job of the recruiter is one; it’s always urgent. “I want this position yesterday.” That’s what the boss always says and they have to give a shortlist of 4-5 people to the hiring manager. Now, they have a shortlist, they’re going through the resumes- this is their job, screening them- and then, somebody looks…like, something’s not adding up, or it’s not necessarily in a certain predictable fashion. They’ll put it to the side, “Let me get back to that later.” So, the first reason can be convenience.
The second reason, which is even more harsh, is this thing called the vicious circle of unemployment, which is the longer you are unemployed, the more unemployable you might appear in the market. Is it fair? No, it’s not. Which is why rig jobs are essential, not just from an optics point of view, but also from a savings point of view.
The third reason that recruiters hesitate is that there’s a high-risk perception. So, Mac, imagine that you’re interviewing someone and this person shows up in front of you, and they’ve got tattoos all over their arm, or their resume says that they’ve been switching every 6-12 months. There’s a risk perception. It’s the same thing. If this person’s been on a break, will they take another break?
The fourth reason, the last one is this perception of diminished skills. Do they still have it? Whether it’s business acumen or technical skills. That could summarize why recruiters tend to hesitate.
That’s the why, and I know we’re going to talk about what you can do about those perceptions. The one that I want to dig into, Sonal, is about what you described to us as that vicious circle of unemployment, and this is someone who is likely, who is out of work for no fault of their own. Why do recruiters have that perception that this person is a risk? Is there evidence to support that idea?
I don’t know of any evidence. Honestly, it comes down to good old-fashioned bias, I think, Mac. And, you know, what happens is, this is a very strange thing, let’s say that you’re in transition now, and you used to be a recruiter, and then you get a job and now you’re back in the shoes of the recruiter or the hiring manager. The sense of empathy is very, very easily forgotten, and when you’re interviewing someone and they’re going through a hard time, it’s not…I don’t see this very common that people are like, “Hey, I know what it’s like, I’m going to do my best to help them.” They’re like, “No, I am moved on.”
You know, I know that this is a little bit anecdotal but I’ve seen this plenty in my HR career, and I was always very careful to steer clear from there. So, one is the bias, second is the lack of empathy. I don’t see any research to this fact. In fact, I can put my hat in the ring and say there might be research to the contrary, where people are unemployed for a little while and when they get back, there’s a higher willingness to prove that they still have it and they’re loyal.
You talked about reasons why…some of the reasons why people might take breaks, and I think when you think about this, the first example that you think about is someone who’s lost a job, either because they’ve been discharged or because of no fault of their own, a layoff, a change in a business model, but there are other reasons why people are unemployed for long terms. Can you talk more about that?
You know, life happens to all of us, sometimes good stuff and sometimes not so good stuff. And the definition of having a pause in your career is that period of time, at least for me, when you’re not gainfully employed, you’re not earning, and there are 6 types of breaks that people typically take.
The first one, which I’m going to say is not a break, where many people confuse it, is entrepreneurship, where, “I started something,” or “I did a bit of freelancing,” or consulting. That’s not a pause because you were gainfully employed. So, the first traditional reason why people take breaks is family reasons. You either had kids or you have aging parents and you need to take care of them, so that’s family.
Second is health, your own health. Something happened, you had to rest, you had to recover.
The third is the most common we see these days, in fact, for a long time, we’ve been seeing them, and that’s layoffs, restructuring, and you lost your job.
The fourth is you study, and in fact, you’ve been preparing, and you know in certain countries, Mac, I’m sure that you’re aware, you have very difficult, kind of competitive exams to get into a coveted program. Whether it’s in medicine or in business or law, people take time off to study those; that’s a really common reason for taking a gap.
The fifth one is being a trailing spouse. Your husband or wife had this fantastic job in a different country or city, and in that period of time, you were not able to find work.
And the last one, which is a slightly more positive one, is travel. Once the world opens up after COVID, the world 2.0, even before that, people want to take time off, enjoy life a little bit, one year off, two years off. They call it a gap year between college and working. So, these are, I would say, 6 very good reasons for having a break in your career.
Well, let’s talk about what you can do when you’re going back to the workforce to help a recruiter understand why you’ve been out of work for some time. You’ve got a 5 part model, Sonal, and it’s got a great acronym. It’s called PAUSE, and I want you to take us through each of those five parts, and the first step, the P in PAUSE, is to be proactive. What do you mean by that?
When you know…they teach you this in sales, when you know that there are going to be objections, address them upfront. You know that they’re thinking it, so I like to get ahead of that and be proactive about it and I share this with my clients. So, if you don’t do that, and there is this mysterious gap in your resume, it can make people draw x number of conclusions and that’s what you don’t want. So, one is the tactical thing and the other thing that I’m going to explain is a bit more strategic.
The tactical thing, which I recommend here, is when you have your resume and you’re like, “Okay, between 2018 and 2020,” you don’t have to get into the months of it, it gets distracting, particularly if it was less than 6 months or just under a year, you can say “2018 to 2019.” That helps to contain it. The other thing that I was going to say is that you can be very creative in how you address it in your resume. Let’s say you had a baby, right? Rather than, “Had a baby,” well, full stop, okay, no. I have a better suggestion; how about, “Proactively oversaw the end-to-end care toward the health of our newborn.”
That’s a big deal, I mean you brought life into the world. That’s huge, or if you moved cities or countries, rather than just saying, “Trailing spouse,” which you make it sound like you’re diminished, it can be like, okay, 2016-2020, career pause. Establishment of a home in several overseas destinations, while maintaining a strong family foundation with our two children. Now, that’s wonderful, right? So, when I say creative, I don’t mean lie or embellish anything, you’re just saying the truth, but I can tell you, words matter, and that takes me to the second point, attitude.
P is proactive, A is Attitude.
Pay strong attention to your attitude and how you perceive the pause in your own head. I can’t stress that enough.
Sonal, I want to talk about attitude, but let’s pause on the P here, and what happens if you don’t provide an explanation?
You leave this open to interpretation. If it’s not explained on LinkedIn, and now on LinkedIn, we have those choices, right? SAHM, and SAHD, stay-at-home mom, and stay-at-home dad; you have those, and if you don’t, you leave it open and up for interpretation, and I’m not sure that that’s always a good thing.
I want to take a break, and it’s a great conversation. When we come back, Sonal Bahl will continue to share her advice on how to deal with long-term unemployment.
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Now, let’s get back to the show.
We’re back in the Mac’s List studio. I’m talking with Sonal Bahl.
She’s a career strategist and founder of Supercharge, a career advisory firm. Sonal is also the host of the terrific podcast, How I Got Hired.
She joins us from Brussels in Belgium.
Now, Sonal, before the break we were working through your five-part model, the acronym PAUSE, about how to deal with long-term unemployment, and let’s talk about the A in PAUSE, the attitude. Why is it important to pay attention to your attitude?
Attitude is everything. Attitude is the glue that brings everything together. And when you have this attitude of, “I’ve been on a break for 6 months…” 1 year, 2 years, 3 years, whatever, it’s going to come across that I’m less than you. I had a break, you’re my interviewer, I’m less than you, which comes across as a little bit desperate, and it comes across as the opposite of a level playing field. It is tilted in the favor of the hiring manager. That is complete nonsense. You have certain skills, even if you think that they’re diminished, they’re there. So, words matter, there’s plenty of research out there that proves it.
The choice of words matters a lot. So, instead of thinking of it as a gap, which has a negative connotation, how about addressing it as a transition? This is a transition. I’m in transition currently. It sounds, I don’t know…I feel a little bit better about it. So, I can’t stress this enough, because if you have this attitude that you’re less than, it will come across. And if you have the opposite attitude, it will come across that you’re really confident, and they won’t even pay attention to the gap that you have in your resume. And that, Mac, is fantastic news when it comes to salary negotiations because you don’t think about your gap as a liability.
I like your point that many people feel that they need to almost apologize for this period of long-term unemployment. Why shouldn’t you be defensive about it, Sonal?
There’s absolutely no reason to be defensive about it, and the reason that people apologize…I’m not going to get into it, that’s going to be a sociology lesson, but it’s really the conditioning, the conditioning that work is worship, work is good, and if you take time off, the bus has left the station. Where are you? We moved on, FOMO, all of that, but if COVID has taught us anything, it’s that life happens to all of us, and people who are judging others, life is going to happen to them as well. So, it’s better, to be honest, and upfront from the get-go.
Instead of being defensive, can you give us a practical example of how people should… what kind of attitude they should bring into an interview, or perhaps in the text that they share in their resume or cover letter?
Exactly, no, that’s a great question, and I’m going to address that in the E of PAUSE, if that’s okay, yeah? Awesome.
Oh yeah, let’s get to that.
Number three in PAUSE is U, and that stands for upgrade your skills. How can upgrading your skills help you get back to work, Sonal?
Yes, so there’s two types of skills we’re talking about here. We all know the technical hard skills; when I’m saying hard, I’m putting air quotation marks. Hard skills that are needed on the job. So, if you’re in finance that’s staying in touch with what’s happening in IFRS or whatever. If it’s in technical, the latest software. That, yes, there’s never been an easier time to stay in touch. You’ve got everything in the palm of your hand; the phone, the internet, the laptop.
There’s also other skills, which I would argue are more important; life skills, right? Let’s say you took time off to take care of your elderly dad, and in that period of time, you were doing everything for him. So, let’s say you’re looking forward to getting back as a project manager, but in that period of time, you can be like, that was my project management time. I was responsible for ensuring catering, driving, or x number of things. It’s a question of mapping good old-fashioned transferable skills which are needed in your dream job and what you do today.
And I can bet you our dear listener right now, the thing that you think is insignificant, be careful because there’s something called the curse of knowledge. You’re like, “ Yeah I know but everybody does this, everybody knows this.” No, they don’t, and you’re pretty amazing at this and you kept stuff going together and nothing was falling apart. So, use these periods of time. If you’ve had a baby, fantastic organization skills. Getting the baby to go to bed at 7:00 p.m.; anybody who’s a parent knows that’s nothing short of a miracle. You know, diapers, crying, everything. Patience, efficiency, productivity. All of those skills have gone up tenfold because of the transition period in your career. So, that’s the U.
I like your point that you need to do a self-assessment and look at what you’ve been doing in the home, or in the community, or elsewhere, because many people, when they hear “upgrade your skills,” they think, well, that means getting a graduate degree or returning to get a Bachelor’s, or perhaps a certificate. How do you figure out as a job seeker which of those skills that you have been practicing in your home or community are going to matter to recruiters?
It’s simple; you check out those job descriptions and you speak to the recruiters. And you speak to them in their language and figure out what they want, and I can tell you, going back to school- as much as I loved my education- but going back to school is highly overrated unless you’re going into transitions like medicine or law where you would need a license to operate. There’s absolutely no need to go back to school. Those short-term courses are great but we focus too much on the learning part.
At the end of the day, what do they want? If you look at most jobs today, Mac, they’re all about the following four, right? I’m oversimplifying but here you go. It’s all about how you can help that company to A- make money, B- save money, C- save time, and D- build their reputation, brand reputation, etc. If you can show them you can do one, two, or all four of these things, you’re the person they want, and showing is a lot more powerful than telling. So, that comes across in the interviews where you’ve done your research, and you know exactly what their pain area is, and why this position exists today, and how you are the answer to their prayers.
The fourth letter in your PAUSE model is S and, Sonal…
Yeah, steering the conversation. Talk to us about that, Sonal.
Yes. This is a black hole that a lot of us go into, particularly, I can tell you, when it comes to things like health. And if something is very raw, you know, we’re talking to friends, right? It can happen, you go into details that the other person may not be that interested to listen to every little detail, so it’s very important to check yourself before you wreck yourself, meaning you’ve got to take charge of how this conversation is going. So, you’ve got to be in the driver’s seat of the conversation. So, rather than saying, “Yes I had this break, I’d rather not talk about it.” No. Okay? “Yes, I had this break in my career where I had…my child was actually very ill. But, you know, he’s absolutely fine now and back to school.” So, steer the conversation to business because that’s why you’re there, and if you don’t do that, they’re steering it and the car may go to a destination you don’t want it to go. So, that’s why you need to be in charge.
Many people are uncomfortable in the interview room doing that; what’s your best tip for steering the conversation if you’ve never done it before, Sonal?
So, there’s certain questions that are illegal in many parts of the world, and I know, in many states in the U.S. So, if you feel like it’s going somewhere, and you’re not comfortable where it’s going, you can be like, “As I was saying, so in my last organization..” Focus on accomplishments that you know they’ll be interested in. And there…the role of the interviewer is very important but so is yours, and if there are weird questions coming and you’re suddenly like sweating and feeling very nervous about it, just be like, “Hey, that’s an interesting question. Can you help me understand what makes you ask that question?” Something unrelated; you can see there’s bias going on.
So, by doing that very politely yet very firmly, you are giving the impression that you’re a professional, and you’re there for a very specific reason, and that is to land the job. And overexplaining has its negative points and you want to steer away from that. And the best way to do that, Mac is practice. Practice with a friend, practice with a coach, practice in front of the mirror, practice in front of the phone, and record yourself. You’ll be like, “Oh my god! Do I really ramble?” Yeah.
The last letter in the PAUSE model is E and it stands, as you mentioned before, for knowing your edge. What are you getting at here, Sonal?
Yeah, this is my favorite of the five-part process and it’s very counter-intuitive. So, bear with me. The E says edge, right? So, what it’s saying is, when you do a good old-fashioned SWOT analysis, S-W-O-T, there’s another acronym I’m throwing at you, strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats, right?
That’s a very common thing that’s done in the corporate world. The perceived weakness is that you have a gap in your career. Now, how can you view this weakness as a strength? Yes, you can. It doesn’t make sense but I’ll help you to make sense. How can you view it as a strength? How can you address the fact that there is no risk, so, the threat? And how can you show that it’s an opportunity for the employer? So, all three.
So, let’s do that right now, step-by-step. The weakness is you have a gap in your career. Now, how can you view it as a strength? You can be like, “ Okay, you know, during this period of time”- I’m going back to skills- “During this period of time, I learned things that I’d never learned before.” And that sets you apart from any Tom, Dick, or Harry, who’s been in Goldman Sachs for twenty-five years. It’s a very linear progression.
I’m not saying one is better than the other, but yes, you’re different and sometimes different is better than better. And the other way that you can show the weakness as a strength is by explaining that you’re taking your time, you’re not interviewing at a hundred different companies. You’re very picky because you want the next one to be a longer relationship, and you’re hungry for it. So, that’s S- strength.
And how can you address the fact, the threat? What is the threat? The threat is, “What if you have another gap in your career? Why should me, as an employer, hire you, when I stand to lose the return on investment?” You can address that in a very simple way. Speak in past tense. So, the reason for taking the break no longer exists. Use past tense. If my child was ill, he’s not ill anymore. He’s back in kindergarten. I was unwell; it’s fine. I was laid off but I learned all these skills. I’m raring to go. So, all of those reasons are in the past and no longer affect your candidacy.
And the last one is opportunity. How can you use this weakness as an opportunity? You can. Not only are you qualified, not only are you able, but you are immediately available. So, I don’t know about you, but when I, as a recruiter, find someone who’s amazing, they look like they know what they’re talking about, and they can join me next week, that’s a pretty good combination.
Yeah, that’s a great combination. Well, it’s been a terrific conversation, Sonal, tell us what’s next for you?
Yeah, so great things ahead, Mac. I’m working towards short 90-minute workshops, particularly targeted to people who are in transition but have almost no budget, and help them out for a very limited budget to address specific challenges they’re going through; build a resume from scratch or LinkedIn profile. Quick, easy, digestible life courses. That’s the difference, it’s gonna be life, So, I’m excited.
That does sound exciting. Now, I know our listeners can learn more about your courses and your work by visiting your website. It’s Super Charge Yourself.com. Sonal, considering all the great tips you’ve shared today, what’s the one thing you want our listener to remember about how to deal with long-term unemployment?
When a recruiter rejects you because life happened to you, it says more about them than it does about you. Don’t forget that.
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Next week, our guest will be Greg Flores.
He’s the associate director of career services at Portland State University. Greg helps people prepare for meaningful careers and understand the world of work.
You may change jobs 10 or 15 times. As you do this, a personal mission statement can help you stay focused on your long-term goals.
Join us next week when Greg Flores and I talk about how to write your personal mission statement.
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