Employment Gaps in a Global Pandemic (part 2 of 2)
Pt. 2: Talking About COVID-19 in an Interview, and How to Get Back to Work Fast!
By Brian Sullivan
In our last R&W Group blog post, we covered what to do about a COVID-related employment gap on your resume, and the best ways to address it. By “employment gap”, we mean a prolonged period in your work history during which you weren’t working. Most of the time, we’re encouraged to avoid employment gaps whenever possible. They can occur for a number of reasons, but a fairly new reason is because a position was eliminated due either to a global pandemic or as a result of the protective measures enacted in response to it. If you would like a refresher on our suggestions of addressing this type of layoff in your resume or cover letter, please click here to go back to that article.
Let’s now assume your resume has caught the attention of a hiring manager who wants to schedule an interview with you. Congrats!... but, have you thought about what you’re going to say to them about your job ending in the wake of a global pandemic? I’m delighted to help you work through that conundrum.
Additionally, we are going to talk about how to narrow the employment gap by proactively getting involved in self-improvement and community-improvement activities. We will also look at ideas to expand your network and leverage your existing professional relationships to expedite the time you’re out of work.
How to Address an Employment Gap in an Interview
As mentioned last time, while you should never lie about your coronavirus-related layoff on your resume, I can’t overstate how important constructive and positive truthfulness about this employment gap is in an interview. While this post will be much shorter than the last one, that doesn’t mean the information is less valuable. As with the tips related to your resume, you will have to find a balance of addressing the gap without excessively dwelling on the unfortunate circumstances.
In a recent installment of the R&W Group Blog, we discussed many strategies on how to answer the “Tell Me About Yourself” question. In many ways, that question is basically like the professional summary from a resume and, similarly, both are great places to address a pandemic downsizing. While interviewing, whether you chose to tell the interviewer about yourself with the Present-Past-Future or Past-Present-Future format, making a quick statement about your COVID-19 layoff before moving into the Future segment of the answer will automatically remove the possibility of ending on a negative note, because you’ll naturally go from “my last position was eliminated due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic struggles my employer faced” straight into “in my next position, I hope to leverage my skills and experience, and …” you get the idea.
With your resume, as long as your employment dates are accurate, there is some flexibility on how explicit you need to be in addressing the gap. However, in an interview, owning that the layoff happened and that your job was impacted by it… is nonnegotiable. Avoiding the topic or giving vague answers may raise red flags, potential suspicions about performance or behavioral issues. My advice would be bringing it up on your own and doing so early on; pivot from there into the positive lessons you’ve learned from this experience, and what you’re hoping to do in your next role. You can acknowledge that being downsized was hard on you, and that job searching has been tough; interviewers appreciate that sort of honesty and self-reflection, but be sure to spend more time covering why you’re a great candidate for them than you spend on the struggles the current pandemic has caused you.
Lastly, let your interviewer know that you’ve been proactively looking for work. Job searches often take time, and they will be more understanding of your situation if they get a sense you’ve been strategically working on getting back to work, as opposed to your motivation and direction stalling out due to this professional setback. You don’t need to share every job you’ve applied to, but giving a 5-7 second high-level overview of some of the types of roles that have interested you (especially if they’re related to this opportunity) will show you aren’t just spinning your wheels on a washed-out COVID-19 road.
How to Narrow the Gap
We know we don’t want any gaps and, even with the big COVID-19 exception, the gaps should be as short as we can make them. While we might not be able to springboard directly into a new full-time role, there are other ways to shrink the size of an employment gap. You could always go back to school to get a new degree, or take some online courses. Online courses can be a really great way to enhance the skills you have, or to learn new skills and increase your marketability; many of these courses are inexpensive (or even free) and often self-paced. Not to mention that, since they’re on the internet, they’re also responsibly socially-distanced! Unpaid internships will also keep you busy while maintaining your experience. Volunteering is also an excellent way to decrease the gap while also helping those less fortunate in your community. You may be able to find a side project where you can complete some freelance or consultative work. If your financial situation is dire, you can also take up work in the short-term in an essential industry like grocery stores or food delivery services. Taking a part-time cashier position after being a full-time Account Manager might feel like a step backwards, but most interviewers will understand that, during a global pandemic, workers had to do what they could to take care of themselves and their families. It should not be held against you.
Most people have sections for education, additional training, achievements, and volunteer experiences on their resume separate from their work history, especially if they are using the conventional chronological resume layout. However, if your employment gap has lasted 90 days or longer, and any of these types of self-improvement activities have occurred during that gap, there is no rule prohibiting you from including these opportunities alongside your work experience. For example, instead of your most-recent position being with ABC & Associates, you can indicate that role ended in April 2020, and from May 2020 – August 2020, you worked towards earning a professional certification, listed just like any job would be. This helps draw the reader’s attention to the fact you’ve been proactive during this time, and will help diminish the negative effects a gap might otherwise have on your career history.
Don’t be afraid of networking either. Studies show that applicants with an internal referral are more likely to be interviewed and hired than those without, so reach out to trusted friends and family members to see if they know of any openings. Contact former colleagues and supervisors and ask them if they would be a reference for you as you conduct your job search. They could even write you a letter or a LinkedIn recommendation, which can go a long way in vouching for your qualifications. Speaking of LinkedIn, there are many opportunities to do virtual networking, either by reaching out to new contacts online, or by attending networking virtual coffee meetups or virtual happy hours. Lastly, scheduling informational interviews can be an outside-the-box way to learn more about a company, their culture, and the positions they normally have, all while establishing a relationship with them. Informational interviews are exactly what they sound like: gaining more information about a particular company, even if they don’t have any present staffing needs. These are unprecedented times, so getting creative is encouraged!
All This to Be Said…
I hope after reading these last two installments of the R&W Group Blog, you have some actionable ideas about addressing a COVID-19 layoff in your resume and in interviews. I also hope you’ve started thinking about how to proactively network and to continue cultivating your professional skills. But I think it’s important to reiterate that what we are seeing because of the coronavirus and the related restrictions are not like anything we’ve seen before, and most employers recognize that. While having your job eliminated can feel embarrassing, it is so common in the current economic climate (even in what have historically been considered “recession-proof” industries) that you should not feel ashamed by it. In fact, in the same LinkedIn study that showed many workers felt humiliated by their COVID-related layoffs, the surveyors also found that “96% [of surveyed hiring managers] would hire a candidate who was laid off due to the COVID-19 pandemic”, so try not to sweat it.
If the resume gap is the only hesitation, most employers will still look to have a discussion with an otherwise strong employee, because these sorts of gaps are practically considered a given at present. Some employers may be less empathetic. If you find that to be the case in your job search, it may be beneficial to remind yourself that a company which isn’t understanding about the ways this pandemic has impacted millions of people’s livelihoods might not be a great place to work anyway. If you’d like additional support in addressing this concern in an interview, or in giving your job search a boost, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Looking forward to hearing from you soon!