Walking the Minefield: Handling Those Sensitive Spots in Your Background

We all have something somewhere in our background that we would rather not talk about, but when it’s something that shows on your resume, you’re going to have to, and how you handle it will make a big difference in whether it is perceived as a negative or not. Tell too little and you invite uncomfortable questions, tell too much and you might risk losing the job.

What are the mines in your minefield? They might be having to explain why you left a job that you were fired from, or why you lack of a college degree in a field where it’s expected. Often, it’s a concern about explaining too many job changes or a long gap in employment.

The secret to walking your minefield, and succeeding at keeping your composure and expressing yourself concisely, is preparation. Know what you are going to say before the question is asked. If you plan and practice your response, you’ll be able to easily articulate the truth about whatever it is, in a way that gives enough information to satisfy the questioner’s curiosity, but that also puts a positive spin on it, and leaves it on an upbeat note that reaffirms that you are a fit for their job.

I was recently talking with someone who has a two-year employment gap because of a personal health issue that he really preferred to never have to talk about again, and most certainly not with a stranger in an interview. This was most definitely a mine in his background that he had a lot of concern about, and he wanted my advice on how to handle it.

I suggested he mention it in his resume, because it was a long time, and I think it’s better to proactively explain a large gap rather than invite a potential employer try to guess what you were up to. Were you ill? In prison, a drug addict, dealing with family problems? Or maybe you’re just someone no one wants to hire. Believe me, you do not want employers speculating on the worst-case scenario for your employment gap. If you include something short and sweet in your resume, like “Medical hiatus; 100% recovered” you’ll head that thought tangent off at the pass.

Even more important is how you handle the question in an interview, because nerves can kick into high gear when the minefield gets approached, and you can count on it that it will get approached.

The solution? Be prepared… just plan ahead, and write yourself up a two-or-three sentence summary and then memorize it so it flows smoothly as you say it out loud, even if your palms are sweating and your heart is pounding.

Start off by briefly explaining the situation, then reassure a potential employer’s concerns, and tie it up with a final point showing why it makes him an even better choice for the job.

So the guy with the two-year gap for a medical reason might say: “I had an illness required a long treatment that kept me from working. It was hard on me because I really missed being able to work, since I always put a lot of energy into my job, and the day the doctor told me I was 100% recovered to go back to work was one of the happiest days of my life.”

And the person who has had ten one-year-jobs in a row might say: “Layoffs, companies restructuring and me accepting a couple of too-good-to-pass-up offers during the dotcom boom, resulted in me having ten jobs in ten years. I’ve always found another good job, since I have great skills, but I’m very loyal and my goal has always been to enjoy a career one company for five years or more.”

Do you see how responses like these address the question so there’s no weird icky feeling that you’re trying to hide something? And they tell an employer that you’re a good employee and lets them feel a sense of trust in a future with you. Nine times out of ten, that’s the end of that line of conversation. Mine averted.

Once you write down what you want to say, then practice it… in front of the mirror, role play with someone, say it over and over until the words just make sense to you, and you can say them without self-consciousness. If what you wrote sounds stilted, make it sound natural. This is part of your story, let it sound like you.

And again, this is not about lying. Lying is a fast-track to career disaster on every possible level. Lies will catch up to you, whether it’s today or tomorrow. This is about telling your story in a way that presents your best possible self, and helps others to see that same side of you, so that you get the job your really deserve to have.

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