Raising children. Relocation. An extended illness. There are various reasons why someone might be out of work for a long period of time, and it’s inevitable that it’s going to come up in a job interview.
“Why have you been out of work for so long?” might rank up as one of the more difficult interview questions to answer. So, how best to respond?
Since the question is an inquiry as to how you have been spending your time – when an interviewer asks this question, they are really asking if you have the motivation and dedication necessary to be a diligent employee – it’s important to highlight your activities during this period.
Explaining the things you’ve been doing to stay current and relevant is key. Be honest. Tell, but don’t necessarily tell too much. Here are three things to keep in mind when answering this rather dreaded question.
I. Points to Emphasize
No matter why you’ve been out of work for a long period of time, there are some things you could—and should—do to help you face the “Why have you been out of work for so long?” question you’re sure to be asked.
First, “Don’t let it come down to that kind of question,” says John O’Connor, president of CareerPro Inc., a North Carolina-based company offering career coaching, talent sourcing, and corporate outplacement services. This question can put job seekers on the defensive.
Instead, he suggests, “Go on the offensive. Explain what’s productive about you.”
Joyce Richman, a career counselor and executive coach in Greensboro, NC, agrees. “The onus is on the applicant to demonstrate value,” she said. This is especially true for job seekers who have made a choice to remain out of work, such as to raise children over pursuing a career.
For these workers, it just takes a little creativity to demonstrate value, Richman explains. She suggests a stay-at-home parent can mention relevant lessons they have learned while away from the workforce.
She suggests responses such as, “I learned the art of negotiation, whether it’s negotiating with a two-year-old, an eight-year-old, their teacher, or the carpool. I learned to remain cool under fire. It taught me flexibility…the ability to spin a lot of plates. It was ten years well spent and I feel really ready to handle the challenges I will face in the workplace.”
Having a leadership role as a volunteer can show initiative, as well as helping you develop skills that are valuable in the workplace. Holding a position on a homeowner’s association board, for example, is something to mention. While you may not have held a traditional job, this type of non-work experience likely helped you practice the leadership and decision-making skills coveted in a professional setting.
Attending seminars or taking relevant courses also indicates that you haven’t been idle while you have been unemployed.
“Volunteerism counts,” O’Connor says. “Reading. Writing. Learning. That’s going to make a big difference to the person interviewing you. Employers are looking for those who can learn and adapt and you have to get that across.”
2. Explain Your Specific Situation
While outlining the things you have done to maintain skills and keep yourself relevant and up-to-date with business and technological advances is important, you may decide to explain the circumstances that kept you out of work depending on your particular reason for being unemployed for a lengthy period.
For example, a retiree returning to the workforce, a worker who took time away to deal with personal health issues, or someone who has relocated to a new area might feel comfortable giving a brief explanation when asked this question. Here are some examples of what you might say:
Returning to work after a period of retirement
The retiree might stress their eagerness to get back into the workforce after a period of retirement. Richman suggests someone in this situation stress their dependability, maturity, and ability to work flexible hours.
Returning to work after relocating
Richmond suggests that someone who has been out of work due to a relocation, might respond to the question in this way: “I’m new to the area, and I wanted to wait until we settled in so I could have a better sense as to what would be available and the ways in which I could add value to organizations that are based here.”
Returning to work after a layoff
If you have been laid off and been unable to find work, less is more when it comes to explaining the reasons behind a lengthy period of unemployment. Saying too much should be avoided, Richman says. You might discuss how the company as a whole was affected. Don’t tell a sob story, for instance, as to why you lost your job, or come across as desperate to land any position. Instead, always focus on the positive.
Instead, concentrate on what you have done during your time off. You might, for example, have volunteered or coached kids in sports. This, Richman states, might have taught you management skills. You might also stress that you kept up on industry news in anticipation of a return to work. You might end your answer with, “I would have been preferred to be employed throughout that time, but it didn’t work out that way.”
Returning to work after being fired
If you were fired from your last role, talk openly about the weaknesses that led to the event and relate what you have learned from the experience and how you have worked to improve. Again, stay positive and never say anything negative about your former employer.
Returning to work after an illness or injury
For those who took time away from work to handle health issues, Richman emphasizes that “less is more.” when discussing the particulars of your health problem. Legally, an employer cannot ask many questions regarding the specific illness, and the respondent should avoid providing too many details.
She suggests that one might answer with, “I had some personal health issues, [but] they are resolved… I am fully functioning, my energy is back in full, I am ready to come back to work.”
This individual might highlight licensure or certification they obtained while out of work to show that, despite an illness, they did their best to remain as productive as possible.
3. What NOT to Say When Responding to the “Why Have You Been Out of Work for So Long?” Question
Don’t dwell on the past
Keep talking about the past to a minimum. “Talk about experiences that you think are valuable now,” O’Connor adds. “It’s not just about ‘several years ago’ or ‘five years ago.’ Don’t’ open with a date or time. If you’re going to talk about accomplishments from your past, try to make them sound relevant today.”
This advice isn’t limited to how you talk about your past but in how you present yourself. “The employer is looking at you for your tonality, your body language, your word choices, and how you combine all those,” Richman says. “If you have a positive can-do attitude and a positive optimism, you’re going to be more engaging. The employer is going to be more drawn to those characteristics. If you were to come across as negative, as complaining, as blaming, as dour, as sour…anything having to do with pessimism and negativity is off-putting.” In other words, don’t display a “woe is me” attitude, complain, or blame your former employer. Focus on the positive things you’ve done and continue to do and detail the activities you’ve engaged in that you feel will ultimately prove you to be a worthwhile employee. That will go a long way toward you nailing that “Why have you been out of work for so long?” question the next time it comes up in an interview.