Does your resume illuminate something that you’re hoping and praying won’t come up in an interview? Maybe you didn’t get along with your last boss, your computer skills aren’t up to snuff, or you’re nervous about seeming underqualified—or overqualified. Whatever it is, with a little care you can leverage these potential trouble areas and come out smelling like a rose.
Sure, maybe you’ve had a set-back of some sort–we all do from time to time–but what have you done with it? How has it motivated you to think or act differently? While you don’t need to advertise your weaknesses or misfortunes to an employer, there are times (like when it’s the white elephant in the middle of the room) that sharing with a prospective employer will show that you’re mature and proactive about addressing life’s obstacles.
Start by putting the issue into perspective—bring it down to size. In an employer’s mind, a single mistake or misfortune might cast its shadow far into the future. This is natural–the employer is trying to protect the company’s interests. If you didn’t get along with your last employer, they’re thinking that maybe you won’t get along with your next one. And if that is a pattern for you, take a hard look at that reality, and address it. If it’s not a pattern, you might offer “I usually get along with everybody but for some reason I didn’t get along with my last boss. It’s never happened before and I hope it never happens again.” This will help to assure the employer that you are easy to get along with. Note that if you say something like this, you haven’t said anything bad about your last boss (which is critical–you never want to criticize former employers in a job interview!). More importantly, it makes you sound human. Who, at some point, has not gotten along with someone? Anyone can understand how unfortunate it is when the troubled relationship is with a boss.
What if you need to explain why you left your last job prematurely? Here are some examples of how to frame it: “My boss and I both felt that a job that could accommodate my school schedule would be more ideal for me and my employer.” Or “My boss and I both felt that I’d be happier and more effective in a job where I could use my ___ skills.” So maybe it wasn’t a perfect scenario where you stayed for years and years but answers such as these are palatable and honorable. Couch it in terms of arriving at a decision that was mutually ideal for both you and your employer at the time.
If your computer skills aren’t up to par and you know you’ll need to answer a question about it, enroll in a computer course. This way, you can legitimately say that you’re committed to upgrading your computer skills. Likewise, if the description for the position you’re applying for expresses a preference for someone who speaks Spanish (and you don’t), enroll in a Spanish language class and express that you’re so serious about wanting the job that you’ve done this. Even if you don’t get the job, you’ll have a new, highly marketable skill to add to your resume. (If you’re in a job already, take a class in whatever software it would be helpful for you to learn or ramp up your skills in even if your company won’t cover the cost—and make sure your boss knows about it. This can only help when performance review time comes around.)
How can you justify why you’re applying for a job that’s below your previous pay rate or responsibility level? In this case it’s almost better to bring it up and talk about it rather than it being something left to lurk in the employers’ mind. If the position you’re applying for is a downgrade from your past or you’re a Ph.D. that can’t find anything in your field but need something to make ends meet, you could say something like:
• “I realize that in order to gain experience in a new field, I need to work my way up from the bottom”
• “Salary isn’t everything”
• “There’s more to life than a big office and a fancy title”, or
• “We all have to make sacrifices in this economy”
If they know you know you won’t be making the salary you used to—or the salary you ultimately want to end up with—and you find it worthwhile to get the experience the job offers, they’re less likely to see you as a flight risk and might actually give you the job. (When you’re highly overqualified, it’s often assumed that you’ll accept a job then turn around and take the next best thing that comes along leaving them high and dry. You must assure them that this is not the case if you truly want the job.)
When in doubt, don’t lose heart. Remember “Someday the things that held you down are going to lift you up, up, up!”—Dumbo