This week's column explores how applicants should explain to prospective employers why they frequently changed jobs. Best-selling author Martin Yate, a career coach and former HR professional, takes your questions each week about how to further your HR career. Contact him at the e-mail address at the end of this column.
"Unfortunately from the time I left a position in 2008 to now, I have had horrible luck in keeping a job. My resume makes me look like a job hopper even though I am truly not.
I was recruited to be an operations director. The company was sold after I had been on the job one year, which left me laid off for eight months in the economic downturn. I took the first job that I was offered at a $40,000 cut in pay.
That job lasted a little over a year until I saw an opening that paid closer to what I was used to making, and I worked there about three years. I was told there was no place in HR for me to move up to (after completing my master's degree in HR management) so I left and took a senior HR position for a company that, in turn, had financial issues and eliminated my position after a year.
How do I express this bad situation to employers IF they even interview me?"
Bad things happen to the best of people and to me it looks like everything was on track until the recession ran your train off the rails. You aren't alone; it happens to many people. You can get back on track, and here are a couple of ideas to help.
Let's start with, "If they even interview me." You are struggling through tough times, so please stop beating yourself up and commit to positive self-talk: "Yes, bad things have happened, yes my job search is a disaster, but I can turn this around. When I identify my problems, I can overcome them." If you believe that, then you can make it happen; if you don't, then it won't.
Show me a troubled job search, and it can usually be traced back to a troubled resume. A resume's primary job is to get you conversing with people who can hire you, so this is where you start addressing the job-hopping issue.
You need that first page to scream your competence for the target job. By using common sense and deconstructing job postings, you can identify the top half-dozen priorities that all companies share for that particular job. Your resume then needs to speak specifically to these priorities:
- Start with the target job title, then follow with an intro paragraph that speaks to your competence for that position. This should be no longer than six lines; if it has to run longer, split your explanation into two paragraphs.
- Next you'll want a "Professional Skills" section that, in two or three columns, lists all the skills that illustrate why you are an ideal candidate for the position.
- Follow this with a "Professional Highlights" section that gives details of your experience and achievements in each of the key skills that the job requires. Each critical skill should be bulleted, with a bolded headline identifying that competency. This approach should take up all or most of the first page, and it will help you in a couple of ways: Because it's specifically focused on customer needs, it will be discoverable in database searches, and it will speak clearly to recruiters and hiring managers about your competency for the job. Now you'll have their attention.
- On the second page, provide employment chronology. List the company name, your job title and employment dates. It could be beneficial to use annual dates of employment rather than including the month. This is perfectly acceptable, although be prepared to give precise dates if asked.
- As for your "job hopping" challenge, the reason for leaving a job (RFL) is a common question at interviews, and the stability and continuity this implies also is being evaluated during the resume-screening process. What might work for you is to identify each company, with dates and job title in the traditional way, followed by an RFL line that could look something like these examples:
- Reason for leaving: Recruited to join company that was then acquired. Subsequently part of major workforce reduction.
- Reason for leaving: Recruited by company that later had massive layoffs due to economic recession.
I would try two versions of your resume, one with the RFL lines and one without and see which performs best (and do let me know the results).
At a job interview, RFL lines are check box questions. Have succinct answers prepared; if you stammer your way through an explanation, you may say more than you need while waving big red flags at the interviewer. Instead simply repeat conversationally what is on your resume. Keep it short and to the point, and speak without embarrassment.
Rehearse exactly what you are going to say so you can walk through each instance in 30 seconds or less. Then finish with a question, "So while it looks like I've been job hopping, I really just had some exceptionally bad luck with jobs because of the recession. Does that make sense?"
With these approaches to your resume and short-circuiting the job-hopping misconception in interviews, you can get back on track.
Have a question for Martin about advancing or managing your career? From big issues to small, feel free to e-mail your queries to YourCareerQA@shrm.org. We'll only publish your first name and city, unless you prefer to remain anonymous—just let us know.