Ultimate Guide to Job Searching for the 'Unemployable'

Job Searching It's challenging enough finding a job when your work history is cut-and-dried. But when your candidacy is compromised by negative situations at work or in your personal life, job search can be even more challenging.

Here are some tough employment challenges that many workers face and suggestions for how to manage your search if you are dealing with one of these situations.


When hiring managers read resumes, one of the first things they look at is dates of employment. If they see multiple short employment stints, they will often assume that you are a job-hopper, question your ability to stay at one company for long, and move on to the next candidate.

Often people's choppy employment record may be caused by several factors beyond their control; but unless the story behind your job changes is made clear on the resume, you risk being passed over for someone who can offer the perception of a more stable work chronology.

Here are some of the circumstances that make job seekers look like job-hoppers and what you can do about it.

Serial layoffs. It happens. You may be a loyal employee, but perhaps you have been the victim of serial layoffs and as a result, your resume depicts movement every year or two. Rather than just putting your dates of employment on the resume and letting hiring managers come to their own conclusions as to why you left, tell them why right on the resume. Add a brief explanation following the dates of employment -- such as "company downsized," "company relocated," or "company went out of business." This way, the employer has the facts and isn't left to guess why you are no longer with the company.

Temporary assignments. If you have spent the past few years working on consulting or temporary assignments, your chronology may be questionable to your reader. Instead of listing each temporary assignment and company with their corresponding employment dates, create one category for temporary assignments with the total length of time you have been working in this capacity. Then give an overview of the companies you have supported and highlight some of the main accomplishments that encompass all of your temporary experience.

Rapid promotions. Frequently I see resumes where the person has been at the same company for 10-plus years, and they re-list the company name and new job title and dates each time they are promoted. To the reader who is quickly scanning the document, this may cause confusion; he may think these were positions at different companies. Just because it is obvious to you, don't assume it is obvious to the reader who may be trying to get through hundreds of resumes. List the company name once and place the full dates of employment to the far right. Underneath that list each job title with the employment dates immediately following. By placing full dates of employment and dates of specific company positions in different sections, you increase the chances that the reader will understand that these changes were the result of promotions at the same company and not job changes.

Company mergers. Have you worked for a company that was bought by another company and then bought by another in less than five years? When you list all three company names individually with the dates you worked for each company, it can look like you voluntarily went to work for each of these companies during that short time frame. A better strategy is to list the current name of the company and in parenthesis write "formerly company XYZ" and follow that with the full dates of employment from the time you started at the first company before any acquisitions occurred.

The bottom line is this: Employers don't read resumes. They scan them very quickly, and it's easy to have your information misinterpreted if you do not make things crystal clear for your reader. Obviously there is more of a story to tell behind your employment experience and the reasons why you changed jobs. But in order to be able to tell that story to a hiring manager, you need to make sure that your resume provides enough of a positive hook that they decide to call you in for an interview.

Poor credit history

You lose your job. The bills are rolling in. You start falling behind in your payments, robbing Peter to pay Paul. You try to find employment so you can climb out of your deepening financial hole; you secure a job interview, make it to the next round and then to the final interview ... and then you get the golden ticket -- the job offer. But not so fast. The offer is contingent on a background check that includes a credit check. Now what?

According to a 2010 study by the Society of Human Resources Management, 47 percent of companies conduct pre-employment credit checks on some candidates and 13 percent conduct them on all candidates. Credit checks may be performed to reduce or prevent theft or embezzlement, to minimize legal liability for negligent hiring or retention, to assess overall trustworthiness of job candidates, or to comply with state laws. So what type of applicant is most likely to be subject to a credit check?

Annie Hoffnung, an HR director who has worked for insurance, investment banking, and public relations firms, says that "anyone with financial-services responsibilities may be subject to a credit check." Other experts say that credit checks are now routinely being done on HR and health-care professionals who have access to personal information -- Social Security numbers, birth dates, and addresses -- that could be misused to steal someone's identity. A person in IT at an e-commerce company might also be screened, as they would have access to customer credit-card numbers.

Companies using a consumer reporting agency to source credit information must adhere to Fair Credit Reporting Act compliance, including disclosure and authorization, certification, and advance notice of adverse action. The employer must provide written notice to the applicant explaining that an investigative consumer report will be obtained and secure the applicant's signed consent. The request for a credit check is often disclosed in the applicant's offer letter but may be addressed before the offer is made.

OK, so now you have a good idea whose credit might be checked and what your rights are. But what can you do if you have a less-than-perfect credit rating?

Be prepared to explain your credit history.

Poor credit can happen for many reasons. If your credit history was compromised by a financially draining divorce, unplanned medical expenses, lost bills, lack of credit history, or even identity theft, explain your circumstances. Sixty-five percent of the companies SHRM surveyed give candidates the opportunity to explain their credit history.

Bring the focus back to the value you can bring to the company.

Focus on selling your candidacy, showcasing strong employment references, proving you are responsible and trustworthy, and building rapport with the hiring manager. According to management development consultant Joni Daniels, "the perception may be that if you can't handle your money/bills perfectly, you can't handle anyone else's. But bad credit has nothing to do with honesty or the ability to perform well in a position that requires dealing with financial matters."

Ask questions.

An employer can rescind an offer due to poor credit history, but the employer is required to tell you if that was the reason for the rejection and show you a copy of the credit report they used to make their decision.

Explore compromises.

Some employers may be willing to extend a job offer to someone with credit issues with the understanding that they have a defined period of time to clean up these issues.

Make sure the report is accurate.

In addition, you should obtain a free copy of your credit report. According to Pricewaterhouse Coopers Certified Financial Planner and credit reports expert Gregory McGraime, "one out of five individuals has a serious error on their credit report and does not even know it. It can take 30, 60, or 90 days to get corrected, so this is not something you want to delay doing."

Fired from last job

We turned to the experts who all agree that you should never lie about this in an interview, but there are ways to be better prepared for the question and strategies you can use to create an authentic response.

Ricki Brodie

  • Never lie in an interview. It may be grounds for dismissal if you are hired. You should outline some of the successes you had on the job and explain why you were fired.
  • You need to make sure your body language remains open and positive and that you voice remains calm, not tense, angry, sad or uncomfortable discussing this.
  • Use the least amount of words to explain. Then divert the conversation off this question by asking an open-ended question about the position.

Sharon Good

  • Let the interviewer know your plan for fixing the issue you were fired for.
  • Let them know you're taking responsibility and being proactive, so it won't happen again.

Tom Hannemann

  • If you were fired for not meeting expectations and you believe those expectations were unrealistic, explain why they were unreasonable in a logical and methodical way so the interviewer can see that you are not criticizing the company or boss.

Joe Sullivan

  • Be honest, be brief and move on.
  • Do not bad-mouth past employers, but do not absorb the blow either. Hundreds of folks get fired every single day and for a wide variety of reasons.
  • Take pen to paper and write down exactly what happened leading up to the dismissal, then boil down the answer to four to five sentences.
  • Also, if the candidate has had a fairly extensive work history and "getting canned" had never occurred before, demonstrate to the employer that it was just a blip in an otherwise long and successful career.

Billie Sucher

  • When the employer asks the question "Tell me about yourself," address the "issue" upfront and put your cards on the table at the beginning of the conversation. That way, you don't have to worry about being asked the question -- simply take away the question and focus on the future versus dwell on the past.

Bruce W. Clagg

  • Be honest, but don't tell the truth to a fault; a minimum of detail is generally all that is required.
  • In the real world, I believe you'll find it difficult to find a person that was not "fired," "dismissed," "counseled out," etc. sometime during his/her career. Business happens!

Jill Grindle

  • Be open and admit you made a foolish mistake. Then explain what was learned from that error and how it resulted in some positive changes in your work habits or ethics, depending on what you were fired for.

Sherry Mirshahi Totten

  • The candidate should focus more on what they learned from being fired and relate that lesson to the current position they are applying for and to the company they are interviewing with at the time.
  • Possible lessons one might learn from being fired:
  1. I learned that the having the right fit is important for both the candidate and employer and that you must establish this from the start.
  2. I learned that setting expectations from the beginning of a job helps both your boss and yourself stay on the same page.
  3. I learned that having a sense of balance between work and home (or between various projects at work) is critical to doing well on the job.
  4. I learned that it is important to have open lines of communication with your manager.
  5. I learned that it is necessary to set up periodic feedback meetings to make sure that you are performing well.
  6. I learned that corporate changes may sometimes require that some employees may be fired but that this also represents a new opportunity to seek new challenges and to grow.

Criminal record

How can you field questions about a past offense and still stay in the game? Elisabeth H. Sanders-Park, an expert in tough career transitions and co-author of 'The Six Reasons You'll Get the Job: What Employers Look For--Whether They Know It Or Not,' offers these suggestions.

Expect the question and prepare your answer before the interview

There are lots of things the employer doesn't have the right to ask about you, but they can ask about criminal history. Before the interview, prepare a good, honest answer that eliminates or dramatically reduces the employer's concerns AND gives you a chance to prove your qualifications.

Welcome the question

Let's face it! When these issues arise, the employer's concern is at the front of their mind and you've got some explaining to do. This can be an awkward spot in the interview for both of you. In that moment, lots of job seekers act defensive, resentful, or just try to avoid the issue. Their body language, eye contact, facial expressions and energy make the whole situation worse. Don't let this be you. Don't waste time getting angry or wishing it wouldn't come up, just be prepared. Start by welcoming the question. This sets a positive tone for the rest of your good answer.

Take responsibility

Taking responsibility for your part in the mistake or problem shows employers you have some power to keep it from happening again, which reduces their risk in hiring you. Determine what you could have done differently to have stopped the problem from occurring. Briefly, explain what happened and why in five to 15 seconds without blaming others, denying your role, or dwelling on what you did wrong. If it's reasonable, attribute the situation to something you have already changed such as a wrong crowd, being young and stupid, or a bad decision you would not make today. Avoid sharing gory or distasteful details, bragging, or making light of it, and watch your language.

Watch your language!

There are words and phrases that employers simply don't expect to hear in an interview. If they are spoken, the employer can be so startled that they stop listening to the rest of your explanation. They're stuck at the scary word, and never hear how you have changed, where you're at today, and why you are great for the job. Think about the truth of your situation and find alternate ways to explain it. For example, "burglary" could be stated "went into a building I had no business being in and took some things that weren't mine"; "assault & battery" becomes "harmed someone" or "had a physical altercation"; perhaps you "took a car that wasn't mine," "reacted and someone lost their life," "started drinking too much; it got out of hand and even lead to some substance use." You can refer to prison time as "contact with the criminal justice system" or "paying your debt to society"; yourself as a "resident" rather than an "inmate," and a parole officer, re-entry counselor or recovery sponsor as a "mentor." These alternate terms designed not to deceive the employer, merely to tell the truth in a less startling way so they hear your entire good answer before determining if the gains outweigh the risks.

Use Father Time

Carefully choose how you refer to the past. Which sounds longer ago: "in 2004" or "almost seven years ago"? For most adults, "almost 7 years ago" sounds further back. To make the conviction seem further in the past, state the number of years ago it occurred. If you want to make something sound as recent as possible (e.g., a course you took or article you wrote), use the year.

Share your moment of clarity

Taking responsibility for your actions can reduce the employer's concern, but it's not enough to convince them you won't do it again. Simply saying you've changed or learned your lesson won't convince them either. You must let them see inside your heart and head. You must share your moment of clarity -- the specific instance when you realized you made a mistake, regretted your action, and determined to change. It must give the employer a clear reason to believe you wouldn't do it again. Bob, who was fired for embezzlement, said, "It was the horror and sadness in my son's eyes when he found out that broke my heart. I knew none of it had been worth it." The drama of your moment of clarity must match the issue, and include the specific lesson you learned, and your motivation for doing it differently in the future. As you decide how to express your moment of clarity, think about what the employer values. Does your explanation sound like you are only sorry you got caught and that you are finding it hard to get a job, or does it show that you regret the problems it has caused others, as well as yourself. Keep it brief, five to 10 seconds.

Paint a new picture

For all the good it does, welcoming the question, taking responsibility and sharing your moment of clarity also digs you in to a bit of a hole. You have admitted to what happened. Now, it's time to bring the employer from the past to the present. Paint a picture of your life today. Share what you are doing or have done to ensure it will not recur. Perhaps you have changed your thinking, become a parent, finally grown up, have a new group of friends, a new faith, learned a new skill, or have a new vision for your life. Be sure not to raise additional concerns -- if you mention that you are a parent, say, also mention that you have a reliable child-care plan. Take 15 to 20 seconds to help them see that where you are today is very different than your past. Every change you mention must be demonstrated in your actions and attitudes throughout the job search, and once you are hired.

Tell them what they gain

You have taken a negative situation and neutralized it. Don't end your answer without investing 10 to 30 seconds to refocus the employer on what they will gain if they give you a second chance. Remind them why they should hire you. What unique qualities, skills or attitudes make you worth the risk? Be sure the employer feels like they can follow up with clarifying questions. Consider the follow-up questions an interviewer might ask, and prepare your responses.


Your comfort in delivering your answer can increase employers' confidence in hiring you. Practice your answer until it is a natural response to various questions that could be asked on the subject. Natural is about 30 minutes beyond memorized. Practice not only your verbal delivery, but also keeping a positive mindset and comfortable body language as you speak -- relaxed and steady eye contact, no fidgeting, positive energy in your voice tone, and open posture.

Stay positive
Remember, everyone has some explaining to do. You have talent, passion, and experience worth paying for. There are many, many people with criminal backgrounds who are working, succeeding, leading in the world of work. Don't hold yourself back. Share what happened and what you offer the employer today, and leave the decision to them.

Next:Searching for a Job? Check Out the Top Companies Hiring

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