What To Say Or Do If You’ve Been Unemployed For A While

Have you been unemployed for a while? Continuing in the series of helping people find jobs from a hiring manager's point of view, I thought it helpful to offer some suggestions as to what to say if you've been out of the job market for a while.

Don't get defensive about your long employment gap. Instead, be confident and truthful about your situation and woo your interviewer. You should always be confident and truthful regardless. However, in times of distress, you should be even more so.

We all feel we are special and deserve more. The truth of the matter is, we're likely not that special and deserve exactly what we have coming to us. If the firm you were let go from is still in existence and has actually hired other people to replace you since your dismissal, it's important to recognize you were at the bottom of the barrel. 

An organization doesn't fire its best people, they fire their worst people  If you want to feel better about yourself, go visit the many self help/personal development blogs out there. I'm not here to help you feel better about yourself, I'm here to help you find a job.

Things To Say If You've Been Unemployed For A While

  • I was looking for the perfect fit because I believe it's important for both parties to have an ideal union.
  • My plan is to be at an organization for the long term, which is why fit is so important.
  • I had an unexpected family emergency to deal with.
  • I've been taking advantage of the downturn to cross things off my bucket list eg trained for a marathon, climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, swam in the ocean with sharks etc.  These stories are fascinating to recruiters.
  • I was the best deep fryer at KFC and didn't mind working there while concurrently using the money to help start a business.  Employers love to hear people take action.
  • I believe the best time to take some risks and start a company is during a recession.  Opportunity costs are lower and the hunger to create is much higher.

Things To Do When You've Been Unemployed For A While

  • Volunteer. Non profit organizations are hurting big time with the drop in donations.  If you can't afford to donate money, donate your time.  This will seriously go the farthest with me and other hiring managers.
  • Start an online company. Showing something online and highlighting the marketing, branding, and revenue you've generated is a very powerful initiative.  I know that if I was unemployed for 12 months, I can show the employer Financial Samurai and Yakezie.com and talk for hours about the initiative.
  • Take classes to further your education and skills. There are so many University extension or online courses out there for one to take.  I wish I could take more while working, but I'm having trouble finding the time.  Use this time to learn!

Things Not To Say When You've Been Unemployed For A While

  • Don't blame me, I voted for ____.
  • I wanted hopey changey.
  • See what's happening outside the Capital building in Wisconsin? I'm going to rock you if you don't give me the job!
  • Why work when you've got 99 weeks of unemployment benefits?
  • It's low season now for surfing in Costa Rica.
  • I was living my dreams, being unemployed.
  • I had a mid-life crisis.
  • My trust fund doesn't pay me enough.
  • I'm too good for KFC or McDonald's.
  • When I create the next Facebook, I'm going to come back, buy up your little dog and pony show and fire you first in front of everybody!
  • Do you know who I am?
  • I'm a Gen Y-er and I deserve everything.
  • You know you'd rather be young and hot like me, but you're stuck on the other side of the table living your miserable life.
  • Grades don't matter. I'm special.
  • I'll make it worth your while.
  • I'm huge on the internet. You haven't heard of me? Duh.
  • I quit my job, when really, I got let go. Note: If an employer thinks you're lying about quitting/getting let go, you will not get the job. The natural feedback for anybody who feels lied to is to go on the offensive and deny. Whereas, if you are honest, you will likely create empathy and someone who wants to help you.

Key Takeaway

If you've been unemployed for a while, don't lose heart. There is a company out there who wants to hire you. Remember, you want to be upbeat, honest, and cheerful during your interview. Nobody wants to hire someone who is defensive about their situation. 

Instead, embrace your long employment gap and tell them you are fully re-charged with additional skills you've developed in the off-season to make for a great addition to their firm.

Buy: How To Engineer Your Layoff: Make A Small Fortune By Saying Goodbye

Readers, any other suggestions on what not to do or say and what to do and say if you've been unemployed for a while?  Do you think employers discriminate against those who have been unemployed for a while, thinking there must be something wrong with them?



54 thoughts on “What To Say Or Do If You’ve Been Unemployed For A While”

  1. Hi came across this site and found it to be interesting especially this topic. However, it seems the responses are from many years ago is the site still active? If so how would you respond or What would you say when unemployed for a while due to being terminated for declining the vax due to your religious beliefs?

  2. When I was laid off, I knew it hadn’t been working out for awhile, but the effect was devastating. I had very little motivation and quite a bit of anxiety about working again. This happened because although I loved the work itself, the environment was very unhealthy and was a revolving door for many talented employees. It was easy not to blame myself for this particular job not working out precisely because of that. What was harder was explaining why I had been laid off when I had been so successful in some aspects of my job in interviews (we were performing at unprecedented levels and it was making the news). I went into interviews feeling the need to explain this away because I worried that it reflected negatively on me in some way, that in some way I was defective or dishonest. I knew I wasn’t defective because so many of my other bosses had tried to hire me back at some point, however there was still the issue of perception and how employers can assume so much without really understanding the circumstances. I found that explaining it away didn’t really wow or impress the interviewers, and it just made me look like a weak candidate.

    At some point, I just accepted the loss of the job and emotionally moved on. I was working low end temp jobs to make ends meet and taking classes for an entirely different career. I stopped feeling the need to explain the layoff in interviews. There was a real turning point when an interviewer asked me about the job gap. I explained that losing my job was devastating, and I needed the time to process that loss before I could move on and feel I could do my best for another employer. I also said that I took classes, excelled in them and have been doing some temp work in the meantime to pay some bills.

    It also really helped that my former employer laid off another rock star employee who willingly and reliably gives me a glowing reference when I need it, explaining that within that year they had a professional employee turnover rate of 25%. (It wasn’t due to lack of funding either, it was due to an unhealthy work environment)

    To say things are turning around and I’m climbing out of this long term unemployment gap is an understatement! I’m currently getting scouted by two employers with salaries and benefits way above what I had been getting before, and have just been hired by a company who is #1 in the world for their sector. So there is a silver lining, after all. Once I can list this employer on my resume’, literally the sky is the limit. It is a wonderful feeling (and a bit overwhelming).

    My acquired wisdom? Be very careful of who you work for and grateful for any employer who truly values what you bring to the table. Employers can and do make or break careers for employees.

  3. “* It’s low season now for surfing in Costa Rica.” this one is very humorous! I think this one is OK, not as a main response to a question about unemployment, but as a joke, maybe not to an employer, but to regular people you meet.

  4. My dad is back in the job search market. He has ten years experience being self employed with two successfully companies in the same time period with revenues ranging from $750k to 1 million. he has since sold his companies when the market (construction and automobile hauling) slumped. after selling his companies, he has worked for another company 2 yrs, and then tried his hand at auto sales. my question is: should he discloses the revenue values in his resume and that the companies where sold?

  5. Great post. You’re clearly a problem solver, like me.

    I second Darwin’s post above about the appeal of people who seem to be in control. People want to work with people that can take care of themselves, have integrity, take action and add value to a team. I know I do!

  6. This reminds me of what I would say when someone asked me about my previous employment back in 2001: “I worked at a dot com.” That right there would bring nods and understanding, and they’d move right along!

  7. I’d love to see someone’s own business on their resume bc it shows initiative. I’d ask tons of questions about it and I would want to make sure that you would be focusing all your workday attention on my company and not have interference.

  8. The “what not to say” section cracked me up. I wonder if people would really say these things. I think a lot of people who are job searching worry when they have rather large gaps in their employment, so the “what to say” could be really benefical to them.

  9. Invest It Wisely

    If I didn’t find something to my liking, I wouldn’t go work at KFC (well, I might work some weekends at the warehouses!). I would hunker down on expenses and focus on side streams of income, and pour myself into that. There’s no reason to settle for something where you will be unhappy later unless you really have no other choice.

  10. I was a hiring manager before I retired. I agree with some of the remarks above: prepare well for the interview – know what my company does, what skills it uses and how your education and experience will match to those things. Be honest – hiring managers know lots of people lost jobs – but show how you have learned new skills, kept up to date with your industry or polished up old skills while you were off. No one catch phrase will help you get that job.

    1. Wall Street Guy

      Can I just ask a question. I have been unemployed at the end of 2008 after 18 years on Wall Street. My last company, which was prestigious folded under the economic crisis at that time. I left the industry and joined my brothers in what has become an endeavor that has yielded positive results as yet. I spent most of my time traveling the world and spent much time in Brazil. At present, I am very energized on the thought of returning to the job market but in a different industry. Based on your prior experience as a hiring manager, do you think it would be best to be honest about my background to any potential employer during an interview? Thanks

  11. The Money Grower

    Sam, i would be interested to know how you, as a hiring manager, make decisions between who can do the job most competently and who will be a good team player.

    1. Extensive channel checks via references. This is why you never burn bridges. For an important position I’m hiring for, I will call at least 3-5 prior references and ask them to verify the resume and make sure they are good people.

      We also have the potential candidate interview as many different types of people at the firm as possible. Averages around 10-15 , but can go up to 30.

      After that, it’s a leap of faith. We hope for the best.

  12. Money Reasons

    At my place of employment layoffs don’t always make sense! I’ve seen them layoff people that were wonderful at their job, then rehire them once the market picked up. Strange huh…

    I had a friend that got laid off at the beginning of the down turn, he enjoyed unemployment, then 2 year later (and 2 month before his unemployment was to run out) he got a job. I was wondering how he would get past the 2 year hole… But, my friend has a high level of charisma and is a great communicator. He had them eating out of his palms.

  13. Exactly! No one wants to hire a guy who’s been sitting around doing nothing, waiting and hoping for things to happen. You need to do something! Be self employed and not unemployed, or leverage that time into something productive. Otherwise a huge gap in employment will be a red flag. Is it fair? Does matter, it is what it is.
    So yes, employers will discriminate, and can you blame them? I know I sound like a dick, but when I quit PwC in 08 I had the WORST possible timing. I did it in May right before the econ collapse that shook the financial world.
    My plan was to leave my high paying high hour job and take something that freed up my time to work on my web projects. Ideally something that paid in the high $30,000 low $40,000 mark.
    I was only making around $1,200 a month online, not enough to live, but enough to hold me over (with savings) for a few months while I job searched…and I could not get the kind of job I though I could get! IE: a dude with big 4 experience and a masters degree in normal circumstances is in high demand.

    My goal was to build my online income which comes via search engine marketing into a full time income, but it was not there yet and I need a job that did not gobble up all my time, so I took one, at a warehouse making $11 bucks an hour, and I took another one, as a professional hire for for $14-$17 an hour, and I took another one after that.
    You see, I did what I had to do to get to where I am. That included taking jobs that were not commensuratre with my education. Whatever, I worked, and busted my ass to make things happen for myself. Others need to do the same to not only survive, but to thrive.

  14. “The truth of the matter is, we’re likely not that special and deserve exactly what we have coming to us.”

    Ha! Reminds me of a funny line I heard on Arrested Development.

    It’s important to not appear as if you’ve been sitting on your bum for a prolonged period of time. I think it’s imperative that you’re able to demonstrate that you have the characteristics of a good employee even while you’re unemployed. Volunteering, as you mentioned, is a good example of that. Who knows? Maybe it could lead to a job or the development of a new skill set. It also increases your self worth to feel like you’ve made contributions to society. This confidence will come across in your interviews.

    One thing I notice about many people who are unemployed for a prolonged period of time is their lack of preparation for the interviews they do get. You should carve a couple hours out of each day to rehearse what you’re going to say to interviewers and analyze how your experience and abilities are beneficial to a prospective employer. Study books on common interview questions. Research creative ways to find a job. I personally like the book ’48 Days to the Work You Love’ by Dan Miller.

    The most important point is to be aggressive in your job search. Don’t expect companies to just fall in love with you because you’re awesome. It’s a competitive market out there.

  15. Very good article. Made me smile a lot. You can write really funny, Sam! :-)

    Great advice. People should be proactive but sometimes I think they get too gloomy and eventually too depressed. There are not a lot of opportunities out there (at least in Utah). My friend’s husband was unemployed for only a month and he already sounds like giving up. Too sad.

  16. Very good advice.

    I have a friend who was unemployed for a while (which is a red flag), but when I gave his name to recruiters calling about jobs, I just told them that his wife had a good job and didn’t want to relocate at first. As a result, his job search was too narrowly focused. She has since come around and is willing to move so now he is looking more broadly. Again, it’s the truth, but it also makes sense why he would still be a good candidate and also on the market for too long. He did end up landing a great job eventually, but it will require eventual relocation.

  17. Good ideas; it’s good to show you were “in control” during period of unemployment and may have been out for a while partially on your own volition – because you had prepared, had money set aside, could do what you needed to do to re-enter the workforce on the right terms.

    On the topic of “what to say”, I’m curious what phrase people use now when talking in casual conversation about being unemployed. It used to be “between jobs”. Of late, I’ve been hearing “I’m in transition”. It’s a little more ambiguous but I figured out what they meant after I heard it a few times. What is the new phrase you’ve been hearing?

  18. Lisa @ Cents To Save

    My spouse was unemployed for 17 months. It was a looooong 17 months. He did receive unemployment, and went on a handful of interviews. That being said, it was put on his heart to delve deeper into the bible ( He is a Sunday school teacher) and grow closer to God. He spent several hours a day studying. And catching up on DVR’d TV shows. Not too bitter, am I?

    There was no argument against that. Believe me… I tried.

    He is employed now and has been for almost a year. I am grateful for that.

    1. Hi Lisa – What was the no argument against that, exactly? Not sure what you’re getting at.

      Were you somewhat bitter/annoyed he was unemployed for 17 months, or not? Sounds like he put his time away from work to very good use.

      17 months seems like a lot. Hope he got to collect unemployment that entire time! I can’t wait to be able to collect from the gov’t myself.

      1. Lisa @ Cents To Save

        Hi Sam,

        I was a tiny bit annoyed/bitter that he was unemployed for 17 months with govt benefitw.. But, I think those feelings were compounded by my own work situation, a 7% pay cut, drastic reduction in hours and a slight feeling of helplessness. (Can you say Pity Party?)

        Anyway, no worries! Looking ahead to brighter days!

        1. Oh, I see. I guess how I’d be a little jealous, HOWEVER, every time I would see my spouse get a paycheck from the gov’t, I’d celebrate! So, actually, I’d be very happy :)

          17 months is a long time though indeed.

  19. I think the employment gap on the resume is something many aren’t thinking about (but should) when they decide to extend that unemployment longer than necessary.

    I think volunteering is a great idea, as is getting an education. What you can’t do is just sit there and take in the checks while you wait for the market to improve. You have to improve yourself too.

    1. JT, I actually don’t take anything personally. I just don’t have much time to respond to you who does not bother to listen. But, I didn’t want to be rude not acknowledging your question.

      You don’t think your Harvard teacher analogy can be construed as insulting? If you don’t see any lack of respect in that comment, debase what I’m advising on the resume/job front, and think as a student you are qualified to tell me what’s important to hire, I really can’t spend the time responding to you like I am now. I would rather just wish you good luck, sincerely. I recommend you have a conversation with MD at Studenomics.com. He’s a good guy who can help you much more than I can.

      BTW, “middle ground” = “average”. That’s not belittling, that’s just the definition.

  20. I agree Sam, it’s important to highlight other activities during your downtime, and they don’t have to be job related, just show that you didn’t sit on the couch eating potato chips for 6 months. If you decided to take a mental break from the grind that’s ok as long as you applied yourself to something. If you decided to get your scuba certification and head down to the Great Barrier Reef for a few months, great! It makes for a cool story and shows that you took advantage of the time off.

  21. Sunil from The Extra Money Blog

    i agree that proactive-ness is the best approach, no matter what is it that one engages in. sure, working for $8 an hour flipping burgers is respectable if one does it to plug in the gap and fulfill life’s needs, but so are alternative activities. if a candidate told me they took advantage of a once in a lifetime opportunity to travel the world and gain invaluable experiences, i would equally view them as proactive. it also displays several other intangibles/qualities.

    honesty + tact (a lot of it) = usually does it

  22. Good tips on what to say on interviews. It’s always better to be proactive during unemployment instead of sitting in front of the computer. I’ve seen a whole range of actions from taking time off to travel around the world to just hiding in the computer room.

    If I was the interviewer, I’d rather hire someone who was doing something while they were unemployed. Working the KFC fryer is better than sitting around.

  23. Whatever story the candidate gives must make sense to the interviewer. One should test out their story with some trusted friends before an interview. Even outlandish stories can work if they make sense. The important theme is you did something during unemployment versus just collecting a check.

  24. Mike - Saving Money Today

    Hey that pictures looks just like our cat Jasmine!

    Great tips Sam. But let me ask your opinion on side businesses. Do you think running an online business on the side should be included on your resume? It can certainly be used to show initiative and technical knowledge, but I wonder if the hiring manager would see that as a negative? He might be concerned that you’d be less dedicated to his business if you’re already working on your own. What are your thoughts?

    1. There’s nothing on the side Mike. The situation is you’ve been unemployed for “a while” and you decided to create something from nothing. Once you get your ideal job, then you can just focus on that and not mention your side business anymore. And if s/he asks, just say the job comes first.

  25. Money Beagle

    Very good advice. It’s important to be honest which you mentioned. A lot of the things you said sound great, but don’t bother with them unless they’re true. Don’t tell a recruiter that you’ve had a family emergency to deal with if you really didn’t, because then later it might inadvertently come out, and recruiters are trained to sniff out BS anyways. The first answer is always a good one!

  26. Good advice, Sam. I’ve had a couple candidates admit to a low-wage job because they had to pay the bills, and there’s absolutely no shame in that. I’d also like to hear someone say that looking for work is their other full-time job, and talk about the number of resumes they’ve sent out and contacts they’re trying to make. I had one guy respond the question about the gaps in his resume say that he was waiting for the right opportunity, the offers he was getting just weren’t up to his standards. He didn’t get a callback.

    1. Like this post. There’s no problem with being honest.

      I quit my job once and traveled the world for four months. When I came back and started having interviews, a lot of the times I was asked what I had been up to. Pretty much every time I would respond with “travelling and finding myself”. I would also try and spin that into how travelling on my own made me a better individual suited for the job (i.e. with more analytical and on-the-spot thinking skills).

      Interviewers value someone who thinks outside the box, and there’s no better time to do some serious internal thinking than when you’re unemployed.

  27. Nice post. I always like to ask candidates why they’re looking for a job, why they left their last job, and why there are gaps between jobs on their resume. I like all of your points, esp. the one about not saying “I was living my dreams, being unemployed.” I had someone basically try to get fired just so they could collect unemployment – not cool!

    1. That’s not cool. However, that is someone long-time employees and employers agree to if there is a solid relationship. Getting fired means no benefits. Getting let go means lots of benefits from the gov’t and from the firm.

    2. Brian Thompson

      I worked on Wall Street for 18 years then came the debacle of 2008 when I left the business culminating with the demise of Merrill Lynch. I have been unemployed since. I joined a business with my brothers but it has not gone in the direction I had hoped. I spent my time over the years traveling the world but now I want to return to the job market but not in finance. Somehow, I feel very energized returning and I’m at the prime of my life currently. Its just a matter of placing my many years of work experience coupled with my traveling experience over the past few years into a convenient dialogue during an interview.

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