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Career Challenge

Answer the Hard Questions Before Asked

Honesty about terminations and inexperience might make it easier to get the job.


Competition for jobs is getting tougher, but it's most intense for those with problematic work and personal histories.

Terminations, inexperience, extended absences from the work force and criminal records are just a few red flags for potential employers. But if dealt with intelligently, a less-than-stellar resume can be overcome.

Fortunately, employers have become more tolerant of less-than-perfect employment histories, said Robert Lund, chief executive of Ejobs Inc. in Dallas.

"The ground rules have changed significantly about what's deemed a substandard [employment history]," he said.

Even if you're convinced you have a past worthy of a Jerry Springer show, don't lie or try to hide information from hirers. Doing so can be grounds for termination. And background checks, which often are remarkably thorough, are on the rise.

Be upfront about past difficulties. Raise problematic issues before the interviewer does, said Tony Lee, editor in chief of in Princeton, N.J. Assuage their concerns, then guide the conversation to your strengths, skills and potential contributions.

"You have to be like the politician who responds to a question with points he or she wants to make," Lund said.

A history of frequent job changes no longer scares away hirers, Lund said. But if you've racked up a litany of unrelated short-term jobs (for example, secretary, dog-groomer, au pair), consider omitting irrelevant ones or, if possible, grouping them under one category heading.

Realize, though, that if you're asked to complete an application, which is a legal document, you must list each position you've had, said Kim Isaacs,'s resume expert and executive director of Advanced Career Systems in Doylestown, Pa.

If you've been out of the work force awhile, make sure your skills are up to date. On your resume, list relevant experience and education you've accumulated during this time, including community projects, consulting, online course work and continuing education. Network ambitiously with those still in your field.

If drug, alcohol or serious emotional problems have kept you out of work, give employers a general but truthful explanation about your time off, Lund said. Demonstrate that you're now fit and eager to return to work.

Career changers and new grads share a hurdle: They lack experience in their chosen fields. To boost chances of employment, they can do industry-related volunteer work and join trade associations.

Students should list on their resumes relevant internships, summer jobs, course work and academic projects. They also can attract potential employers by citing "hiring incentives" such as "willing to work weekends and evenings" or "will relocate if requested," Isaacs said.

If you lack a degree or haven't completed educational requirements for a job you're pursuing, list your education history at the conclusion of your resume. Cite relevant course work and certifications you've finished.

Sometimes, people with too much experience and education have as much trouble securing desired positions as industry neophytes. That's because hirers might assume that overqualified applicants will be threats to their supervisors, be too expensive or be "temporary squatters" who will continue to job-search while receiving a paycheck.

If you think your resume might be laden with too many years, degrees or lofty job titles, pare it down. Detail only relevant skills and experience for the job you seek, said Isaacs, who recently tackled such a case.

A manager with a graduate degree wanted to abandon her high-pressure white-collar job and load boxes in a warehouse, she said.

Isaacs encouraged the woman to showcase task-related proficiencies and downplay her management experience.

Another challenged group of job seekers are those so-called "dinosaurs" who've remained with one company for more than a decade. Employers sometimes worry that these individuals won't be able to handle new responsibilities in a markedly different work environment.

Isaacs suggests that long-term employees separately list each position they've held. This will show "internal mobility" and increased responsibility, she said.

If you fall into this category, show interviewers that you're adaptable and have kept your skills up to date. Emphasize your dedication, perseverance and loyalty, Isaacs said.

If you recently have been fired, or worse, been let go from a series of jobs, don't lie, blame others or adopt a victim's attitude during interviews, said Carole Martin,'s interview expert in San Francisco.

Avoid using euphemisms like "We separated by mutual agreement"; "We had creative differences"; and "I left for personal reasons." Experienced human resources personnel aren't fooled. The phrases usually translate into "I got fired."

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