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 CareerJournal.com 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, Monster.com'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, Monster.com'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."
Whenever possible, get a commitment, preferably in writing, from someone at your last firm about what they'll tell prospective hirers regarding your reason for leaving, said Bob Armstrong, vice president of Kenzer Corp. in Los Angeles.
Before you broach the delicate topic of termination with interviewers, do serious soul-searching.
Were you fired because of a personal clash? Hirers often are sympathetic about such situations. They realize they're frequent workplace occurrences, Armstrong said.
But if you were terminated for cause, own up to it. Acknowledge that your last employer was not satisfied with your contributions, then offer contrasting evidence (such as glowing recommendations from others and documentation of past achievements) that show you to be a capable, committed worker, Lund said.
Perhaps the toughest thing to overcome is a criminal record. Though California's Labor Code prohibits employers from discriminating against individuals with criminal records, many of these people still face difficulties finding work.
"Very often, you won't get the job, but they're not going to tell you that it's because of that," Lund said.
Robert Gildow of Los Angeles can attest to the difficulties of life after prison. In March 2000, after serving nearly 10 years in state prison for various felonies, including assault and fraud, he prepared to reenter the work force.
"I tell them that to get their foot in the door, they need to work six months to one year at one job, even if it's washing dishes," said Glenna Minor, a South Carolina-based project coordinator of Homebuilders Institute and the Alston Wilkes Society's Project Take Heart, which offers skills training to homeless individuals.
Gildow did just that, taking part-time building maintenance jobs. He wanted to pursue a law career, though, so he networked with people in the legal profession while doing part-time work.
If you've been convicted of a crime, seek references from upstanding community members who can attest to your rehabilitation, Armstrong said. Begin building a job history.
Certain industries, such as construction, manufacturing and food service (as well as others facing labor shortages), tend to be somewhat more receptive to individuals with prior convictions, Minor said.
Consider sending out to potential employers "direct mail letters" (one-page marketing letters about your skills and achievements) rather than the more traditional cover letter and resume combination, said Lawrence Stuenkel, senior partner at Lawrence & Allen in Greenville, S.C.
"You'd be amazed how many times people will call you," Stuenkel said. "A one-page letter raises a person's curiosity, while a resume might just be skimmed."
Show interviewers you're over your past difficulties. Prove yourself a worthwhile investment. Be prepared to address hard questions such as "How can I be sure I can trust you?"
Most of all, stay optimistic while you're on the bumpy road to employment, experts say.
"When a client starts getting anxious about it, panicking about their situation, I remind them that they're exactly where they should be right now, and they will find a position," said career counselor Barbara Samuels at Jewish Vocational Services, a nonprofit, nonsectarian agency that helps Los Angeles residents secure employment.
For Gildow, who worked with Samuels, the efforts paid off. Martin Crumblish, a Culver City criminal attorney, hired him as a part-time legal assistant. Currently, Gildow handles civil pleadings and researches criminal cases and appeals for Crumblish.
"He's got the talent to do accurate and thorough research and put down narrative in a flowing style, which is unusual," Crumblish said.
Gildow said he hopes to take the California bar exam within the next year. Should he become an attorney, "I'd have no qualms about bringing him on as a partner," Crumblish said.
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Overcoming Employment Red Flags
Worried that something in your work or personal history might put off hirers interviewers? Here are some common problems in job seekers' pasts, accompanied by suggestions about how to best address them.
Frequent job changes
Group contract and temporary jobs under one heading on your resume if they're similar in nature. Consider omitting employment dates, but specify them on your application.
Gaps in work history
Keep skills updated. Mention relevant experience and education gained during this time such as volunteer or community work on your resume. If gaps are due to personal problems, such as drugs, alcohol or mental illness, offer honest but general explanations about your absences. Example: "I had serious health concerns and had to take time off to fully recover."
Do related volunteer work. Offer "hiring incentives" on your resume such as "willing to work nights and weekends." List relevant course work and internships.
Tone down your resume, focusing exclusively on pertinent experience and skills.
Long-term employment with one company
Itemize each position held at the firm on your resume to show "interior mobility" and increased responsibilities. Don't include obsolete skills and job titles.
Termination for cause
Be honest with interviewers. Counter their concerns with proof, such as recommendations and examples of completed projects, to show you're a hard-working, reliable employee.
Consider sending out a "broadcast letter" about your skills and experience, rather than a resume and cover letter. Prepare answers to questions that interviewers probably will pose. Example: "You may wonder whether I will be a trustworthy employee. I'd like to offer you a list of references from previous bosses and co-workers who will attest to my integrity. I learned some hard lessons during that difficult time in my life, and now I'm fully rehabilitated."