How Do I Explain A 10 Year Gap?


Today I sat down with a woman who hasn’t worked in the last ten years. “This is a huge problem for me. I mean, what do I say?” The look she gave me as she asked this question flooded poor self-image, a lack of hope, embarrassment; take your pick.

Well, I replied with the same reply I ask anyone who has been out of work for a period of time. I asked her politely to confide in me and tell me the real reason she’s been out of work so long. You see I have a mindset which is that there isn’t a problem I can’t solve or an issue I can’t strategize for when it comes to overcoming a dreaded question and performing well in an employment interview. That may sound cocky and I don’t mean to. What I mean is that anytime I sit down with someone who presents with a problem – big or small, I go in with a mindset of being able to provide this person with a viable solution at the end. If one doesn’t work, I’ll come up with another possible answer. The one that works for the person I’m helping is the one they choose and the one they feel they can pull off.

Maybe you’ve got a problem issue that you dread coming up in a job interview too. That question that inevitably gets asked just when you thought the interview was actually going well for a change. Take heart, maybe you benefit too.

So the reason? “I raised my girls.” Hmm… I’ve heard this before. Heard it before yes, but never from this woman. And this is crucial for anyone reading this who also helps others with interview preparation. You will hear over and over again the same tough questions people face, but please, never lose sight of the fact that this person sitting before you has never raised this issue of you. If you never lose sight of this and tune in like you’re hearing this for the first time, the person feels so validated and connected with just by your response, they’ll actually tell you more.  And this was the case today.

In just a moment or two, I arrived at the real reason she’d been out of work for 10 years. It went something like this:

“So what’s the real reason you’ve been out of work for 10 years. Tell me.”

“I raised my girls.”

“That was important for you. (Pause) Any other reason?”

“Well, my ex; he was abusive.”

And there it was; the answer to the question. Well, if not THE answer, it was at the very least one possible answer she could consider giving if and when asked. The key in finding out if the answer would work for her is in letting her actually hear it delivered as she might deliver it so she could gauge the strength of the answer. Hence, I asked her to reverse our roles, and pose the question to me as if I was her.

“Okay, so why have you been out of work for 10 years?”

“That’s a fair question and I wish I had a better answer. The truth is I was in an abusive relationship with a controlling partner who refused to allow me to work. He kept me at home raising our children. I’m no longer in that relationship and it took some time to relocate, rebuild my self-confidence; something I’m still working on. I tell you though I’m mentally and physically ready to work and I will arrive each day with a willingness to learn, grateful for the opportunity and you’ll have a worker who does their best.”

“I like it” she said. When I told her this was just one possible way to answer the question and offered to give her other suggestions, she stopped me. This one resonated with her because of the honesty, and she felt for the first time she wasn’t on the spot to make something up, like totally fabricated employment, which she said she’d been told to do by someone else.

Do you know how I could tell this answer will work for her? I read her face. Whereas I’d seen low self-image, hopelessness and embarrassment at the outset, now I saw hope, possibilities, relief.

Now, here’s the hard part if you yourself have a sticky situation that makes answering some interview question a major problem. You have to find someone you can confide the truth in – whatever it is. Only when I know the real reason behind your problem can I offer up a possible resolution that you might adopt. If you hold back on that truth, any possible solution will be based on what you share, for how could it be based on what is kept hidden?

So, criminal record, abuse, fired, exploited…what’s your issue? What is the question you dread in an interview? Whatever you fear won’t be diminished until you come up with a solid response that puts fear in its place. The only way to come up with that solid response is to lay it out and that takes courage.

For the record, I’m confident that wherever you are in the world as you read this, there is someone with the empathy, understanding and most importantly the expertise to guide you and counsel you through your own situation.

Reach out in your neck of the woods and all the best my friend.


Where Do You See Yourself In 5 Years?

When I’m facilitating workshops on improving one’s performance in job interviews, I often begin by asking those participating to share with me any questions they find difficult to answer. Among the questions which often come up is, ‘Where do you see yourself in 5 years?’

In coming up with your answer for this question; and every other question you will be asked by the way, do your best to understand the purpose of the question. While you are doing your best to impress the interviewers and get a job offer, from their side of the table, they are looking for reasons to rule candidates out and hire the last person remaining. In other words, answering this question well can leave you in the hunt, answering it poorly can leave you out of the running.

So, what’s behind the question? They might be checking to see if you’ve got ambition and see yourself having been promoted within the organization. While this strikes most people as surely a positive thing, it could trigger an area to be concerned about in the mind of the interviewer. Why? If they see you’ve already got your eyes on a more senior role in the organization, they could be going through this same hiring process in a short time; something they don’t want to do. Hiring and training people takes time and money, and in return for that investment in hiring new people, they want and expect to get a return on that investment. When it’s all about you and your career advancement, that doesn’t show an understanding and empathy for the employer’s situation.

Now on the other hand, some employer’s hope and expect you’ll outgrow an entry-level position, and if you stay with the company, they’d like you to advance having spent some time on the front-line. This way you’ve got an appreciation and first-hand experience of what it’s like to work at the bottom and this can shape your work as you move up. If you show no ambition beyond the job after 5 years, they may look at you as stagnating and dead weight.

I have found a combination of the two above positions to be ideal for most people in most job interviews. Doing research into an organization and the people who work in the role you’re after should reveal some insights that will aid you with the question. If however, you fail to unearth any clues about how long people typically stay in the job you’re after, you still need an answer. See what you think of this:

Let me assure you my focus at this time is securing this position and investing myself in the job; ensuring you in turn get a return on your investment in hiring me. That being said, I’d like to take part in any courses, cross-training or collaborative projects which will put me in a position to compete successfully for opportunities which may present themselves in the future.

You see a lot can happen in 5 years. While you and the interviewer might both have ideas of how things will look in that time, you both are looking at the future armed only with what you know in the present with respect to the future. As time evolves, opportunities may present themselves for an organization to launch new products, expand or contract, re-brand themselves entirely, move or perhaps stay largely exactly as they are. All kinds of factors may impact your personal direction and ambition.

Now there are some answers which effectively take you right out of the running in the mind of some interviewers. Suppose you shared that you and your partner plan on starting your family and having a couple of children over the next 5 years. Doing the math, this could mean you’re off for 2 of those 5 years on maternity leave, and your attendance and performance may become concerning both during pregnancy and once the children are born. Yes you’ve a right to start a family, but the interviewer knows there’ll still be work needing doing, and if they have to hire short-term help to cover your position, well, if they can avoid it, they just might choose someone who doesn’t raise this issue. Best to keep these plans to yourself.

Another possible problem answer is at the other end of the age spectrum. If see yourself as fully retired in 2-3 years, you could take yourself out of the running if they are wanting to hire someone they can make a long-term investment in. You might be perfect however if they are looking to hire someone for only 2-3 years while they restructure their workforce to compete better down the road. Getting what they can out of you for those few years might be pretty appealing and you part ways happily. Just don’t make this answer all about you. Sure you’ll get your pay for a few years and ride off into the sunset, but organizations aren’t entirely charitable. What’s in it for them? Productivity and someone who is totally invested in this single job and not looking beyond it to advance.

Some jobs have a high turnover precisely because they are entry-level, minimum wage jobs and employers expect if you have any ambition you’ll move on. Not everybody wants to climb the ladder though and that’s not a bad thing. Being consistently productive in a job is a wonderful quality; a win-win.

“Apply For A Job I Don’t Truly Want?”

There are the jobs we’d love to do; the one’s that get us really excited at the prospect of being offered the opportunity as the preferred candidate. Then there are the jobs which we are qualified to do, but don’t really turn us on to the same degree; they might be a little to far away for our liking, not quite pay what we want, or perhaps aren’t in the size of the organization we’d like. So should we apply for both kinds of job with the same commitment?

From an employer’s point of view, the answer is probably a big, “No!” After all, it hardly seems fair to them if some of the job applicants applying for the job opening aren’t truly invested in the application. If they ended up being offered the job only to then turn it down, that would be a lot of time, energy and yes money invested in the hiring process only to have to go back to other applicants.

From your point of view as a job seeker, the answer is less obvious. On the one hand, we all only have so much time and energy. Your time is no less valuable than an employer’s, and so you could argue that your focus should be clearly and only on jobs you really want; jobs you’d happily take if offered.

However, there are compelling reasons to apply for jobs that you’re not on fire for. Suppose for example you’ve got a criminal record. It’s from 8 or 9 years ago – maybe even further back in your past – but it’s still sitting there should a criminal reference check be done. In such a situation, you probably dread the inevitable question in an interview that could scuttle your chances at getting hired. In fact, you’ve probably already lost out on jobs for this very reason, so you’ve got good cause to feel anxious; for no matter how qualified or well you present yourself, that conviction always seems to get you in the end.

To help yourself, you’ve sought out help from someone at a local employment centre and you’ve had a mock interview or two to practice your answer. Your dilemma is wondering if the first time you try out your new response to the question should be at your dream job. After all, if practice makes perfect, a mock interview palls in comparison to a real interview with a real employer where a real job is on the line.

In such a situation, yes, you might be wise to consider applying for a job which you’re qualified to do, but doesn’t hit all the required boxes to qualify as your dream job. If as you’d hoped, the response you give is well received and results in a favourable outcome, this will bolster your confidence in future interviews, because you have proof that you can get past this previously impossible barrier. The same would apply if you’ve been terminated, you have no employment history whatsoever, you’ve got a large gap in your résumé, you’re feeling old etc. There are all kinds of situations where you might feel vulnerable, easily exposed and as a result, don’t present well in an interview. For these situations and more, going through a live interview to practice and testing out new approaches could be excellent advice.

The interesting part is that sometimes you might get offered a job and as much as you don’t believe it’s possible now, you do actually accept the job. After all, hey, it’s a job! Taking this position will be something current on your résumé, you’ll get new references should you do well, your past criminal record might diminish in importance if you prove you can work as expected. Put in enough time to repay the employer for their confidence in hiring you and you then apply for your dream jobs, knowing you’ve got some income at present and your sights can rise on a better fit.

Of course you could turn down the job if offered to you just as well. Hey, it happens. I don’t suggest you apply and interview for 76 jobs you have zero interest in which is an extreme waste of your time; you only need perhaps one interview with an employer to try an answer to get past your dreaded question. There’s no substitute for the real thing.

Experience in all its many forms is a good thing. Be they good or bad, every experience is a learning opportunity. Some people will tell you that jobs they took out of necessity and came to dislike or even dread were in some ways good for them. They may have learned to avoid certain kinds of work or work environments, to steer clear of certain kinds of supervisors, or to restrict their job search to a certain distance. The experience of going to interviews is no different as you learn what answers work for you and which don’t.

Now lest you be alarmed I’m recommending job seekers everywhere to flood employers with applications for jobs they have no interest in at all, I’m not saying this. What I am saying is that in certain situations, and on an individual basis, there are  times when it’s sound advice to hone your interview skills in a real interview; not for your dream job where you’ll feel the extra pressure, but first perhaps in a job with less on the line, so you can prepare yourself for that job of jobs!

The ‘Conflict Resolution’ Interview Question

One question that comes up quite often in interviews has to do with the issue of conflict. More accurately it’s not so much about conflict but rather conflict resolution. Like any question asked of you in an interview, the key is to figure out what’s behind the question and how to direct your answer to the needs of the interviewer who is assessing you and determining your fit with the organization in the position.

So if the interviewer said, “Give me an example of a time you experienced conflict on the job and walk me through the steps you took to resolve the situation”, how would you reply?

I’ve worked with many people over the years and that means I’ve heard a wide variety of responses; some great, some good and some mediocre at best all the way to just plain poor. I’d have to say the worst thing an applicant could do with this question is declare that they’ve never experienced conflict on the job and leave the answer there. No conflict on the job? None at all? No interviewer is going to buy that. Furthermore, even if it were true, you’d be expecting to be rated highly by the interviewer against other applicants by essentially skipping the question with an answer like that. This is just not a good strategy.

THE key place to start when you break down the question is to determine what conflict is. For some, conflict means an outright physical fight. Seeing as 1) physical fights don’t typically break out in the workplace and 2) to share that you have been involved in one with a co-worker, management or a customer would be suicidal, so viewing conflict as a physical altercation might not be the best approach.

Conflict if not a physical confrontation then, has to occur in some other way. It could be where the customer wants one thing and the policy of a store is something different; as in a full refund demanded but an item was purchased as a final sale. Conflict could also be where two employees have very different working styles and frequently work in shared environments. Perhaps receiving conflicting directives from two different Managers leads an employee to experience stress and there is no immediately clear way to satisfy both their expectations. Any of these represent conflict in the workplace.

If you re-read the question above posed by the interviewer, you can break it down into 4 pieces, all of which need to be addressed in your answer.

  1. A specific example of conflict
  2. The example has to be job-related
  3. Steps taken must be illustrated
  4. The example used must be resolved

By breaking down the question into these 4 components, you can better answer the question, and as you mentally check off each item as you address it, your own self-confidence rises. These beats ‘winging it’; where you ramble along and hope that somewhere in your answer you give the interviewer what they are looking for. The problem with this kind of answer is that not only does it seldom answer the question fully; you as the applicant are left wondering if you’ve said enough or too much.

Now before you get to the interview, you should include as part of your preparation a review of the job requirements. If the job posting specifically mentions conflict resolution, being able to prioritize tasks, resolve situations, problem solve etc., you’d be smart to have several examples prepared ahead of time that demonstrate your conflict resolution skills. Keep in mind that the interview is listening for HOW you went about resolving the situation and assessing your answer compared to how they want people to resolve conflict in their workplace. So how you solved problems and dealt with conflict elsewhere is likely how you’ll approach problems and conflict working with them if hired.

Everyone experiences conflict. You should never attempt to sell an interviewer the line that you’ve never experienced conflict of any kind in the workplace. You may unintentionally come across as dishonest, hiding something, not really knowing yourself, or perhaps how you’ve dealt with conflict resulted badly. None of these are what you want to leave the interviewer thinking.

What you do want to leave the interview with is the impression that you deal with conflict proactively and responsibly; resolving conflict before it escalates and does irreparable harm to the organization. Conflict never resolves itself, and if the job you are applying for is one working with other people, then it’s your interpersonal skills that are going to play a big part of your answer. How did you approach that customer or co-worker? Did you listen as well as talk to gain their perspective? Did you exercise patience, empathy and consider your options? Did you actually think of alternatives and resolutions or just quote a policy and keep repeating it over and over, further annoying the client to the point where they are now sharing their terrible experience with not just you but the company as a whole?

Conflict resolution is a skill just like any other. While some take conflict with a customer over a policy very personally, others see the conflict for what it is – a problem with a policy. They don’t ‘own’ the conflict even though they are the person on the receiving end as the company representative.

So, can you come up with an example of conflict resolution?


“How Do I Raise The Issue Of Compensation?”

I’m not sure why so many people struggle with this issue but it seems to be the one question that many people stress over during an interview when they are asked if they have any questions. Some don’t believe they should ask about pay and benefits whatsoever, while others who have decided they do in fact want to ask aren’t sure about how to do it, out of the fear of being viewed as only concerned about money.

I look at the issue of compensation, (money and benefits) as a necessary piece of information required in order to determine if the position being discussed is going to provide you with what you believe to be a fair return on your investment in the company and the job they may offer you. You more than anyone, know the income you require in order to make ends meet, and hopefully, you want to do more than just survive, you want to thrive.

Consider that most employers are looking for people who use good judgement and make good decisions. If you preface your question by stating that the issue of compensation is one factor – not THE factor – in your decision-making process with respect to pursuing the position being discussed, then you are not only telling the interviewer you have good decision-making skills, you are demonstrating those skills right before them. Maybe this angle hadn’t occurred to you before?

You do need to have an accurate idea of the salary and benefits in order to actually make an informed decision on whether or not you can afford to take the job if offered, but also to compare or contrast this position with others you might be mulling over. Imagine what would happen if you accepted a job not knowing the salary, then two days into the job turned down another position that paid more money. The only way you found it paid more money was at the end of the third week of work when you received your very first pay. Wouldn’t you be kicking yourself perhaps having turned down a similar job which paid more money? This situation has happened to some of the people I assist who despite my advice, were too timid to ask in an interview; afraid they’d disrespect the interviewer by raising the issue.

The real issue therefore is not to wonder whether or not to raise the issue, but HOW to raise the issue respectfully, and in such a way that compensation doesn’t come across as your sole deciding factor.

The wrong way is to ask but a single question of the interview when you get a chance that goes, “How much does this job pay, and are there benefits?” Ask this single question and you are sending a clear message that you are only motivated about what you’ll get from the job, not what you’ll invest in the job. From the employers view, (and considering they are the ones who control the offer of a job this is the view that counts), it’s not about what you’ll get but rather, what you’ll contribute.

The solution for my money (pun intended), is to sandwich the issue of compensation between a minimum of two questions which pertain more to the job and the organization. In real terms, it could look like this:

Q1. I’d be very interested in hearing about the style of leadership the person to whom I would be reporting prefers in order to determine my personal fit.

Q2. I mentioned previously that I like to gather all the necessary information I can in order to make important decisions. Compensation for this position is one piece of information I’m very interested in hearing about, therefore could you share the salary range for this position and based on my background and what I’ll bring to the company, your offer.

Q3. Would it possible to have a short tour of the organization? I’d like to visualize myself here, feel the atmosphere and perhaps meet a few people.

The above three questions break down as 1 about your compensation and 2 about the company and the job. (The supervisor and the work environment). The question you may most want answered is the middle one; hence the sandwich.

Be forewarned that the person to whom you direct the question about compensation will undoubtedly zero in on your body language and facial expression when the salary is shared. They’ll be interested to by your reaction if you feel the number is low, fair or exceeds your expectations so stay in control.

You should have a good idea if you are inexperienced and will be happy with any salary or if you are a seasoned professional and your background justifies negotiating a higher number. You certainly don’t want to talk your way right out of their consideration by demanding an outrageous figure, but you should know your worth.

Remember too that if you don’t like the figure put on the table, you have options:

  1. Walk away
  2. Accept the compensation
  3. Negotiate a higher figure
  4. Accept the compensation as a starting salary and negotiate increments or raises based on performance (A combination of 2 and 3)

You must understand that if the company has a fixed salary range for a position, they are likely not going to start you at a wage which exceeds the income of others currently working in the same position.

How much are you worth?