Everyone wants to have the perfect résumé without a “blip” or blemish. Unfortunately, that is often not the reality. Many have made moves in their careers that they would not have predicted or that did not work out as planned. Some have made several career moves, causing their résumés to look disjointed and raise red flags to potential employers. Tackling questions about these résumé sticking points is necessary and you need to get a handle on how to answer for your past decisions.
Honesty is the best policy, but how much honesty? Do you need to go into extreme detail about the personal reasons why you may have left a job? How do you explain that you loathed your last position without sounding negative? What if the truth is that you really loved the work, but disliked your boss and/or office environment? How can you state those reasons without breaking the cardinal interview rule of never denigrating your previous/current employers?
One thing is certain – you need to plan for the line of questioning about your career moves because if you don’t, you will be caught off guard. Shooting from the hip and “winging it” are not the strategies you want to employ with this line of questioning. You need to be prepared, confident and unapologetic about why you made the career choices you did.
Explain Not Apologize
First and foremost, you need to remember that the person you are speaking to is a human and has likely made a move in his/her career that didn’t work out perfectly. Your tone should be informational not regretful about the moves you have made, even the ones that you feel are “rough spots” on your résumé. Taking an apologetic tone suggests that you feel sheepish about the move and that you should not have done it. Speaking cogently and confidently about why you made that move, even if it was not a popular or easily understandable decision, will resonate better with the interviewer.
In order to strike a confident tone in the interview, you need to prepare. A good place to start is to recollect your mindset when you made that career move. Try to remember what made you leave Big Law for a small, unknown law firm, or what made you skip law firms altogether and start your career in house. As they say, hindsight is 20/20, so it’s easy to look back and be critical of your decision-making. If you take the time to remember your thought process at the time you made the move, it will help inform your answer to the career move question. When you remember how you felt, you also remember that your decision had merit and often times, people recall that they had really sound reasons (at the time with the information they had) for a certain career move. Once you can connect to your own past motivations to make a move, your explanation of the move will make more sense to the interviewer, and will not sound regretful or apologetic.
Do not call a move a “mistake” or “big regret”, but rather explain why you made the move and how it did not live up to your expectations. If you are candid about the fact that the career move did not pan out as you had hoped (without being overly specific or negative), you show self-awareness, which is a great quality. In fact, one of our clients recently said that they really appreciated the interviewee showing her “vulnerability” by admitting that some of her previous career moves had not worked out as planned. She was honest, not apologetic, and it scored points for her in the interview.
If you are not candid about your moves, defensiveness can take over, and really disrupt the interview. You do not want to make the interviewer feel as though they are “intruding” by this line of questioning. Be open to it; be straight-forward and be ready for it.
Consider Your Audience
Recognize that some of your career moves that are perceived as “risky” are not necessarily bad, and may actually be well-received. One of our clients is a start-up company and they like to see that lawyers have taken some risks in their career. Many employers would not fault you for making a non-traditional career move. Obviously, your messaging has to be tailored to your audience – if you are interviewing with a large, long-standing company that has a culture of hierarchy and traditionalism, then you need to be aware that your risky past moves may not be understood or lauded. That being said, you still need to know how to address and explain those perceived risks, without apology.
The interviewer needs to hear you explain why you made a move – he/she does not have to agree with such reasoning in order to hire you! The interviewer wants to know that you possessed sound, analytical reasoning that led you to go to that boutique firm or to try out having your own solo practice. They do not want to hire a lawyer who makes rash, illogical choices. Remember that the interviewer does not have to completely understand or agree with your choices. So although you need to consider your audience, you may not be able to convince your audience that your decisions were right. Your goal is to explain to your audience that at the time in question, you made a decision that you felt was smart and right for your career.
How Much Honesty?
Frequently, lawyers have difficulty explaining why they made a move, when that move was due to a difficult work environment or boss. It is widely understood that speaking negatively about one’s current/previous employers is not professional and will ruin your chances of getting the new job, so how do you address this? In essence, how much honesty is too much?
Honesty really is the best policy, but it’s about the level of information that you choose to share. If you worked for an over-the-top, demanding boss, you can discuss the work environment and how it did not align with your work style (which is true), but do not go into details about one specific person. For instance, it is fine to explain that although you loved the work, you felt the company’s culture was too competitive, and not collaborative. Or maybe the culture was isolating and you felt really siloed at a specific job – explain that, without pointing fingers at who made you feel that way. If the interviewer presses for more details, do not panic! You look them in the eye and, with confidence, reiterate that it was not the right place for you long-term. Explain why you believe this new job could be the right fit. Just because someone probes you for details does not mean you have to overshare and wind up saying something negative that you will regret. It is not about being dishonest, but rather having personal and professional boundaries which will be respected.
Sometimes the best result of being honest about your career moves (without over-sharing negative details) is that the interviewer will give you an honest glimpse into the job for which you are applying. The interviewer may open up more than usual and give you a real sense of the company’s culture and work environment. Honesty and informed answers from you can prompt honest information about the new job from the interviewer, which can help you avoid making a career move that could ultimately be another résumé “rough spot”!
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