How to Address a Layoff on Your Resume

The 30-year-old electrical engineer wanted one job, that’s it, to carry him from graduation to retirement. When he was laid off by a large national pipeline company, he was mad. True, it wasn’t personal; he was only one of several hundred included in the company’s workforce reduction. But still, he was mad.

“It really showed through in his attitude as we practiced for interviews,” said his career coach/resume writer, Jacqueline Garwood, who said her client’s negativity seeped through no matter what he was actually saying in the practice interviews. “It was my major focus in coaching.”

Garwood’s client was worried that the layoff would make him appear unemployable and present an obstacle to getting a new job. And he was right, if only because of his attitude, said Garwood, who coached him out of his anger and taught him to present a better image to recruiters and hiring managers.

The engineer is not alone in presuming his unemployed status made him less employable. Recruiters and hiring managers who spoke to Ladders admitted it can be an impediment to being hired. At the very least it is not preferred, they said.

But job seekers can take steps to present themselves and their unemployment in the best possible light and make it clear that they’re still active in their professions.

Are companies biased against the unemployed?

A phenomenon of the poor economy is that recruiters and hiring managers have grown more accepting of unemployed candidates. They call it “candidate forgiveness,” the willingness to consider an unemployed candidated who otherwise meets the job requirements. “Saying that you were laid off is no longer a problem. In fact, it’s not outrageous to say that; it’s expected!” said Bruce A. Hurwitz, president and CEO of Hurwitz Strategic Staffing. “That’s the good news about the economy. Employers realize that it is not necessarily the candidate’s fault that he or she is unemployed.”

But it remains undesirable, and many recruiters and employers remain downright hostile to unemployed candidates. The sentiment was captured by this job posting from an electronics company in Texas, as profiled in a June 4 article on the Huffington Post: “Clients will not consider/review anyone NOT currently employed regardless of the reason.”

According to Christine P. Bolzan, founder of Graduate Career Coaching, prejudice against hiring the unemployed has contributed to the rise in long-term unemployment. “It is so challenging to attain re-employment in this environment and job seekers need to do all they can to keep their resumes and online profiles current,” she said. “You need to have work to find work.”

Stealth layoffs

A particular problem is what Bolzan refers to as “stealth layoffs,” where a company eliminates employees but refuses to term it a layoff for fear of acknowledging financial difficulty. It leaves the laid-off employee to grapple with the false impression that he was fired. It is a particular problem for many of Bolzan’s attorney clients, she said. “I’ve seen dozens of cases where very talented folks are making it to final rounds of interviews only to lose the spot at the end where references have been called and firms are still not owning up to the nature of the layoffs,” Bolzan said. “I have also been told by mid-career job seekers working with recruiters that specific companies have instructed them not to even bother showing them candidates who are unemployed.”

The best advice, according to Bolzan: If you can help it, stay employed; if you can’t, use your resume to work around the issue.

How to look employed when you’re unemployed

Don’t let a work-history gap creep into the top of your resume after you’ve been laid off. Career counselors advise unemployed job seekers to take on work they can list as experience, whether it’s contracting or a volunteer position. Working on a book and consulting are other endeavors that show you’re still engaged with the world and which you should list on your resume; just make sure that whichever task you take on, it’s related to your former line of work.

For example, a sales professional might take on fundraising for a cause that she supports or even for an alma mater, Bolzan suggested. “Not only will this keep your resume current, but it also might present networking opportunities,” she said. “It is not hard to find a local charity that can benefit from pro bono professional services such as accounting, public relations and strategy consulting.

“If your profession has a formally organized charitable organization, such as Greater Boston Legal Services, approach them with your resume and a set number of hours you’d like to contribute each week. Volunteering is not only a great way to stay current but will also give your days structure, meaning and a reason to leave the house.”

Lowball offers

On the other end of the spectrum are those hiring managers who see a work-history gap and figure the job seeker is hungry enough to take a lower salary. Dr. Larry Chiagouris, professor of marketing at Pace University, has heard this attitude from human-resources managers who tell him that given students of his are out of school for so long without a job, managers know they’ll take less money just to get their foot in the door.

It works the same way with more senior execs, Chiagouris said. “Given the cost pressures companies are facing, they are not only looking for the best person, but they are looking for who will cost them the least amount of salary.”

Deborah A. Bailey had one client who was laid off from a high-level position and was interested in a job at a lower level. Since the client’s desired position involved more hands-on work than her previous management position, Bailey said, Bailey emphasized her client’s hands-on experience on her resume. “Though she was laid off from her previous job, by playing up her transferable skills on her resume, she could show that her overall business experience was strong and worth consideration,” said Bailey, a career expert, speaker and author of Think Like an Entrepreneur: Transforming Your Career and Taking Charge of Your Life.

Work-history dates

Let’s say you were laid off in April 2010. How should you list your job dates? You certainly can’t say “2008–present,” since that would be misrepresentation. Is “2008-2010” acceptable, then?

There’s no consensus on the date question among hiring managers or resume professionals. Resume writers such as Garwood have their clients put only the years on their resume, saying that it “gives some leeway — until the year is over, anyway.”

Others such as Brian P. McGowan, Managing Partner of Aquinas Search Partners, strongly advise full disclosure relative to employment dates. “It is better to be forthright and transparent than to potentially deceive or mislead a potential career opportunity with either an employer or recruiter,” he said. “Companies and executive search professionals are deliberate in their selection process and will conduct the due diligence to properly reference a candidate.”

Bailey concurred, pointing out that current employers verify all your information. “I suggest that job seekers use the accurate month and year that their job ended. If the employer finds a discrepancy, they may believe that there are also other things on the resume that aren’t true. It’s better to be as truthful as possible than to possibly lose an opportunity,” she said.

The bottom line: List the month and date of your jobs. Even if 95 percent of professionals think it’s OK just to list years, there are still 5 percent who might smell a coverup. Don’t risk alienating even one in 1,000 potential employers.