So You've Screwed Up Your Work History – What Now?

By Paul Breton

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screwed at work, unable to find work with a bad cv


When you're in the running for a job, the key metrics that a recruiter will use will usually depend on what you've done before. Of course, it would be much more useful if you could be judged more for your potential – for how well you're likely to do in the role – but lacking a time machine or a crystal ball, everything really does hinge on your work history to date.

When you've got a great track record and a host of achievements to be proud of, that's great. Unfortunately that's not the case for everyone, even for many people who are brilliant and probably have a great future in front of them.

As an example, Virgin founder Richard Branson's first business – running a magazine – failed, and by 22 he had wound up in jail and deeply in debt. And Walt Disney's early attempts at business flopped, his films being universally rejected by studios and audiences. With these track records, these people and many others would have looked less than impressive to most recruiters, and yet they eventually proved themselves to be powerful and successful forces in business.

At some point in your career you might need to submit a CV that's less than impressive due to a poor work history. Whether through your own fault or not, it's likely to affect your job prospects going forward – all you can do is try to mitigate the effect by presenting the facts as positively as possible.


Many short-term jobs

Sometimes a job just doesn't work out, and that's okay – there are so many reasons why you might find yourself looking for work again just weeks after you accepted a position. For very short roles, people rarely bother listing them on their CV, but once these short gigs add up, it becomes harder to explain what you've been doing with these months of your life.

You don't want to look like a job hopper but you don't want to leave a gap either. In general, anything lasting over six months is probably long enough to list, while with anything shorter than that you can use your discretion as to whether the experience gained will be valuable enough to employers to bother mentioning. (Remember that you can and should use different versions of your CV tailored to different employers, to emphasise what they'd most want to see.)

You can also make the choice to split your work history into two sections; rather than listing your experience fully chronologically, you could place a few longer-term jobs at the top, and place short-term roles further down with less descriptive text.


You got fired

When an employer learns that you got fired, it's often the end of the road. Unfortunately, no matter how long ago it was, or how unfair the dismissal, there are employers who will rarely if ever consider employing someone who has been fired.

The best policy is, of course, not to mention your firing unless the employer does first. If the subject is broached, you'll have to be as honest as possible, but walking the line between telling the truth and remaining employable is a tricky task. You'll have to work out what you're going to say in advance.

Your script will depend on exactly what happens. Liz Ryan of Human Workplace advises that if you're worried about explaining you were fired, you might consider making the dismissal sound more mutual:

The kid was asked to leave the job, but in an alternate universe the same kid told the boss "I'm out of here" two seconds before the boss told the kid to hit the bricks…It couldn't matter less who spoke first. If you can tell stories about what you got done and show that you know what you're doing, who cares whether your last breakup was your decision or theirs?

Not comfortable with this approach? Granted, sometimes this would constitute a downright lie and so you'll have to sell the truth a little more softly. If you were at fault, you will want to emphasise how you've developed since that time, and wouldn't make the same mistakes again.

Whatever you say, don't get overly defensive – even if your employer was out of line in firing you, anything you have to say against them may not be taken well. And don't be caught off guard for the question about why you left your last job. Expect it, and rehearse your answer.


Large gaps in employment

Recruiters don't like to see chunks of time unaccounted for in your CV. A space of up to six weeks or so is usually fine, but much longer than that and people wonder what you've been up to.

This seems particularly harsh if you simply couldn't find work during this time, as the longer you are out of work, the harder it becomes to find someone willing to take you on.

Exactly how you cover these gaps will depend on what you were doing in those breaks, but it's important to spin it well without being dishonest. If you took time off to grieve, to provide care or because of illness, you should explain as much at the end of your CV or in covering letters. On the other hand, if you were looking for work or just taking a break, it may be best to mention this only if it is brought up during the application process.

However if you were volunteering, training or doing something else that could actually help you sell your skills and experience to an employer, then that should be listed in the work or education sections of your CV as normal.

If the gaps really are that blatant, you can always list the years rather than the months of a job. Listing a job with '2012-2013,' followed by '2013-2015,' could mask the nine months in 2013 when you travelled around Asia 'finding yourself'. Again, be prepared to answer questions on this in an interview.

As a final note, industries where security is a concern, such as government or aviation, really do need you to account for all your time over the past few years. This will include the need to provide proof that you were unemployed, travelling, caring for an ill relative, or whatever. If this will be a problem, these industries may be significantly harder to get into.


Nothing to write about

It's one thing to have an underwhelming job history, but some of us have next to no work experience to talk about on their CV and in interviews. How can you conjure up experience and education out of nothing?

Of course, everyone was in this boat at some point. Everyone had a first job. And when you're applying for your very first role, you might want to go without a CV altogether. Many young people manage to find work, or at least internships, through word of mouth. By the time you write your first CV, you may have plenty to boast about.

In any case, it doesn't have to be too difficult to spin a good starter CV out of your efforts to date. Many don't realise that school education should be included, for example; that is at least until you have a little more to talk about under work history. Other things to include:

  • university education
  • other courses or training
  • volunteer and charity work
  • other formative experiences such as caring for family members
  • a personal statement explaining what you hope to achieve
  • your hobbies, interests and miscellaneous skills
  • any self-directed endeavours like teaching yourself languages or music

Finally, it's important to keep in mind that you should emphasise your potential – that is, what you can do rather than only what you have done. Perseverance and enthusiasm will help you get the break you need.


Your past roles are no good


Some people write out their CV and find afterwards that it's…just not that impressive. It could be well written, detailed and all the rest, but the roles it describes don't sell you terribly well.

You may have a history of less than brilliant jobs behind you, but that doesn't mean that trend has to continue. Many employers understand the pain of being underemployed and are willing to give a promising candidate the break they need, as long as you can convince them you're the one with the most to offer.

When talking about your past work, insert a theme of wanting to move up and perform more challenging work – hopefully persuading your interviewer that you understand the step up you're about to take. Don't focus all your efforts on walking into a job significantly above your station however. It may take a few more years of proving yourself before you can approach your dream job.

There's almost no unfortunate work history that can't be worked around or overcome, with determination, honesty, and a little bit of time. Most important is the ability to persuade others and yourself that your future doesn't have to be restricted by your past.

Paul Breton is a Marketing Executive with online recruitment specialists Blue Octopus Recruitment in Otley, West Yorkshire, United Kingdom. He blogs on working life, human resources and the world of recruitment.


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