My career has had some ups and downs. How do I talk about my career history without putting a prospective employer off?

CONTENT PCM career history

Your career may have been a blaze of non-stop glory, but most people have had some difficult times in their career whether it’s a period of unemployment, working with a horrible boss or in a role they didn’t like. 

It can be easy to become defensive when talking to a recruiter about these periods in your career, so here are some tips for handing this.

  1. Baggage-handling

If there is a career issue you feel is sensitive, such as losing a job,  then be careful to control your verbal and body language when you talk about it to prospective employers. Individuals often start giving far too much detail about it in order to justify themselves. At interview you can see them reliving past wrongs or mistakes and becoming quite emotional. The personal baggage on display is often more off-putting for the employer than the issue itself. Resist the temptation to talk about it at all if you can by shifting the focus. If you have to talk about it, then keep it short, tightly scripted and find some positives about it, so the message remains upbeat. 

  1. Lessons learnt

Everyone makes mistakes – the idea is to learn from them. If you have to talk about a career failure, acknowledge there were difficulties, avoid criticising individuals or the company and frame it as a useful if painful learning experience. Perhaps this made you realise that you were better suited to roles where your analytical skills were needed, or that you prefer working in SMEs rather than big corporates. Just make sure that whatever you say you are looking for more of, is consistent with the role you are applying for.

  1. Career Gaps

Most people will have career gaps at some point in their career, whether it is for family reasons, travelling or a period of unemployment. If you are currently on a break, then you are going to need to reassure the employer that your skills and knowledge are sharp and you are professionally match-fit. The best way to do this is by acquiring recent experience whether it is voluntary work, some paid or unpaid consultancy work, sitting on a committee, helping with community activities or going on a course. This is especially important if your break has been longer than six months. 

Use a functional CV to aggregate all of your skills and experience on the first page of your CV so a recruiter won’t  actually see your employment dates until the second page by which time you have hopefully already persuaded them that you are worth considering. You can also minimise the appearance of gaps by using years rather than dates for your employment history e.g. '2018-2019' instead of 'July 2018 – Jan 2019'. Where you have a number of jobs that didn’t last very long you could also group them together as '2018-2019 worked in a number of interim finance roles in the manufacturing sector' rather than specifying just how long you spent in each.

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  1. References

If you left on less than happy terms with your last employer, then check out what will be on your reference, so you know how much to declare to a new prospective employer. Some employers will only provide confirmation that you worked there and your dates of employment. If not, try and get an agreed reference from your organisation especially if you have signed a settlement agreement. Otherwise wait until the job offer stage before releasing your referee details and arrange for them to contact people who you know will be happy to give you a positive personal reference. Adopt the “baggage-handling” and “lessons learnt” strategies if you need to explain why your manager is not giving you a good reference. 

  1. Factual Accuracy

As a candidate you are of course presenting the very best version of yourself.  However never be tempted to tell a lie. Finance professionals are in a trusted position so be prepared for employers to be diligent in checking you out. All factual data such as employment dates, qualifications, grades etc, must be accurate. Recruiters will be validating your application by checking your CV is consistent with your LinkedIn profile; by taking up references and carrying out checks on your qualifications and previous employment dates. If a lie is discovered at any time, including after you have been working in the job for a while, you can be immediately fired and even potentially prosecuted for fraud. Far better to be truthful rather than run the risk.

Corinne Mills is Managing Director of Personal Career Management, the leading specialists in career management and outplacement services who are the official Career Management partners for the ACCA.

As part of ACCA Member benefits, Personal Career Management offer ACCA Members a free career conversation and a 10% discount off any career coaching or outplacement programme. 

If you are looking for help in reaching your career goals, or assistance with a practical job search strategy, then call Personal Career Management on +44 1753 888 995 for a confidential discussion or fill in their online contact form 

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