4 Steps to Overcoming the Stigma of Long-Term Unemployment

Great Depression unemployment line

With a volatile economy and widespread layoffs affecting every corner of the labor market, even the best and brightest workers can get laid off and experience lengthy periods of unemployment.

Sadly, some employers and recruiters stigmatize job seekers who've been out of work for a while, assuming that something must be wrong with them and they're not as desirable as employed candidates.

Here's how to level the playing field and overcome the stigma of long-term unemployment:

1. Recognize Your Own Worth

Yes, your self-esteem probably took a beating when you were laid off. And yes, it's hard to stay upbeat when you've been unemployed for a while. But no, you absolutely, positively won't get a new job if you wear your dejection on your sleeve.

"Just because you're not employed right now ... does not make you worthless," said Rebecca K. Weingarten, a career coach and co-founder of New York City-based DLC Executive Coaching and Consulting. "You have to get into that mindset."

Job seekers who've been unemployed for a long period can "psyche themselves out" with unfounded self-doubt that is unattractive to a potential employer, adds Vicki Salemi, a former recruiter who is now a career expert and author of "Big Career in the Big City." "Your insecurities will definitely shine through if you don't come in with a positive outlook," she said. "You should go into an interview thinking, 'Why wouldn't they want to hire me? I'm an amazing candidate.'"

2. Fill Your Time (and Resume) with Meaningful Activities

Getting laid off is a huge blow, but the sooner you start filling your time productively, the better. If you have glaring resume gaps, employers may wonder why you're still on the market, Salemi says. "Instead, bolster your resume with things you've been doing since that time," she said. Did you consult? Create a website? Join Toastmasters? Earn a professional certification? "Anything that's professional and relevant should be included," Salemi says.

3. Look and Act the Part at the Interview

Donna Maurillo, who has been unemployed for several months a few different times, always kept her hair trimmed and nails done between jobs. "I didn't want to go to an interview looking like I was on my last dime," said Maurillo, now director of communications and special projects for Mineta Transportation Institute in San Jose, California. "It cost me, but I always wanted to look like I already had a job, not that I was floundering."

Good posture and a firm handshake are important, so practice these skills with a friend if you've been out of work for a while, Salemi says. "Go in with your head held high," she said. "If your desperation shows through, it's almost like 'game over.' Visualize your unemployment as in the past and focus on the present and moving forward."

Maurillo never approached an interview as if she were unemployed. "I acted as if I were also interviewing them and that I was particular about who I worked for," she said.

4. Be Ready for the Tough Interview Questions

Prepare answers to questions related to your layoff and unemployment, such as:

Why Did You Leave Your Last Employer?

Gail Geary, owner of Atlanta Career Transitions and author of "Your Next Career: Do What You've Always Wanted to Do," coaches her clients, if possible, to explain that they were part of a reduction in force due to poor economic conditions.

"I coach them not to go into too much detail, like, 'Oh, well, then there was this boss I didn't like, too,'" she said. "Be brief and to the point. Don't ask for trouble."

What Have You Been Doing with Your Time?

Employers appreciate a response that shows that in addition to active job seeking, candidates have been using their time to further their education, hone skills or help others, Geary says. Again, be selective about the information you offer, especially when it comes to other job prospects.

"Just say, 'I'm actively interviewing,'" Salemi said. "Don't talk about the job you almost got or your previous interviewing experiences with other companies."

Aren't You Overqualified for This Position?

This is a sticky question. According to Weingarten, you should "highlight how you can be a good fit and make [your potential boss] look better, or how you can improve the company's bottom line."

Your interviewer may be concerned that you will jump ship when a better opportunity comes along, so make it clear that you're enthusiastic about the company, that you'd be there for the long haul and that you would be open to promotions, Geary says.

You can also use the interview to turn the tables to some degree. When it's your turn to ask questions, find out how long the position has been open and when the company anticipates filling it.

"If the position they're filling has been open for several months, shouldn't there be a stigma about that position?" Salemi said. "Why can't they fill it? Are people rejecting the offers? In your head, you need to level the playing field."

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