When employers screen job applicants, they might spend as little as a few seconds scanning your résumé before moving on to the next. If they see red flags during that initial look, they're likely to toss your application and move on to the next candidate – so it's important to make sure that any red flags in your job history are addressed right up front.
Here are five of the most common job history red flags and how to combat them.
1. You have unexplained gaps in between your jobs.
Why it's a problem: When employers see gaps of unemployment (of longer than a few months), they wonder what happened during that time. Did you leave the previous job with nothing lined up, and if so, why? Were you fired? Were you working somewhere that you've deliberately left off your résumé, and if so, what are you hiding? Gaps in your job history raise questions that you don't want on a hiring manager's mind.
How to combat it: Be prepared to explain what caused the gap and what you did with the time. Were you spending the time caring for a sick family member, traveling, or volunteering? Be ready to talk about it.
2. You look like a job-hopper who doesn't stay at a job very long.
Why it's a problem: If your résumé shows a pattern of leaving jobs quickly – meaning that you have repeated stays of less than two years – you're going to raise alarm bells for most employers. They'll assume you won't stay long with them either, and they'll wonder why you're unable or unwilling to stay in one place for a more typical amount of time.
How to combat it: First, if any of those short stays were designed to be short from the beginning, like an internship, temp job or contract work, make sure that your résumé indicates that. Note "contract job" or another explanation next to your job title. But if you're a true job hopper and those jobs that you left early were intended to be longer term, this is a harder problem to fix. You might need to rely on convincing hiring managers that (a) you're ready for stability and want to find a company you can commit to for longer, and (b) you're so great at what you do that you'll be worth investing in.
3. You were fired from a job in the recent past.
Why it's a problem: Employers will want reassurance that whatever caused you to be fired won't be repeated if you work for them.
How to combat it: Practice an answer that briefly explains what you learned from the situation and what you do differently now as a result. Practice saying it out loud until you eliminate all traces of defensiveness or bitterness; employers are going to pay attention to how comfortable you are with your answer and whether it sounds like you've moved forward.
4. You don't have much experience.
Why it's a problem: While you might be able to do the job if given a chance, the reality is that employers have plenty of experienced candidates who have already worked in their field. As a result, they don't have much incentive to take a chance on someone untested.
How to combat it: This is where a fantastic cover letter can really help you. That means a cover letter that doesn't just regurgitate your résumé but instead really speaks to why you want this particular job and why you'd excel at it. In addition, try fleshing out your résumé with volunteer work, to establish a track record for employers to look at.
5. You've been unemployed for a while.
Why it's a problem: Even in this economy, some hiring managers look at long-term unemployed candidates and wonder if there's a reason that other employers haven't hired them. Fortunately, many employers do understand that it can take time for even good candidates to find work in this market.
How to combat it: Make sure that you can show that you've been spending your time volunteering, building your skills or something other than watching TV and applying to jobs. Employers want to see that you've done something to keep up with your field during your time away.
Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results, and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.