Job seekers who have been unemployed for a while know that one of the most dreaded interview questions ever devised is the seemingly innocent, “What have you been doing since your last job?”
There’s almost never a hidden agenda when the interviewer raises the question. In general, interviewers are asking because a) they really want to know or b) they feel they have to ask.
If the interviewer really wants to know, your strategy is clear: Give a brief but work-focused answer that will show some benefit to the potential employer. If they’re only asking because they’ve been instructed to, then your answer really won’t matter. The most strategic course is to assume they really want to know what you’ve been doing since you last worked.
Of course, this is where the dread usually comes in for the candidate. Not only does every possible answer seem inadequate when compared to the ideal of being currently employed, but there’s a very real risk of putting your foot in your mouth.
To help you prepare for a happier outcome, I’ve divided some potential answers into four categories, ranging from terrible to genius. Some final tips will help you round out your own strategy so you can turn this difficult question into a positive conversation point in your next interview.
Terrible answers to “What have you been doing since your last job?”
A. I’ve been job searching but no one has hired me.
The problem: These answers just shout “I’m not employable.”
A. I’ve been using the time to rest and be ready for my next job.
B. I needed to take care of (family matters / personal projects / health issues).
The problem: While these answers don’t hurt you, neither do they inspire the employer to hire you. These are “me-centered” responses that leave the employer out of the equation.
A. I’ve been building / refreshing my skill set with classes in ______.
B. I’ve been consulting in the field to keep my skills and contacts fresh.
C. I’ve been filling in with interim work in another field.
The problem: These are better answers because they position you as someone who is focused on being employed and building skills. But they’re not as strong as they could be.
To improve these answers, loop back to the employer at hand. Here’s another look:
A. I’ve been building / refreshing my skill set with classes in ______, and now that I’ve seen the projects you’re working on, I’m glad I’ve been doing that. In particular, I think my certification in ________ is going to be useful for the staff training you described as part of this position.
B. I’ve been consulting in the field to keep my skills and contacts fresh, which I think will give me a leg up in this job. For example, one of my recent projects involved a marketing effort that’s very similar to the rollout you’ve been describing for later in the year.
C. I’ve been filling in with interim work in another field. In this role, I’m doing a lot of customer service, which has given me some good insights for the work with front-line team members here.
A genius answer (if you can make it fit for your role)
I’ve been doing this job, but without the pay. As part of my daily routine, I catch up on the day’s news in the industry, touch base with colleagues in the field, attend in-person or online training sessions toward my certifications and provide services as a volunteer or consultant to a variety of organizations, which you’ll see on my resume. I’m looking forward to bringing this energy and focus in-house as an on-staff contributor.
Final tips for answering this question
1. Never give a month-by-month report; this just highlights how long you’ve been unemployed.
2. Emphasize points related to the job in question — specific classes you’ve taken, particular consulting projects, etc.
3. Don’t act (or feel) defensive or ashamed. Leave all that behind when it comes to your interviews and adopt a matter-of-fact, somewhat upbeat tone. Interviewers will follow your lead.
Amy Lindgren owns Prototype Career Service, a career consulting firm in St. Paul, Minn. She can be reached at email@example.com or at 626 Armstrong Ave., St. Paul, MN 55102.