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ASK A CAREER COACH

Should I tell interviewers about my string of bad jobs? Add to ...

THE QUESTION

I’m 42, and I can’t get or keep a job.

My résumé is a mish-mash of stints here and there. The rare times I get an interview, potential employers are suspicious – and I can’t tell the truth without sounding like a drama-filled, bitter ex-employee.

The fact is, I’ve had a string of really bad employers.

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I worked at an animation company for a year, where I was bullied by my superior, so when the company went under, I decided to not go back into the field.

I spent a year on employment insurance and during that time managed to teach myself HTML, Flash, and Web programs. I got two part-time positions, but when those projects ended, I was left hunting for a job again.

I managed to find a job at a small agency, but my boss didn’t do well under pressure. After about a year, I arrived at work to find my e-mail inbox filled with about 30 messages from him. The e-mails were complete jibberish. Before I could respond, he launched into a tirade and yelled at me to leave. I never went back.

After that, I landed a job making banner ads for an auto website. Then the financial crisis of 2008 hit and everyone was let go.

Two years later, I got a full-time job at a real estate company, doing print and Web graphics. But my boss was incompetent. One morning, I found her in tears. She had completely neglected to plan for three big projects that were due at the end of the week. I put together a list of priorities and an accelerated production schedule, and got it all done on time. How I was rewarded? She fired me the moment the last file got sent out. (I think she was scared I was going to rat her out for doing her work.)

I finally went back to school. But here I am, nine months later, not getting anywhere again. I feel doomed.

Interviewers are suspicious. Do I tell them the truth?

THE ANSWER

Do you tell interviewers the truth? Yes, but not in quite the way you did in your letter. You could say, quite truthfully, “the position was not the right fit” or “i decided to move to a different role that met my career objectives.” In cases where your contract was not renewed, just say that. There’s no need to go into details.

With respect to your overall situation, I sympathize with your lack of good employment, but I noticed one thing – it is everyone else’s fault. What have you learned about each role you have had? What have you noticed about the employers you are associating yourself with? And most important, what have you learned about yourself that you can do differently? We all have had bad managers.

From what I can see, you do have the fundamentals, but have bounced around a bit more than most. Arguably, that does tend to make a recruiter dig a bit harder, but there are ways to frame the progression of your career so it seems more logical.

First, I would suggest that you start looking at the core experiences and skills you have built up, such as graphic arts and Web-based applications.

Emphasize your ability to manage projects and the time pressures and tasks that are common in the field. Keep your job chronology as crisp and straightforward as possible. Interviewers should understand that your industry has had its ups and downs over the past decade, so you don’t need to dwell on the “why.” I get the sense that, in an interview, you might give too much commentary on the employer, and not enough on what skills you have to offer.

In each of the bad experiences you’ve had, you need to consider what the true lesson was. If you’ve had a roster of bad experiences in small employer or small team situations, you might want to focus on roles that put you in the midst of a bigger team, where you have the opportunity to learn from others and contribute to a larger effort.

Eileen Dooley is general manager of Calgary-based career transition and outplacement firm McRae Inc.

Have a question about careers, labour law or management? Send it to our panel of experts: careerquestion@globeandmailcom. Your name and address will be kept confidential.

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