How to Answer Interview Questions About Being Unemployed

Tips for Responding to Questions About Being Out of Work

A man being interviewed by three people answering questions about his period of unemployment.
••• Ragnar Schmuck / Getty Images

Job seekers often worry about how the fact that they are unemployed will be perceived by prospective employers, particularly if they have been out of work for a long period of time.

Employers will often ask why you have been out of work for so long, and it's important to be prepared to answer.

What the Interviewer Wants to Know

Simply put, interviewers are looking for an explanation: Why were you out of work, and for how long. 

But beyond the factual details, interviewers are also looking closely to see how you handle questions about being out of work.

For instance, do you use it as an opportunity to disparage your past employer? Have you been using the time out of work productively? Your response can reveal a lot about your personality and attitude. 

Employers are more understanding of employment gaps in a down economy. In addition to high unemployment, there has also been a trend towards more hiring of temporary workers, leaving more workers with time in between jobs. 

Regardless of the economy, you still need to be prepared to respond to questions about the length of time you have been unemployed.

How to Answer Interview Questions About Being Out of Work 

Even though you may really need a job, it's important to maintain a positive attitude and to provide a detailed and convincing explanation as to why the job you are interviewing for will be a good fit for your skills and interests.

Employers will be hesitant to hire you if they think you are randomly targeting jobs out of desperation because you have been unemployed for a long period of time.

The circumstances of why you're out of work may determine how you respond to questions, too. 

When You've Been Fired

The most difficult case to make will be for those who have been fired for cause and have been unemployed for an extended period of time. 

Mentioning taking the time to reassess job options or retrain can be an effective approach if you are seeking work in a different field. 

In these cases, be prepared to reference a weakness that limited your productivity in your last job, while also discussing the strengths you have that will lead to success in a new job.

For example, if you are transitioning from an outside sales position to a customer support job, you could mention that you struggled in the sales job because you were not very effective at cold calling, but also mention that you excelled in satisfying current customers.

When You Were Laid Off

Discussing a layoff can be tricky, as well. A layoff due to company or industry financial problems can be addressed directly in your cover letter. In this case, it can be helpful to reference any personal success in the job and briefly mention that financial difficulties caused your former employer to downsize.

You could also mention how you are looking forward to taking on a new role and, even though the layoff was difficult, it gave you an opportunity to seek a more challenging position.

The actual length of time you have been out of work after a layoff can sometimes be addressed by mentioning factors like the time it may have taken to reevaluate your job options.

When You're Voluntarily Unemployed

Individuals who are voluntarily unemployed for an extended period of time will have the easiest task in countering any negative perceptions. Job seekers may have left the workforce to care for an ill parent, relocate, have a baby, travel, recover from an illness, or go back to school before changing careers. In these cases, mentioning your break from work upfront may be the best approach.

You could include language in your cover letter that mentions the reason for this period of unemployment and asserts your readiness to return to the workplace.

You can then build upon that position during the interview. Brief explanations will usually be the most appropriate. For example, "I left my last job to care for my mom who was undergoing treatment for cancer. She recently passed away, and I am eager to resume my career."

Tips for Giving the Best Answer

  • Be positive. Regardless of the circumstances that have led to you being out of work, try not to be negative in your response. You can simply state the reason for your unemployment. Then, pivot to talking about new skills you've learned or opportunities you're looking forward to. 
  • Be brief. You want the interviewer to remember your skills and experience, and what you can bring to the role at hand. So keep your response here brief, so you can move on to questions that'll help highlight your strengths. 
  • Focus on what you did during the gap. If you were out of work for more than a few weeks, think about ways you've used the time. That might be personal (for example, taking care of a sick parent or parenting a child). But if you've done something professionally relevant, such as taking classes or volunteering, mention it.

What Not to Say 

  • Don't be unprepared. Regardless of why you've been out of work, framing your response can be tricky, so do anticipate that you'll get this question and plan your response ahead of time. 
  • Don't seem desperate. Hiring managers want to know that you're interested in this job in particular—not any job that's available. After all, if you just want "any job" you might quickly leave the company. 
  • Don't insult your previous company. You may feel strong emotions about a company that fired you or laid you off. But, it's important to keep your tone neutral when discussing your previous company and the circumstances that led to your departure, and not to insult the company or your former manager. 

Interview Questions About Being Out of Work 

Here are some of the questions hiring managers may ask if they see a gap in your employment: 

Key Takeaways

Plan for questions about being out of work. Employers are bound to inquire, and responding can be tricky—preparing in advance will help you give a strong response. 

Stay positive. Don't insult previous employers or blame outside factors (like the economy) in your response. 

Keep it brief. You'll want to have an answer prepared, but keep it brief so you can move on to answering questions that showcase your skills and abilities.