DEAR JOYCE: What should I say, other than "duh," when an interviewer asks why I've been out of work for so long? Is this question even legal? -- J.R.
An interviewer uses the legal why-jobless-so-long question as a time-saver to quickly uncover what's wrong with you as a candidate for the job being filled. Although it doesn't ask how you happened to become active in the job market in the first place, start there to set the table for your most effective answer.
Unless you were fired for cause, which is a different problem, begin your answer by noting that you are not responsible for your unemployment status. Your employer executed a large layoff, closed the business, relocated to another state, outsourced your work or made another business decision that left you without employment.
Assume that you frame the issue as a layoff. That choice, if true, makes it easier to explain that during the following months you thought a recall might be in the works. But, unfortunately, a recall didn't happen. So eventually, you decided to reassess the pathway of your life. You focused on what you hoped to accomplish before retirement.
That's why you began your search for new employment in earnest only a few months ago after coming to realize your true aims. (Tip: Do not use headers or footers to date different versions of your resume; the date could inadvertently contradict your timeline by suggesting that you really began looking for a job many months ago.)
Now zero in during the interview on why you're the one who should be hired. Explain that your life goal evaluation has led directly to the interviewer's company, and that the open position is one of deep interest to you. Be sure to detail a couple of specific reasons why this is so. (A believable answer requires advance research about the company and the position to determine how your skills and accomplishments match the job's requirements.)
Among good answers to explain why no one has hired you in months and months:
-- You didn't rush into the job chase because of a life event that has now resolved itself, such as an ill family member who required your temporary care.
-- You took educational courses to stay current in your career.
-- You volunteered at a nonprofit organization or charity to gain new skills.
Among loser answers to the why-so-long question:
-- You decided to start a business; you have to explain why you didn't or why it failed.
-- You started a networking organization; you have to explain why it didn't work faster for you.
-- You are currently researching a specific subject; you have to explain who cares and who benefits.
-- You have been looking for work; you're back to square one and have to explain why you're still unemployed.
Also Google an excellent article with more advice: "Why Have You Been Out of Work for So Long?" by Martin Yate.
DEAR JOYCE: Can an employer really fire you for any reason in an at-will employment job? -- C.R.
At-will employment doesn't mean that you have no legal rights. According to a specialty website, LawyersandSettlements.com, more than half of all wrongful termination cases are won by the former employee -- and up to 70 percent in some places. Wrongful termination cases mainly involve discrimination and sexual harassment, but there are some 20 legal grounds for making a claim.
Read several pages about the complex issue of at-will employment on Wikipedia for starters, but if you're thinking about filing a termination lawsuit, confer with a lawyer who knows this confusing turf well.
Two more tips: (1) Search online for "books about termination lawsuits"; (2) Google "Illegal Workplace Discrimination? Here's How to Tell" by Alan Sklover.
(Email career questions for possible use in this column to Joyce Lain Kennedy at firstname.lastname@example.org; use "Reader Question" for subject line. Or mail her at Box 368, Cardiff, CA 92007.)