How to recover from a career disaster

CV full of holes? A job hopper? Been fired? It's not the end of the world.

Last Updated: 04 Nov 2019

You’ll find a lot of good advice on these pages about how to design your career, most of it containing a blend of self-knowledge, rational planning, opportunism and guts. Yet as most of us will have long since realised, things rarely go according to plan, at least not all the time.

The perfect career is largely the stuff of legend. Real, un-airbrushed CVs have hard-to-explain gaps, too many jobs in too short a time, redundancies and yes, the odd sacking. Fortunately, however, imperfection is not a cause for despair. With a little ingenuity, most bumps in the road can be smoothed over.

I was made redundant

Here’s the bad news. It is a recruiter’s job to find out if there are any risks attached to hiring you. That’s why they ask those irritating interview questions like what do you least like about your job, what are your weaknesses, tell me about a time you’ve failed.

The good news is, you control the answer. "You have to remember that any recruiter kind of knows what you tell them. You should be truthful, but you’ve got to be selective and very careful about what you tell them," says Corinne Mills, MD of Personal Career Management.

When you’ve been unexpectedly made redundant, the important thing is to depersonalise the situation. "The story you’re telling is that it’s a business decision. It’s not about you or your individual capabilities – even if secretly you felt it might have been," says Mills.

"It was a tough business decision, I really enjoyed working there, I felt I made a difference, but it was time for me to move on."

Don’t forget to tell them if your old employer tried to find alternative positions for you, or if it was part of a wider business restructuring – anything that makes it feel like it wasn’t a performance issue that caused your departure.

I’ve been fired

This is a bit harder to handle than a redundancy, but it doesn’t have to be the end of the world. "It’s a really common story, you’re very happy at an organisation, then a new boss comes, they have their own ideas, you took a different view, you felt like it was going in a different direction and that it was time for you to come out," says Mills.

"There has to be a positive spin on it, because that’s what employers want. What they don’t want is someone who is searingly honest."

Think: my boss was a nightmare; my project fell flat on its face because I didn’t get the resources I needed; I couldn’t cope because they asked too much of me.  "All that might be true, but employers who don’t know you will always assume there’s another side of the story. Maybe you’re a risk."

It’s particularly important to avoid talking about emotionally sensitive issues, which can all come flooding back. If your story about overcoming conflict at work literally causes you to weep bitter tears at interview, it might be best to find something a bit safer to talk about.

I have a long career gap

People end up with gaps in their career history for all sorts of reasons: family issues, raising children, health problems, long-term unemployment. If you’re trying to return to work, the important thing is to make sure you show you’re ready for it.

"You need to account for the time and show you’ve been getting yourself back up to speed for work. In the last six months, you’ve been doing some consultancy work for a friend’s business or some training or helping out a local charity. You need to find something recently because it’s not going to play very well to say actually I’ve just done nothing for the last three years," says Mills.

If the career gap was a while ago, it’s less of an issue, but Mills still cautions against volunteering any overtly negative information. In any case, it’s essential to have your story straight.

"You can’t do this stuff spontaneously," admits Mills. "You’ve got to craft it all beforehand, your key messages and how you want to express them. It’s not like you’ve got a script – you will deliver it spontaneously – but you need to have it all prepared in advance."

I'm a job hopper

We’re told restless millennials are behind a trend towards shorter and shorter job tenures, but that won’t help you explain why you’ve had 11 jobs in two years.  

"Most people have zigzagged around a bit, especially early in your career, but you have to be able to convince the interviewer that you’re 100 per cent committed to the role you’re applying for now. Otherwise they might think this person is flaky – they spent six months in all these places, are they going to be six months with us too?"

This will require you to tell a story – you always wanted to work in category x, but in your last job you realised it was actually category y that was more interesting and you were good at it, and that’s why you’re so excited about this new role.

That, of course, is why you’re there. "Don’t dwell on the push out of the last organisation. It’s the pull of the new job you’re applying for," says Mills. "Yes this is the reason I left there, but actually that’s why I’m so interested in this role..."

A final resort

There’s a lot you can do to improve your chances if things haven’t always gone well in the past. But if you still feel that your CV really is that indescribably awful, it might make sense to lower your expectations.

This doesn’t mean going for underpaid roles, but finding a different route to the market. "It’s maybe not going for advertised roles where you’re competing with a lot of conventional candidates," says Mills. "Make direct approaches to organisations and use your network. People who know you are more likely to give you a chance."

How to write a functional CV

Image credit: Rupert Colley/Flickr


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