You’ve decided to go back to work and you’ve got your first interview, great work! The only thing is, it’s been a long time since you’ve done this, and you’ve gotten a lot of advice (and not all of it’s helpful).
Be assertive. Don’t be nervous. Be yourself. Sell the fact that your volunteer work kept your skills fresh. Remember to smile. Find common interests. Don’t smile too much.
So, what’s important in the interview when you’ve been away from work for an extended time?
It’s always helpful to look at any interview situation from the prospective employer’s point of view. Helping the interviewer get comfortable with you is important because it helps eases any concerns they may have about your candidacy. Once these concerns have been answered (even if you don’t think they should be concerns) the interviewer can shift gears and begin to catch a glimpse of your amazingness. So, figuring out what worries the interviewer might have about making your one of their colleagues is one of the central tasks of the interview for you.
The first thing you should know is that hiring is difficult. I spent the early part of my career helping companies improve their hiring processes. It’s a dicey proposition under the best of circumstances because it’s hard to know how a person will fit into a particular job and a particular culture. One of the better interview techniques is to delve deeply into the job candidate’s job history, understanding what went well, what didn’t, and why. So, when you don’t have a recent track record, you’ve made the interviewer’s already challenging job even more difficult. This isn’t meant to add stress, just to give you a glimpse into their point of view.
Employers tend to have a set of common concerns about hiring those who have taken a break from regular employment, but even more important than these typical concerns are the top-of-mind concerns that your specific interviewer has, based on their experience. I recommend asking questions that help you understand what the company’s experience in hiring return-to-workers has been like early in the interview.
Do they do it often? Has it been a good experience? Have there been problems or challenges? Do return-to-workers come and stay or do they tend to leave? These are the things that can have an affect the interviewer’s point of view about you.
Don’t be worried if you don’t get a lot back from an interviewer. Although a good interviewer should make you comfortable, they will tend to provide less in terms of the good and the bad of their past hiring practices. If they are transparent about the company’s experience hiring returners, don’t be directly defensive about any of the things that went wrong for them, just keep them in mind as you answer questions. Provide examples that indicate that your motivation, lifestyle, skills, and understanding of what the company would need from you are different than those who might not have been a great hire for the company, but do so without ever mentioning the company’s bad experience.
If the interviewer is not forthcoming about their experience with returners, it’s good to keep in mind the typical concerns that companies tend to have about those coming back into the workforce tend to have. These concerns can come up in a number of different ways, and they fall into the following categories.
How rusty are your skills?
And by skills, we mean everything from your knowledge of current IT systems to whether or not you really get what the commute is like. The interviewer is interested whether you really know what you have to do in order to put the rest of your life in order before showing up on time for that first meeting of the day.
It’s not uncommon for a company to have had an experience in which they hired a returner who doesn’t figure out until after they’re hired that getting their kids to school and themselves to the office on time doesn’t really work smoothly. The returner may have started with the mindset, “I can make this work,” only to find that it just doesn’t. The same can be true of any number of other topics on which parents can come back rusty. The “I’ll figure it out when I get there” mindset is something that a good interviewer will be quietly trying to assess.
How hard will it be for a parent returning to work to get up to speed on new things?
Like the ERP the company relies on or a key process for assessing your team. You are not going to actually be ready with these corporate tools, but this is where seeming ready can be helpful. It can be useful to start to use the type of tools that companies use in your personal life. Check your electronic calendar when you are talking about a future call or meeting (even if you know you are free) and offer to send a calendar invite for the meeting. Showing that their world is not so unlike your world can go a long way to helping a hiring manager see you on their team. Getting involved in projects in your community that require the use of your project management skills or communicating through Slack do the same thing.
How well would you fit with the team and the norms of work at that company?
People want to be respectful of your outside life and the boundaries you set around your work, but they also need a player who fits into the way things work at their company. Knowing what some of the expectations at the company you’re interviewing with — in terms of out-of-office response to messages or evening work expectations — is valuable. Once you know what is typical at the company at which you are interviewing you can proactively describe your own expectations and boundaries for your work. For example, “I am looking for a role that would have me in the office from 8-5:30. I can log in later after things are settled at home, but my preference would be that there is a generally set time when I log off in the evenings for dinner and bedtimes, barring a big deadline. I know that will allow me to contribute the most, all of the time.”
How much are you going to care about your new job?
Part of this is related to your level of motivation, which interviewers are assessing all the time (for everyone). But for returning-to-work candidates, the other things in your life are usually more prominent than they are for those who didn’t stay home. Your kids and family (or parents who require care) can end up being a part of the conversation. Your family isn’t really any different than the other people who work at their company with spouses and kids but it’s often there in the conversation and so having a (real and true) message about what it means to you to be going back to work and why it’s important to you can be helpful.
What any company wants to know is whether your heart really in it. Companies are looking for people who want to be there, who will give more than the minimum, and who believe that working there is worthwhile (remember, this place is where they work so they’re pretty invested in who comes and goes).
So, in addition to all the other advice you might have gotten, here’s ours. Do your homework. Show your interviewer that you took the time to get to know the company and what it’s like to work there. Find out what you can about the person with whom you are going to interview. They are almost certainly on LinkedIn (and you should be too). Have a way of talking about the rust on your skills and what a good and motivated learner you are. Be confident (but never overconfident) of your ability to get up to speed on what you need to know. Show enthusiasm for the opportunity and the company. Ask questions in the interview that refine what you’ve learned about the company ahead of time (you are talking to an expert) because it shows you are not looking for a job, but the right job. And if you need a little help on any part of this, we are just an email or phone call away.
John is a co-founder of Happy Work Spectacular Life who, if he wasn't helping people with their careers, would consider himself a ghost researcher. His claim to fame is that he is a champion race walker (he actually came in second place).