How to Address a Layoff in an Interview

Posted by: Geoff Gloeckler on September 6, 2011

MBA program admissions committees and MBA recruiters have come to expect their fair share of candidates who have experienced layoffs in recent years. A layoff is not a deal breaker, but how applicants to schools and jobs explain their layoff can be the difference between getting in and getting passed over.

“We understand that the economy is difficult and people have had to overcome tough situations,” says Christine Sneva, director of admissions and financial aid at Cornell University’s Johnson Graduate School of Management, in an e-mail. “When candidates try to avoid [a layoff] on their resume or in an interview, it sends the wrong signals.”

Those who want to send the right signals should be honest and forthright, say admissions and career placement experts. Here is a guide on how to explain layoffs when applying to business school or a job:

Describe what you have learned.

A layoff can feel like a defeat. Leaders, say experts, will dust themselves off and move on quickly. First, they will reflect on the lessons that they have gained from the experience. It’s one of the times when a businessperson should get philosophical and reflective, writes Sneva. “I like to ask candidates if the ‘down time’ has forced them to consider a different career, work/life balance, or if their professional values have changed,” she says. “I am very interested to learn if someone is being introspective and resilient through such an experience.”

Tell your story.

Facing the layoff head on - and making lemonade out of this lemon - is indeed one's best bet, says Jim Kranzusch, executive director of MBA Career Services at Georgia Tech's College of Management. When talking to applicants to Georgia Tech's MBA program, Kranzusch and his colleagues want to know about what led to the layoff and what role, if any, this played into the decision to return to school.

Circumstance matters, he adds, and candidates should be explicit. For instance, if they are coming off a layoff from a company that completely closed down or experienced well-known layoffs or they are coming out of an industry, such as construction, which is facing a major downturn, the layoff seems run-of-the-mill and understandable. If the person has been laid off when no one else lost his or her job, then it's a bad sign, says Kranzusch.

Be honest.

Still, candidates must be authentic and genuine in their explanation, writes Sneva. Trying to duck the question or, worse, lying, will mean a rejection from admissions committees or recruiters. Dishonesty or trying to hide from the layoff will only work against a candidate, warn career and admissions experts. "Often, I find candidates try and rework their resumes to make the layoff harder to detect, but I do not recommend that strategy because the application and interview require a sequential accounting of their work history," says Julie Barefoot, associate dean of MBA Admissions at Emory University's Goizueta Business School, in an e-mail. "The layoff will come out in the end and then applicants can't discuss it on their own terms. It's always best for the applicant to control the situation and in a sense, the messaging to the admissions officer/committees."

Show grit and determination.

After a layoff, the now unemployed have lots of free time. Making the most of those extra hours is one way to prove one's potential to employers or educators. "Really motivated people find temporary work," says Kranzusch. "If they don't, a red flag goes up." He cites the example of an applicant who was an award-winning sports writer in Tennessee, who lost his job and took on part-time work as a blogger for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. On the other hand, some applicants are honest about going to business school to escape a layoff, and that is not going to win them points. "We had someone who wanted to hide out in graduate school after a layoff in the field of law," says Kranzusch. "We didn't accept him."

Business schools and employers alike want to see what laid-off applicants have done to find a new job and how they have spent their days. "When applicants discuss their layoffs, it's important they are up-front about their job status, and they should share what they've been doing to either secure another position and/or how they have productively spent their time since their layoff," writes Barefoot.

Refrain from dwelling.

Whether talking to a recruiter or admissions representative, applicants should quickly explain the layoff and then move on to their achievements and skills. "The biggest mistake is when they go into too much detail about the situation," says Wendy Tsung, associate dean and executive director of MBA Career Services at Goizueta, in an e-mail. "Everyone knows the last few years have been challenging. State what happened, how you were impacted, what you learned, and then move on." Practicing your explanation, she adds, is the best way to prevent droning on when it's show time.

Realize you're not alone.

Business schools are reporting that more applicants than ever have experienced one or more layoffs before applying to the program. Most of them have reasonable explanations, get internships, and therefore have little trouble finding a job, say administrators. Knowing there are others in a similar situation can minimize applicants' concerns. "Take comfort in the fact that this has happened to many others," says Kranzusch. "It's not as big a deal as you have made it in your mind."

-Francesca Di Meglio

Reader Comments

saveforarainyday

September 13, 2011 8:04 AM

What a depressing article.

If you've been around for awhile, you probably have seen the 'sitting at the wrong desk' style of layoff.

Particularly if you've just been recently laid off, you don't feel very good about it. And now, trying to move on, you decide to go back to school and discover the layoff is following you around.

I feel sorry for the admissions people who have to go through that style of interview.

And it strikes me as the sort of stunt a 3rd rate school would engage in.

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Read daily reports from BusinessWeek editors and reporters Louis Lavelle, Geoff Gloeckler, Alison Damast and Francesca Di Meglio and boost your chances of getting into your best-fit B-school.

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