I get a lot of questions and hand out a LOT of free advice to my friends, strangers in elevators, people I've met at charity events, and just in general. I love HR and never have a problem discussing it, regardless of the venue or context involved. So, when a near and dear friend asked me the best way to explain what he's been doing since his last "real" job, I chomped at the bit to give him my best pieces of advice.
First, let me give you a little background...my friend is a talented, resourceful tech junkie. He has worked for various companies in a myriad of industries and resides in a jobseeker's mecca (NYC) but, like most, he was unfortunately hit hard by the economy, was laid off two years ago and did what a lot of people did during those paltry years when jobs were (and still are) hard to come by...He decided to branch out on his own and start a technology consulting firm. Now, he landed a few gigs here and there, enough to line his pockets a bit but nothing close to what he needed to truly keep him afloat. After two years of consulting, he decided that he wanted to (or more so, needed to) get back out there, pound the pavement, and become a corporate slug once again. His concern? What does he say to the recruiter/headhunter/hiring manager when they ask him what has he been doing for these past two years. He asked me if he should just say he's been unemployed or should he inform them that he had his own consulting firm, and even more important, if he told them about the consulting, what reason could he give for why he was no longer doing it that wouldn't make him appear to be pathetic and a loser.
Here's the advice I gave him and best of all, this is advice that anybody who has every ventured out on their own for a period of time, or decided that they wanted to (or had no choice but to) take temp/contract/consulting jobs and now wants to get back into the "real" workforce can use...
Be honest ~ Tell the potential interview about how you spent your time in between jobs. If you went to school and earned your degree, took some continuing education classes, received certifications, did some volunteer, or consulting work, explain that. Staying active and working on self-improvement shows the interviewer that you are serious about your career and even though you were out of work, you were not just lying on your couch eating bon bons and watching soap operas. That you were out there bettering yourself and acquiring skills that you can bring to the table in your next position.
Introduce the WIIFM Factor ~ What is WIIFM? What's In It For Me? I always tell job seekers that they need to define and learn to communicate their Value Added Proposition. This tells the prospective employer what you bring to the table and how you plan to help that organization achieve its goals. If you haven't determined you VAP, then you need to take a step back and do that now. The goal for introducing the WIIFM Factor is to make a connection with the interviewing on how your time spent out of work can be parlayed into useful and beneficial results and talent for the organization. If you took classes in finance and accounting or marketing, take assessment of what you learned and how you can apply that within the framework of the position and the overall needs of the organization. If you worked on special consulting projects, talk about your accomplishments and what goals you met for the organization. It's all about what you bring to the table and what you can do for them.
Be Real and Be Sincere ~ Most (I will not say all for fear of retaliation) employers know that we are in a bad (do I dare say that "R" word) and that a lot of people have lost their jobs. Not only that, employers also understand that there are approximately six candidates for every one opening. They know the job market is tough and that people are out of work for a lot of reasons. Interviewers are not all bad guys and yes, we do have a heart. But, we want candidates to be upfront and honest, not feed us a line of bull or tell us what they think they want us to hear. Explain to the employer that when you lost your job, you decided to try branching out on your own, finishing your degree, volunteering to write, design, and print your charity's newsletter, or whatever it is that you ended up doing while you were out of work. Explain to the interviewer that business is not what it used to be and that you are looking to get back into the workforce for stability, benefits, etc. But make sure, and I really can't stress this enough, that you always relate it back to them and the WIIFM Factor. Hit home how your experiences relate to what they are looking for and to what they are hoping to accomplish.
In the end remember, and I may get some nastygrams about this, at the end of the day, the organization does not care about you, it's all about what you can do for them. Remember that and you may be one step closer to finding your next job!