Conventional wisdom dictates that it’s best not to talk about a layoff on a resume or cover letter—that you should wait for the interview. But what if you feel the need to discuss it earlier? What if you’re concerned that not addressing the circumstances around your last departure in your application might leave hiring managers with unanswered questions that will hurt your chances of getting an interview?
In this case, you'd need to consider not only how to write a resume and cover letter that sells your fit but also how to create documents that sensitively address your layoff. Here are some thoughts on how to approach the subject effectively.
1. Keep the details to a minimum
You don’t want the focus of your resume or cover letter to be on the fact that you were let go. If you feel that it’s important to clarify that you were laid off due to a company-wide restructure or financial troubles (that is, not because of something you did wrong), do so swiftly and succinctly, and then move on. There’s no need to dive into a detailed explanation that might just raise red flags. For example, you could simply include “role was eliminated” or “company downsized.”
In your cover letter, there’s room to include more than just a few words on the matter, but you still shouldn’t dwell on your termination or spend time discussing why you were one of the staff members selected for discharge. Remember, overexplaining or writing at length about something uncomfortable are two major cover letter mistakes you want to avoid.
2. Don’t mislead
If you’re going to mention a layoff on a resume or cover letter, do so with honesty and integrity. While it may be tempting to “adjust” dates and fudge the facts ever so slightly (perhaps you were the only one laid off, but you’re considering saying that the whole department was shut down, for example), resist the urge to go this route. If you’re invited for an interview, you’ll likely have to talk more about your layoff circumstances, and it won’t go down well with hiring managers if they pick up your deceit.
3. Choose your words carefully
Spend time thinking about the words you’ll use to tell your termination story in your cover letter. You might want to employ language that stresses that the layoff occurred for reasons beyond your control or the company’s (if this is true). You could write, for example, that “Financial circumstances pushed the business to let go of staff across a range of departments.” Any reasonable hiring manager will understand how complex and unstable the job market can be, so tap into that awareness and include subtle reminders of how commonplace layoffs are and how often they have nothing to do with the value of an employee. A line like “Unfortunately I was one of the thousands of American workers affected by layoffs in the past few months” should do the job.
What’s most important is that you maintain a positive and professional tone when discussing your termination. State the facts objectively, don’t give away your emotions, and definitely don’t badmouth your former employer. The message should be: it happened, such is life, I’m moving forward, and I’m ready to tackle new challenges.
4. Show how you used layoff-related time off constructively
If your unexpected exodus from your previous company left you unemployed for a while, how did you use this time? Did you fill the gap, even partly, with contract, volunteer, or freelance work, or with further studies and professional development-related activities? If so, draw attention to this when you discuss your layoff on a resume or cover letter—list these experiences like you would other roles or education. Doing so puts a positive spin on your termination and proves that you’re the type of person who rises above challenges. Prospective employers will be pleased to see that you’ve acquired new skills, kept old competencies sharp, remained connected to the industry, and drawn important lessons from the layoff experience.
5. Put the spotlight on your accomplishments
In any resume or cover letter, you should always highlight your achievements with concrete figures. But when you’ve been laid off, it’s even more important to emphasize how you made an impact in your previous positions. Prove that you’re a star employee by including numbers that show how you improved processes, boosted monthly leads, saved business time, reduced costs, or raised newsletter opening rates. If you keep the focus firmly on the great value you’ve added, demonstrating that you certainly weren’t let go because you were failing to deliver, you’ll eliminate any concerns that hiring managers may have.
Since 2005, LiveCareer has been helping job seekers create resumes and cover letters via its free resume builder and cover letter builder tools. Also available are collections of free, professionally written resume templates and resume samples, all of which are organized by industry and job title.
If you're a copy editing nerd like I am, you'll be very pleased to know that there's a really interesting NPR Fresh Air podcast now available that just might change the way you think about writing cover letters, thank-you letters, and other rather formal (and quite painful) business and career correspondence.
The subject of the podcast is Benjamin Dreyer, the copy chief of book publishing giant Random House.
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