How to Handle Annoying Red Flags in Your Resume

Dear Ronnie Ann,

I need your help. I’ve been on a job search now for 16 months (I know!) and this afternoon one of my most trusted mentors basically said I have a lot of red flags in my resume – and that may be why I haven’t been hired yet. I was laid off twice within the past 3 years (both due to company economic reasons). His response was “If one of my best employees lost an account, I wouldn’t let them go – it’s a red flag”. We work in two different industries (I have agency experience – he doesn’t). I tried to explain the nature of the agency beast – you shed salaries, not necessarily talent.

I should be interviewing for a couple of positions in the next week or so (yay!). So how do I address my “red flags” in my past? (I have gaps in my resume as well as the layoffs.)

Thanks! – Kathy


Hi Kathy!

Glad you asked this question about your resume red flags.  I think it’s something a lot of people share with you.

Although as Ricky Ricardo so often told Lucy “You have some splainin to do!”, the fact that you actually have some interviews coming up (yay!) shows they are open to you – no matter what your resume looks like. More often than not, it’s more the way we handle these things than the resume red flags themselves – especially when you have unique skills and experience an employer is looking for.

Candidly I could have a resume full of red flags, but the way I present my information (leading with a skills/ qualifications section and filling in gaps with volunteer or consulting/ freelance work) lets me focus my resume where I want to focus it (on my strengths and on skills that match the specific job) and it also helps me show I’ve made good use of my time. This way I have a better chance of actually getting to the job interview where I can splain for myself.

Resume red flags or not, you did nothing wrong

So first and foremost, get real comfortable with the idea you did nothing wrong and you have a ton to offer your new employer – no matter what your mentor’s questions might bring up in you. True, layoffs often are a time to let go of people who may not be up to speed. But in tough economic times, employers also have to let go of new folks, expensive folks, and people who they’d prefer to keep but have no choice.

So how do you handle those red flags in an interview?

Your job is to come up with the most honest and yet positive explanation and then quickly move on (if possible) to tell a short story – something positive about yourself that helps them see what strengths you bring to this particular job. A great story might even offer something you learned from the layoff, what you’ve done to strengthen your skills since then, and how you are ready and determined to throw yourself 100% into this new job – and why this particular job is so ideally suited to you.

Basically answer the question as truthfully as possible (don’t divert), but then move on to paint a flagless picture of you now and in the future; the past is over and we’ve all had things like this happen to us. In fact, in one interview I once had an SVP of a major bank tell me “Without mistakes to learn from and obstacles to overcome, we’d never get better.”

Maybe not such a red flag for your resume after all

And btw…I have friends who work in your field and even the best of them get let go now and then and wind up with long periods of unemployment. It’s pretty common in this industry & not such a red flag any more. In fact, one friend who had to do freelance for well over a year is now happily in his 3rd year with a great agency. As I said, it’s all in the way you handle it.

So come up with your best personal marketing plan, believe in it (and yourself), and go into each interview ready to help them see a vision of you successfully handling the new job. And while I understand you trust your mentor in many things, trust yourself on this one, OK?

Hope that helps, Kathy. I wish you the best of luck. And PLEASE keep us posted!

Ronnie Ann

Oh…and in case you’re curious, this post comes from a comment Kathy left on a previous post:

10 Things I Look for When I Screen Resumes & Cover Letters


About the author…

Ronnie Ann, founder of Work Coach Cafe, bases her real-world advice on her many years as an organizational consultant where she helped interview and hire people, added to a certificate from NYU in Career Planning & Development and her own adventures as a serial job seeker. She can also be found on her new blog, and on Google+.


  1. Thanks for this discussion. We at the Business Women’s Finishing School & Social Club are including this article in our Friday round-up of career commentary around the web. It is a nice complement to our series on layoff rebound, which some of our contributors are experiencing. We hope you will stop by and explore our site, and let us know what you think. We are glad for the feedback

  2. Thank you Caroline! And may I say you have an interesting blog. With that tongue-in-cheek name, how could I not check it out? 😉

  3. I think it’s also important to keep in mind that right now, you’re not the only one who has resume gaps and has been laid off. Like Ronnie Ann said, it might not be as big of a red flag as you may think and with an otherwise positive list of work experience, you are not likely to get overlooked due to this.

  4. Thanks for your comment, Polina! I’m so glad you emphasized this point. Although of course there are still old-line thinkers out there, the majority of hiring folks nowadays know what’s really going on. Still, it’s up to the candidate to think ahead and help make it as easy for the interviewer to understand – and explain to other folks who are also part of the hiring process.

    Thanks again for making such an important – and comforting – point!

  5. I like the idea to fill the transition with volunteer service. Kathy should take one step further. She should volunteer for a leadership role. Why? Leaders stand out. So, she should consider adding “unique” skills to her resume– expected skills are a dime a dozen. “Unique” skills are leadership achievements. Leadership is your “Unique Selling Proposition”. The best places to work are looking for “partners”. Partners are leaders. During rough times, companies will not let go of their partners. Mediocre companies on the other hand, hire employees and lay-off employees.

    People must choose to get off this vicious cycle of working for average companies. Why not aim high– seek only the best places to work. Most major cities have their “Top 100 Places to Work 2009” list. Companies voted best by their people would treat you like a partner not like an employee and keep you around. Partner with the best places to work.

  6. Hi Mardy –

    Thanks for the comment – I am volunteering with the Taproot Foundation as a pro bono marketing project manager to assist with a non-profit’s branding strategy. I didn’t have NPO experience before so I thought this would really compliment my other experience.

    I’m still plugging away to make my career transition happen! 🙂

  7. Hi Kathy,

    Bravo– Well done, partner 😉

    Wish you all the best.

  8. I love when great discussions happen without me. Hmmm…think I’ll go away more often. 😉

    Discussions like this are not only welcome, they add a great deal to the blog since there’s no way any one person – yes, even me – can know it all. Keep ’em coming, please!

    And of course, we all wish you good luck Kathy. I can’t wait to get your article telling us all about how you made a new job happen for yourself. 😉 (I’m sure you can’t wait either.)

    Ronnie Ann

  9. I enjoyed reading this article. I was wondering what one should do to handle having a resume with too many years of unrelated work experience. I feel this is a red flag that doesn’t get me selected for an interview, even though I may have the right number of years of relavant experience that the positions ask for. Any advice would be helpful.

  10. Great question Jamillah! You’re smart to realize this could be a problem. In fact, I just mentioned it in my latest post:

    7 Resume Landmines That Can Blow Up AFTER an Interview

    While I don’t want to make it seem too simple, what would help a lot is to really look at the job you’re applying for and identify key skills. Then look though your prior experience, and identify related (transferable) skills from those jobs whether they’re on your current resume or not – if you think about it, they’re there. You need to make sure you highlight those when you talk about prior jobs on the resume – quantifying any accomplishments where possible.

    If there is a huge disconnect, make the first section of your resume (after name, etc. of course) a list of key skills &/or accomplishments that quickly show them your strengths and that your prior experience does transfer nicely. Depending on the job, you might have to be pretty creative, but at least you can help re-focus how you present things to give yourself the best chance. 😉 And don’t forget to include a great cover letter with bullets that show skills that apply to the new job!

    Also…if you don’t need to show all your prior experience. the last 10-15 years or so would be more than enough if that helps your case. You can either leave the rest off or add a small section toward the end that just summarizes.

    Hope that helps. Good luck, Jamillah!

    – Ronnie Ann

  11. I was reading your blog and found it very helpful. Though, while reading it, I envied people who have experience and have problem of how to show it on their CV. I wish I was in their place!
    My problem is that I haven’t got any experience. I am looking for IT job and I have HND in Business Information Systems since August last year. Before studying for HND I have some other IT qualifications. I am trying to find opportunity to get experience but there are lots of people like me and we all have ideas which are quite similar and therefore it is hard to get experience even if I apply for volunteer job as there are masses of people who apply as well. While I was studying I worked as a nunny and housekeeper. That didn’t proove to help so far. I am applying for entry level IT job where customer care seems to be more important than technical skills (while they still are).
    I would apprecate any suggestions.

  12. Hi Anna!

    Sorry for the delay. Just getting over the flu. 😉

    This post might offer some ideas – especially check out my comments below the post.

    How Do I Get My First Information Technology Job?

    I have worked many years in IT, and sometimes just being there gets you other opportunities. So whether you have to take a volunteer job or talk someone into letting you work as a free-lancer or even if you you start at an entry level position such as the help desk, get your foot in a door.

    Go to company websites and look for names to send an inquiry to directly. Remember universities, government organizations and non-profits. Ask everyone you know for anyone they may know. Network network network. Don’t give up until you get that first chance. It WILL happen for you if you stay positive and determined!

    Good luck, Anna! Please let us know what happens.

    ~ Ronnie Ann

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