“Matt, I’m really struggling here.  How do I explain being out of work for almost two years now?  Is this stretch between jobs going to prevent me from ever getting hired again?”

Over the past few years, as the economy has continued to dawdle, more professionals than you might believe have found themselves out of work for periods of a year or longer.  For those who find themselves in this position, it can become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, since your confidence is usually at a record low — and what’s more, you can easily become riddled with anxiety about how to explain this gap to employers, recruiters, and networking contacts.

Is there a stigma attached to an unemployment period of this length?  Absolutely.  Let’s not live in fantasy-land or pretend otherwise.  While employers have grown more tolerant of employment gaps, in general, there’s no question that they’re going to have some serious concerns (whether they vocalize them or not) about somebody who has been out of the workforce for a stretch of 365 days or more.  They’re not only going to wonder about the sharpness of a person’s skill sets, but may also grow suspicious about why a person’s hasn’t been picked up by another employer if they’ve been diligently on the hunt for work.

I even heard a different (albeit unusual) reason the other day about why a company might take a pass on somebody who hasn’t drawn a paycheck in a while.  The way the story was told to me by a client, he ran into a hiring manager who reportedly wouldn’t consider any unemployed applicants because he was adamant about only talking to individuals “who were highly motivated to work for his organization, versus just hunting for a job, any job, in general.”

All I can say is that I hope this person doesn’t lose his job anytime soon.  If so, he’d quickly realize how offensive, unfair, and small-minded this kind of thinking really is!

At any rate, no matter how we might wish otherwise, it’s going to be an uphill battle for any job hunter to convince an employer or recruiter that a year-long period of unemployment isn’t a significant concern.  If you’re a person who has found themselves in this situation, however, it’s a battle that has to be fought, nonetheless.  So rather than getting sheepish or just saying whatever comes to mind, I’d suggest you carefully develop, outline, and practice a response to the “Why have you been out of work so long?” question until you’ve got it down so perfectly you start mumbling it in your sleep.

While there’s no perfect formula for such a response, I’d suggest you try building your story around one of three possible angles:

The “make them jealous” approach: With this strategy, you’d attempt to persuade the employer that your long stretch of unemployment is actually an intentional move on your part, reflecting your a) financial success and your b) desire not to settle for anything less than a great assignment.  While it’s a tough strategy to pull off if your confidence has really taken a beating, your answer might sound something like:

“Why have I been looking for so long?  Frankly, I had the good fortune of receiving a great severance package upon leaving my last employer, and my family and I have also been pretty shrewd with our finances and our investments over the years.  So unlike a lot of folks out there, I suppose, I was lucky enough to take a healthy break — call it a sabbatical, if you will — where for most of this past year, I was able to relax, recharge, and fulfill some long overdue life goals in terms of some international travel and the chance to spend some quality time with my two young kids.  So while I’m still not in any rush, I’m just starting to dip my toe back in the employment waters and this role you have really caught my attention…”

The “make them sympathetic” approach: Another route you could try?  Being honest and emphasizing that you’ve been working your tail off and just need to be given a break, any break, by a conscientious employer.  While there are definitely some cold fish out there who won’t be moved by this strategy, my sense is that many people still love to root for the underdog — and might respond positively to somebody who comes right out and says something like:

“Yes, as you can see on my resume, I’ve been on the prowl for a new job for over a year now.  Having been a hiring manager before, myself, I know how that must look — but I’m refusing to let this economy beat me down and I continue to work my butt off, each and every day, to keep my skills sharp and find an employer who will recognize the contributions I can make.  I’ve never had a problem finding a job before in my entire career and have tons of outstanding references lined up to say great things about me, but boy, this economy is a bear.  So I just do my best to stay positive, patient, and persistent each and every day.  And if there’s one thing I can promise you, when the right break comes, with the right employer, I’m going to blow them away with what I can do for them — since my motivation level is going to be through the roof!”

The “it’s not what you think” approach:  Lastly, and perhaps the most effective angle you can leverage if you’ve got at least a few facts to back it up, is to try and camouflage your period of unemployment behind an umbrella of consulting or contract work.  Be warned, though, that most hiring managers will see through this tactic if you can’t support it, since they’re well aware that many people automatically label themselves “consultants” when they’re not working.  If you’ve tackled a few engagements here and there, however, even on a volunteer basis, you could say something like:

“Am I currently working now?  Well, sort of, depending on how you look at it.  While my last W2 position was back in 2009, I’ve actually kept pretty busy this past 18 months handling a series of projects and short-term contracts for various companies I’m connected with around town.  I helped this one startup company write their business plan, for example, and to land the funding they needed to become operational.  I’ve also done a couple of stints through Volt where I helped some local firms build out some new marketing channels they wanted to concentrate on  All good projects, for sure, but I’m definitely itching for something more permanent where I can settle down with the right team and make a more lasting contribution.  Consulting’s great for generating cash flow and keeping your skills sharp, but I guess I’m a company guy, at heart, and want to find a situation that offers a little more staying power.”

Perhaps there are some other creative strategies out there that people could use to address these situations, but even after sweeping the web for other suggestions and  ideas, I found this issue to be almost entirely ignored.  And without question, just giving a “neutral” answer won’t do your candidacy any favors.  Nor will getting defensive or combative.  You need to take this objection to your candidacy hyper-seriously, figure out a positive story angle, and practice your response until you take as much fear and anxiety out of it as possible.

At the end of the day, employers have every right to question whether a long period of unemployment is cause for concern — and whether a person’s “time on the bench” signals a legitimate risk in terms of their ability to perform a given work assignment.  If you seem upbeat, enthusiastic, and deliver a confident answer that takes the “scariness and mystery” out of your unemployment tenure, however, an employer might just take a cue from your attitude — and move on!