A listener looking to make a career switch called into my weekly radio show on SiriusXM to ask if I could help hone his professional introduction. When I asked what he did for a living, he immediately confessed, “Well, right now I’m unemployed, but…”
Immediately I cut him off (something I rarely do), because unemployment is a temporary state and never a part of your brand (the brief clip can be heard at the start of this montage).
For far too long, we’ve felt embarrassed of being unemployed, or experiencing a layoff, or even asking for help in a job search. Now is the time for that to end.
Your professional worth is not tied to your job title, whether you’re earning a paycheck or if you’re currently employed. Period.
A few employment facts:
- The average tenure in a job is about 4.2 years. This means most will engage in 10+ job searches during our professional careers. With some estimates indicating that up to 85% of jobs are found through some type of networking, seeking help is a pretty natural part of the professional world.
- According to a 2019 survey by Monster.com, over 50% of “fully employed Americans between 18 and 65 years old who responded have either been unemployed or experienced career gaps.” And this study was conducted in 2019, BEFORE COVID. Further, approximately 43% of respondents who had been let go reported they’d experienced it more than once.
Work history gaps and job searches are a normal part of being a working professional, which means there’s no reason to ever define yourself in these terms.
Yet, most people feel the need to share they’re unemployed in a job search because we’re so used to introducing ourselves with labels. Usually, these labels are titles, company names, our industry or professional field, but we need to understand that when we do this, it limits us to a very narrow dimension that doesn’t fully represent the complexity of what we bring to the table. We lose much of the professional value we bring from volunteer roles, previous industries, special projects and educational endeavors.
Our careers are so intertwined with our identities, we find it difficult to untangle the two, so when we’re between jobs, our natural go-to is another label (e.g., “unemployed” or “between jobs”). And unfortunately, the first words we hear are typically the most remembered and the ones we use to make an initial judgment, so it’s important to be thoughtful in our first impressions.
Further, introducing yourself with a title gives the power to the listener to put meaning to that label based on their assumptions, experiences and categorization system. If I say, “I work at The Wharton School,” many assume I’m a finance professor (I’m not). If I say, “I’m a licensed psychologist,” many assume I provide therapy (I don’t). Both of these labels are true, but they both lack the complexity of the value I add to the market, and more importantly in a job search, to my target market.
So, I’m left having to correct the listener, which can be awkward, and un-do the initial category that’s now likely already stored in my audience’s memory. Uhg – I just created a lot of uneccessary work for myself.
What if I said instead, “Engaging my background in psychology, corporate recruiting and coaching, I help mid-career professionals rebrand their skills in order to get in front of decision-makers to land a career change. My primary role is at The Wharton School in the Executive MBA program, where I’m the Career Director, and I’ve also published a book on the topic called ‘Switchers’.”
Now, I’ve opened the door to further conversation through offering clear content and a shared understanding of the work I do. Plus, I’ve given the other person some potential commonalities to latch onto (e.g., Maybe they have an EMBA, or know someone at Wharton, or are writing a book?).
What can make this situation of introducing yourself with a title even worse is if your job is very specialized or uncommon. An obscure title runs the risk of alienating others because they may not understand your profession and be too embarrassed to ask or uncertain about how to converse further. This essentially causes a shut-down in any potential connection and also the likely the hope of this person being an ambassador to help in your job search.
Instead, of saying to someone who potentially has limited IT experience, “I’m an AV-Tester focusing on static analysis of executable files” (Say, what??), next time, start with an analogy that helps you connect to you audience.
How about, “Have you ever had a virus warning on your computer or maybe wonder why some email messages are filtered into the spam folder? Well, in my work, I find new ways to test whether files are malicious to protect users from potential scams or from accidentally opening an infected file on their laptop.”
What you do may be much more complex than that, but this opening is less intimidating for a preson outside of your profession and will likely start a dialogue where you can go deeper into your expertise. The goal, whether you’re formally networking or meeting a new acquaintance at a backyard BBQ, is always to find a way to connect and start an open dialogue. When you start making this a habit, you’ll be surprised how much you have in common with others and what useful information they can share that will help your search.
So, from here on out, no matter if someone asks, “What do you do?” or “Where do you work?” or whether you’re currently earning a paycheck or not, your response is always what value you add to the market and your audience, delivered in a way that invites further conversation. This does three things:
- Empowers you to assign the meaning you intend to your skills, achievements and professional value.
- Offers useful context to start a dialogue and potentially build a relationship.
- Creates content that gives others information that might enable them to assist you in some way in your career.
You are the compilation of ALL your years of experience — paid and unpaid, successful and failed, and current and historic. That’s pretty powerful, so let others see the whole you.