Were you laid off? Did you experience a toxic workplace? Did you work a crummy job because your life circumstance at the time required it? If you’re trying to figure out how to talk about negative work experiences on your resume, do not fret.
It is possible to write a good resume when you’ve had bad experiences.
This article will cover what to say, how to say it, and where to say it on your resume. But before diving in, lets remember what a resume is for.
The purpose of a resume is to help a recruiter or ATS (applicant tracking system) identify you as a top candidate for a job opening, so that they’ll want to know you more. A winning resume is like a very tasty Costco hummus sample that gets you so excited, you buy the double 1L pack for your game night party. You have a crowd to feed, and that delicious hummus sample showed you it’ll satisfy your need.
So when you’re drafting your new resume, focus on the new role and new employer: What do they need? How can you solve their need? You don’t have to talk about previous negative experiences. Just talk about relevant experiences that show you can solve their need.
Craft your resume to be an appealing hummus sample that’s a no brainer for the new employer to pick out from a crowded snack aisle!
What to say: Identify relevant accomplishments
Relevance is key. Analyze the job posting to pick out the top skills and traits the employer is seeking. Then think about how you have demonstrated those skills and traits before.
You don’t have to limit it to on-the-job experience. You can also consider volunteer experience, education, professional development, extra-curricular activities, team activities, passion projects, and other life experience. Thinking beyond traditional work is especially helpful for career changers, new grads, and those who have employment gaps.
For example, if the job description shows that handling customer inquiries is a big part of the role, but you’ve never done a customer service job before, you could talk about your communication skills as the team captain of your soccer team or your fundraising efforts for your child’s school.
In the case that you have done a customer service role before, but you don’t have positive metrics to quote, you can still talk about your dedication, resilience, and drive. Especially in burnout roles, volume and time-based metrics often wow on a resume. (Because hey, isn’t high volume and short timelines usually the cause of burnout?) You just don’t need to talk about the burnout part on a resume. Show you’re capable of that level of productivity even if you don’t intend to overwork like that again.
Finally, if you had a short stint at a bad job, and nothing from that experience is relevant to the new job you’re applying for, then you don’t even have to mention that stint on your resume!
How to say it: Be specific and tangible
Being specific sets you apart from others, and using metrics to describe your accomplishments creates a more tangible picture of what you’ve done. Plus, numbers pop in a sea of text, capturing the attention of recruiters who only spend seconds scanning your resume.
The best way to be specific is to describe your accomplishments using the STAR (Situation, Task, Action, Result) or CAR (Challenge, Action, Result) method. Just ask Google – hundreds of search results will agree!
[I personally find the STAR method too detailed for resume bullet points and is better suited for interview answers. So here, I’ll focus on the simpler CAR method for describing accomplishments.]
For each experience relevant to the job posting, ask yourself:
- What Challenge did you face?
- What Action did you take?
- What Result did you create?
For example, transform a generic job responsibility like “respond to client inquiries” to something like:
- Responded to 75-100 client inquiries daily through email, phone and text chat with an average Customer Satisfaction Score of 80%
What if you don’t know your metrics or your metrics weren’t great? You could try estimating values and describing your situation with more detail like:
- Handled 70+ calls each day to support customers with billing, account management, product questions, and website troubleshooting
Were you in a rough work environment that made success difficult to achieve? You could try describing your efforts with an “I made it work despite it all” angle:
- Designed and implemented new communication processes as the customer support team transitioned from a 5-member to a 2-member operation over a 3 month period which resulted in uninterrupted service levels during an organizational restructure
No matter what you had to deal with before, remember it all contributed to your learning and growth. It’s absolutely possible to write a good resume when you’ve had bad experiences. You just need to channel and celebrate the resilient part of yourself.
Where to say it: Efficiently spread information throughout your resume
The most obvious place to talk about your relevant accomplishments is under the Work Experience section. However, there is an art to it. If you are using a chronological resume format where you list each job with a few bullet points below, selectively pick which accomplishments to highlight under each role.
For example, if you demonstrated Content Writing skills under Job A, then you could highlight Content Planning skills under Job B (even if you also did Content Writing in Job B). It’s all about being efficient with space and hitting on a variety keywords from the job posting.
Career changers and those with employment gaps may want to utilize a skills-based resume which showcases what you bring to the table, no matter when you last worked or how you developed your skills. In this case, group related accomplishments under headings like Data Analysis, Project Management, Customer Service, Office Administration, Collaboration and Team Work, or whatever are the top themes from the job posting.
Skills & Tools
The Skills and Tools sections are usually bulleted lists where you don’t have to provide any context. That’s perfect for overlooking any negative experiences you may have had in previous roles. Just focus on the overlap between what the job posting is asking for and what you are capable of delivering.
There is usually a short paragraph at the top of a resume called the Summary, About, or Profile section. This is like a mini cover letter where you can tell your story about who you are and what you’re looking for. Use this space to positively address the now and future of your career. Channel your previous bad experience to say what you DO want.
For example, if you’re a software developer who was recently laid off after a difficult year with a company that had leadership changes, stalled projects, and a siloed work culture, you might write:
- Intermediate software developer who adapts quickly to changing project needs and takes pride in shipping clean code efficiently. Eager to build scalable products that improve humanity with a team-oriented and forward thinking company.
Conclusion: Transform bad experiences into a positive future.
Let’s acknowledge that you’ve had some awkward and demoralizing experiences in the past. It’s okay. You’ve made it to the other side! And you’re actively investing in your future by applying to new jobs. So you are pretty darn amazing.
To write a good resume that will take you another step forward, show that you’ve come out with greater clarity about what you want and greater confidence in your ability to overcome obstacles. Speak about your accomplishments with focus on the new employer’s needs, back up your skills with specific examples, and drop clues about your terrific fit for the role throughout your resume.
Looking for specific help with how to write a good resume when you’ve had bad experiences?
Every person’s history is different, so I’d be happy to chat about your particular situation in greater detail. I can help you move through all the muck of bad work experiences so that you can reconnect with your confidence and approach your job search with renewed hope. Book a free 20-minute career consultation to get started!
Crystal Lee, MPH, CPCC is a holistic career coach who helps relocating job seekers and career changers find clarity, confidence, and community in their new environments. Let her know if you have a career question! If you find her content helpful, please consider donating to her tip jar.