How much is too much to share when trying to explain work gaps?

Share story

Q: I am a 50-something professional who has worked at my current job for almost 10 years. While I love my current post (despite the relatively low pay), I am looking for a new position due to a company restructuring. I have been out of the interview circuit for years, and in preparing I am struggling with the amount of personal information I should share.

Specifically, my career path was slowed, or even put in rewind, because of tragedies in my life. My son died suddenly at a young age, and my husband left me soon thereafter. While I worked part time throughout that process, it took years for me to heal and to fully re-engage in the workforce.

Do I mention these events in a job interview? I feel they are relevant in explaining why my career seems stalled. But I also fear they could amount to an inappropriate over-share — or that I will lose my composure and dissolve into tears. How much is too much to share in a job interview? — Diane

A: Before we get too specific, back up for a moment. Your situation is distinct and tragic, that is true. But it’s useful to remember the ways in which it isn’t unusual. Lots of 50-something workers have had career plateaus during which they were more focused on family, says Gerald Walsh, founder of executive search and coaching firm Gerald Walsh Associates, based in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

So don’t exaggerate an employer’s potential questions or skepticism so much that you put yourself on the defensive. Your real focus remains on making the case that you’ve got the skills the company needs. “Typically,” Walsh says, “you would not share too much personal information unless you thought it would help you in some fashion.”

Even if you feel it’s to your advantage to address a period of career stasis, you can keep the nonwork details vague, says Camille DeBell, a professor in the division of counseling and family therapy at Regis University’s Rueckert Hartman College for Health Professions in Denver. DeBell suggests something like: “For personal — or family — reasons, I decided that it was best to stay in a job” that provided some growth and considerable stability, “but my situation has changed now, so I have more freedom to pursue new challenges.”

Some recent research has suggested that it can make sense to disclose personal details that job-seekers have traditionally avoided, such as attributing a résumé gap to time spent away from the workforce caring for children. If you go that route, Walsh advises, be straightforward and get it out of the way early.

In your case, perhaps mention that because of your son’s unexpected death, you didn’t want too much change in your life. “Every employer is going to get that,” he says. But pivot to the present, and your readiness to move forward in your career. (Coincidentally, Walsh says, he recently had a networking interview with a man who had gone through a similar tragedy, and handled the subject exactly this way.) Particularly given your concerns about how you’ll handle this conversation emotionally, role play it a bit and practice with a trusted friend, Walsh suggests.

Either way, you should probably skip focusing on the divorce. Not to sound callous, but however painful it may have been, it’s a much less extraordinary circumstance, and (fairly or not) could raise more questions than it resolves about whether you’re ready to move ahead. It’s perfectly reasonable to feel a need to talk to someone about that, but it shouldn’t be a job interviewer.

Hedging a Google search

Q: A few years ago, my contracted position was terminated. Under the terms of my contract, I was eligible for a buyout. My employer denied this request, so I filed a claim with my city’s employee appeals division. The judge ruled in my favor.

However, since then, despite being highly qualified and experienced, with solid references, I’ve had an astonishing lack of success in finding another position in my field. In trying to explain this, I Googled myself and saw that this claim is one of the first items in the search result.

While I try to enhance my web presence to push this down the list, how do I handle the situation in future interviews? Do I mention it, presuming they’re going to find out about it anyway? If so, at what point? My field is probably like any other in that it is notoriously suspicious of anyone who has brought a claim against a former employer, despite the result or the merits. — Elaine

A: Yes, bring it up yourself. An online search has become a routine candidate-vetting practice, so employers are probably going to come across this anyway. You may as well frame the matter yourself.

Interviews often begin with some variation on “tell me about yourself,” so perhaps toward the end of your opening response you could say something like: “You might find if you Google me that I was forced to take legal action when I left my last employer,” Walsh suggests. Acknowledge that this might raise concerns, but emphasize that “it was something I did hesitantly.” There was a principle involved, and happily the court recognized this. You might even add something like: “What I learned in that process is how important it is that your own values align with your employer’s.”

Your goal is to put the interviewer at ease, demonstrate that you have nothing to hide and move on to the subject of all you have to offer. If the company can’t get over this incident, maybe it’s better to learn sooner rather than that later that your values just don’t align.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times. Submit questions to Rob Walker at workologist@nytimes.com.