Laid Off: How to answer “what work do you do?”

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One of the simple events that happen when you are laid off is that you need to change your answers to simple questions – and it is surprisingly hard to do. Questions such as “what are you going to do now?” Or, “have you started looking yet?” And, “what position are you looking for?”

In America, at least, what work you do is an icebreaker in starting conversations. Often, asking what you do for work is the second or third question asked of you.

Being laid off requires you change your answer. And, more important, you need to have a bit more armor for the questions and responses in a time where you are still processing you were laid off.

Just as setting up a personal brand requires thought and execution, so does your new status. How you answer the simple “what work do you do?” question tells a lot about how you are handling your new status. The question surprises your sense of self-worth and what person is that person standing in front of you asking.

Think of the work you do for answering questions in a job interview. You know you will be asked your strengths and weaknesses. If you are good, you’ll have answers for the standard questions in an interview. If you are really good, you’ll practice answering them before an interview.

So it is with being laid off.

What work do you do?

There are many possibilities for answers. If you want to continue to work in your industry, you can reference this as well as say that you were laid off. “I work in technology management, but was recently laid off by (insert stupid company name) and am looking for something in my industry.”

You can also point to taking some time off. “I work in technology management, but was recently laid off by (insert stupid company name) and am taking some time before looking for a new position.”

Or, if you have plans to do something on your own, you can answer that you are working on something new. Interestingly, you will get two responses to this approach.

One, dismissive. Something like, “Oh, and what kinds of work will you be doing?” The undercurrent is “won’t succeed” whether qualified, determined or not. This is where the extra armor comes into play.

Second, you can get a response that is genuine interest. You can tell this because there is interest in helping you in your search. Thus, you’ll be asked what you have done with the project so far. What direction you’ll be taking it, perhaps even what the business model is for the work. All of these questions show interest, but also requires you to know most of those answers. Most of the time, unless you have thought long and hard about what you will do next, you don’t have the answers. These types of questions come with an expectation that you have already done some work to get you on the road to your new gig. If it is too soon for you to have done something, these questions can be awkward to answer.

The key is to have a short, one sentence answer just like you did when you were employed. Plus, have practiced it enough so it is comfortable for you to say.

Just remember there are people who still think that if you are not employed – family or friends – you don’t have as much worth. Armor is good.

  • Recently laid off and working. Working you will ask, yes, I’m self employed; my business models includes building a new client base for the company owner I’ve joined forces with and I’m compensated on a commission basis from all new work acquired.

    Then why are you applying for a position with our company? This is the toughest. Answer: Market conditions at this time simply will not support my income goals over a long period. Although I’m enjoying the challenge, research is indicating that it will be some time before our market is back to 2005 levels which would sustain my goals.

    Is this a good approach?

    • Scot Herrick says:

      @Dale – On the current position, I’d leave out how you were compensated. In conversations (not interviews), the shorter, the better. I’d say something like “I’m helping with marketing research to build more business for my company.” That gives a person “marketing,” “research,” and helping.

      In applying for the position, I’d try something different. The answer is all about the candidate, not about what the candidate can do for the person doing the interview. Since I was in the mortgage business — now not a great place to be! — I’d say something like: “I’ve decided to get out of the banking business because of all of the credit issues. When I looked at my skills and how I could apply them in other industries, I looked at this position and thought it would be a good fit.”

      These are not the best answers. The best answers come with practice and doing interviews. But you want to build your answers so that they reflect your skills and how to help the person (or the final manager) with the skills you bring to the position.

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