How to Write a Cover Letter That Explains a Layoff
Dave was a senior-level executive with 21-years at a single company. He loved his job, and his employer seemed to love him. He had a reputation both inside and outside the organization for producing high-quality work. Then, without warning, he was laid off.
Dave bounced back quickly, his career coach Stacey Lane says, in part because he found the perfect language for talking about his layoff with potential employers.
In cover letters and interviews, he briefly acknowledged that he was sad about leaving his previous employer, having spent more than two decades doing good work for them. However, he wrote, he was "strangely excited" about the opportunities that lie in his future.
If your layoff needs to be explained—which isn't always the case—a cover letter is an excellent opportunity to mention it.
"Sometimes it makes sense to include it in the cover letter," Lane says, "but don't feel like you must put it in the cover letter."
Here's how to decide whether you should mention it, and what you should say.
How Employers View Cover Letters
Career coaches, recruiters, and hiring managers are split on the importance of cover letters.
Lane says you should aim to intrigue with your cover letter. "It should catch their attention," she says. "One time I asked 20 or 30 hiring managers, 'What do you look at first? Do you look at the resume or cover letter?' It was split.”
If there’s a 50-50 chance your cover letter is your first impression, it’s best to carefully craft it. Add to that statistics that show that up to 45 percent of job seekers skip writing a cover letter altogether, writing one – and writing it well – begins to feel critical to beating out the competition.
Nick Walker, an executive director at the employment agency Michael Page, argues that you should spend most of your time crafting your resume. "I think you could probably find people that would argue quite the opposite, but I would go as far to say that cover letters are almost entirely worthless.
"I and many of my colleagues don't read them," he adds. "We just simply don't have time to read through."
Sherrie Dvorak, senior vice president of Frontline Source Group, strikes a similar note. "I will be very honest with you," Dvorak says, "I don't know if cover letters are really getting the attention they used to get once upon a time."
That said, when explaining a layoff, a cover letter isn't a bad place to lay out the basics. Dvorak suggests using something like the following language if you were let go:
"Unfortunately, I was caught in a reduction of force. During that time, I filled my schedule doing X, Y, and Z while looking for a comparable job that would utilize my background and skills moving forward."
You may also want to utilize a cover letter builder, which can help you craft an attention-grabbing copy in minutes.
Less is more
If you feel it's important to mention the layoff in your cover letter, be clear and concise. Leave the details for an in-person conversation.
"Be forward-looking about it, and be able to talk about it," Lane says, but don't belabor or over-explain your story. "As humans, we try to over-explain ourselves, but that raises a red flag. How can you tell when a kid is lying? They go into tons of detail."
In some scenarios, you'll expect an employer to be aware of your layoff. It may have been a large-scale layoff at a high-profile company. Don’t sweat it.
"If it's a large-scale layoff, it's easier," Lane says. "It normalizes it.”
If virtually everyone has heard about your company's layoffs (such as the 31,000 Toys 'R' Us employees who lost their jobs in early 2018), it's likely most hiring managers will be aware of the circumstances and understand you parted ways with the company due to no fault of your own.
Don't blame the company
One way to never explain a layoff is to express anger about your previous employer.
"It's really important to not be negative," says career coach Christine O'Neill. "Bitterness, whether you're laid off or not, doesn't come off well."
While a layoff may be an emotional time, taking it personally rather than taking the macro perspective shows you might lack the capacity for understanding the bigger picture. Or at least an awareness that a bigger picture exists.
Additionally, expressing bitterness or anger shows a side of your personality that's rarely if ever appropriate in the workplace. Showing either of those emotions virtually guarantees you won't receive a call.
Instead, write in calm, careful language. Keep the portion about the layoff brief, and express excitement about the future. If you get a callback, it'll be because you're making the employer excited along with you.
You should keep in mind that no matter how well you explain your layoff, you'll want to leave the employer envisioning the unique talents you’re going to bring to the company, not the details of your career setback.