Unemployed? Don't panic when people ask what you do.

By Vickie Elmer
Sunday, March 21, 2010; K01

While he was unemployed, Peter Ensign spent a lot of time networking "anywhere and everywhere." He developed a small sustainability consulting practice with business cards to pass out. The Silver Spring resident made it clear his track could go either way: One, locate a good job at an organization, or two, build up his business.

Usually he was adept at handling myriad conversations and questions that came up. Sometimes, though, in social settings, he stepped into some awkward situations, like when someone asked how busy his consulting business was or why he was still job hunting.

Even with 14.9 million people unemployed and the economy's sad state dominating headlines for months, some people or situations just seem uncomfortable or difficult to handle.

"Being laid off is a very humbling experience," said Jamie Hoffman, a Washington area technical recruiter who has suffered her own unemployment. She has been in human resources for almost 20 years, including 14 as a recruiter. She has interviewed hundreds of job seekers and said that while some of them are unfazed by unemployment, others are deeply ashamed to be out of work.

Their approach, of course, may be crucial to opening doors and expanding prospects and networks. Answering uncomfortable questions from friends or people you meet can be useful practice for your next job interview or job fair.

If you are prepared and positive and you could turn the awkwardness into a "good momentum-building moment," said Laura Labovich, chief career strategist for Aspire Empower Career Coaching Group in Bethesda. So if you bump into an old friend or college buddy who asks what you've been doing, don't be defensive about being jobless. Instead, tell her you've been volunteering for a nonprofit's fundraising event or cultivating professional relationships.

"What's important there is that you've been doing something meaty; you've been doing something meaningful. People want to help people who are go-getters," Labovich said.

If you're concerned about answering queries on the fly, practice your answers, but not so much that you sound mechanical or rehearsed.

Hoffman answers 'so what do you do?' with, "I'm a recruiter and I'm looking for my next opportunity."

Her most embarrassing moment came at a job fair when a recruiter looked at her résumé. Despite seven years at one company some year earlier, she said the recruiter told her: "It seems like you've moved around more than we'd like. You're not the kind of employee we want." She was startled but decided there was nothing to gain from discussing that. "I took it gracefully" and moved on, said Hoffman, who currently is in a contract job and still looking for a full-time assignment.

She suggests a direct, simple approach to such moments and questions. "Be brief, be honest, focus on your achievements."

If people want to know why you're not working now, "handle the explanation with minimal fuss. . . . No matter now bad the company or boss was, do not bad-mouth," she said.

Whining or feeling sorry for yourself out loud just doesn't work.

Some experts suggest you develop your "elevator pitch" for social situations. This 15- to 30-second infomercial about yourself can be adapted so it goes from kids' birthday parties to a folk concert to a bar.

"Share your talent, not necessarily your title," said Labovich. "Tell a story that shows results. . . . A story makes it more personal; it makes it easier to get it." But be sure the story is succinct and focused. If you want it to sound more casual, Labovich suggests ending it with, "It was awesome. I loved it. And that's what I do best."

If you're working as a freelancer or consultant until you find a full-time job, it's not always easy to answer the question: "So how busy are you?" said Ensign, who recently landed a job as executive director of D.C. Greenworks. He would answer that one with: "Well, it's a tough market. But I'm looking actively."

Asked about the length of his job search, which lasted seven months, Ensign's reply was simple: "I'm looking for something that's more than just a job."

Elmer is a freelance writer.

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