Nothing seems to jump off the page of a resume or job application like a gap in your work history. Even though employment gaps may occur for good and legitimate reasons, employers typically see them as potential red flags. Did the applicant get fired from this job? Was he or she incompetent? Maybe they did something wrong or even illegal?
Remember the resume review and interview process is designed, in part, to help reduce the employer’s risk of making a bad hiring decision. While moving through the process, a job candidate will ideally shift from being a risky, unknown quantity to a comfortable choice for the employer. However, gaps in work history tend to hinder this transition by fueling suspicion and increasing the perceived level of risk. As an applicant, you need to recognize the employer’s valid fear of making a bad hiring decision. Therefore, your goal should be to help calm those fears.
Reasons for Employment Gaps
Gaps in employment may occur for many reasons. To an employer, some explanations may be considered harmless while others may be cause for alarm. Reasons for gaps may include:
- Taking a small vacation between jobs or to relocate to a new job
- Layoff due to corporate downsizing, merger, or facility closure
- A project ended or there was a loss of grant funding
- Taking time off to obtain or complete a degree or acquire additional training
- Recovery from personal illness or surgery, or to care for someone who was ill
- Military service
- Voluntary resignation due to dissatisfaction with a position or employer
- Being fired from a job
- Imprisonment after conviction of a serious crime
Strategies for Gaps
If you have a gap in your employment history, here are four possible strategies to consider:
- Make the gap less noticeable on your resume and application
- You may be able to leave the gap out
- Have a reasonable explanation ready
- Use networking to help minimize employers’ perceived risk
Make the Gap Less Noticeable
Do not misunderstand the first strategy. I am NOT suggesting you lie or in any way falsify your application materials. If you do, you will likely get caught, either now or later. The consequences might range from severe embarrassment to losing the job. In some cases, falsification on resumes or applications could even result in criminal conviction. (See the Career Lantern post Lying on Resumes and Job Interviews.)
Making the gap less noticeable means merely using an employment history format which presents the information in a way which is less apt to draw attention. For example, consider the resume excerpt shown below.
By including the month or full date on the resume, the applicant makes the eight-month employment gap stick out like a sore thumb. Such an obvious break in employment will almost certainly prompt the employer to ask questions about it. In fact, the person reading the resume or conducting the interview would be negligent if they didn’t inquire. When the format is revised to indicate only the year of employment (see resume excerpt below), the gap is not visible.
A Sure Thing?
Of course, this approach is neither foolproof nor always even possible to use. For example, if the employment gap extends to another year or spans several years, it will obviously show up. Also, some online job application software systems make the month or full date of employment a “required” data field. Thus, the applicant cannot complete and submit the online form unless all required fields have been filled out. In this situation, the gap will undoubtedly be revealed to the employer.
There is also always a chance the gap will somehow become known during the job interview. The interviewer may ask questions which force out details regarding the exact timing of your work history. Finally, a reference check might bring the gap to light. At a minimum, reference checks usually involve verification of the dates of employment. This approach is used to confirm there is not a discrepancy between the information given by the applicant and that provided by the former employer. Again, this is why honesty is the best policy. A small gap appearing after a reference check is likely less damaging than if an outright falsification is discovered.
Just Leave it Out?
Suppose you have been with an employer for a long time, perhaps ten or more years. However, prior to your current job, you worked for a few other companies. What if you have a noticeable gap in employment between two of them, for whatever reason? Should you include that information?
In some situations, it may not be necessary, especially when you have advanced, changed positions, or assumed new responsibilities several times with your current employer. You could simply list each of those changes to “fill in the space” for your work history. Doing so would not only reflect a recent pattern of successful career advancements, but might also eliminate the need to include the old employers. Just like that, the gap is gone!
Besides, does an employer really care about a job you held 10 or 15 years ago? Maybe not. Technology, laws, the market, and many other factors have probably changed significantly since then. Your work experience from so long ago may not necessarily be applicable to today’s workplace.
In her article How to Explain an Employment Gap on Your Resume on thebalancecareers.com website, Alison Doyle states, “There is no requirement that you include all your experience on a resume. That’s especially true if you’ve been in the workforce for many years. If you are looking for a mid-career position, an entry level role from decades ago is probably not very relevant.”
Have a Reasonable Explanation Ready
Even if the employment gap can be made less noticeable, you still need to have a reasonable explanation prepared and ready. In other words, you may have no choice except to “put the best face” on the gap. The explanation should be crafted such that it does not sound like an excuse and can be delivered without embarrassment. Be careful to not go on a rant or badmouth a former employer, even if the lousy employer was the real reason you left.
In the article 5 Tips for How to Explain Gaps in Your Employment History on LinkedIn.com, Bronwen Hann offers a suggestion. She says, “Keep it positive when talking about why you left your job before the gap. Explanations that scream: ‘I didn’t like my previous employer’ don’t look good. Hiring managers might just ask why you didn’t wait to find a new job before quitting your old one, especially because it’s easier to find a new job when you’re already working.”
So what do you say? Check out the article How to Explain Gaps in Employment (With Examples) by Biron Clark on CareerSidekick.com. Here are the general steps Mr. Clark recommends following when explaining gaps in employment in an interview:
- Explain the situation clearly but briefly. They don’t need a ton of personal details. Just give them the core facts.
- Show that the situation has ended or is no longer a factor, so they won’t be worried you’ll have to take another break from working. If they hire you, they want to know you’re 100% ready to work for them.
- Reiterate your interest in their position and bring the focus back onto this job interview and this position.
As mentioned earlier, employers may view a work history gap on a resume as a sign of risk. Since employers avoid risk, they may just dismiss your resume altogether, which would be bad news for you. However, you may be able to use any available networking resources to do some damage control in advance.
In an interesting article on Forbes.com entitled Ten Questions Employers Have about Your Employment Gap, Caroline Ceniza-Levine suggests a pre-emptive approach. She writes, “Because an employment gap raises so many questions, many of which aren’t raised explicitly, the employment gap is a resume killer. Employers are likely to skip over resumes with gaps because there are enough out there without one. This means that you need to get in front of employers aside from submitting a resume. Directly contacting employers, networking through friends and colleagues, and making connections at professional association meetings or conferences are all ways to circumvent the faceless resume submission process and tell your story so that your employment gap isn’t the first or only thing they know about you.”
Hopefully, this approach helps the potential employer to think, “I don’t know what happened with Emily at the ABC Company to cause her to leave, but I have met her and she seems OK to me. I’ll consider her further for the position.”
Put the Strategies to Work
If there is a gap in your work history, consider the four strategies as possible ways to convince potential employers you are a good choice and not a “bad hire” risk:
- Where possible, use an employment history format which does not make the gap stand out.
- If the gap occurred quite some time ago and/or you can list significant job advances with your current employer, you may be able to simply leave it off your work history.
- Always have an explanation ready, one which you can state with confidence in a positive manner. What if the reason does involve something questionable? Design your explanation to convince the employer the issue has been resolved or is no longer applicable. The employer needs to hear the past problem will not resurface or adversely affect your employment.
- If possible, use networking resources to help foster a favorable first impression, one not unfairly tainted by the work history gap.
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