If there’s one thing most candidates hope to avoid on their resumes, it’s the dreaded employment history gap. You may wonder, What’s the big deal? Well, depending on its cause, an employment history gap can raise big questions in a future employer’s mind, possibly preventing you from being considered for a job.
First of all, understand that employers who are looking for regular full-time team members want to see that you have been and continue to be committed to your career. They’re looking for a certain amount of ambition, growth, and continuity that naturally occur as a person presumably learns and takes on new responsibilities in consecutive jobs. They’re also looking for loyalty evidenced by longevity with previous organizations.
When an unexplained employment gap is present on your resume, it automatically signals employers to wonder:
The key to allaying a future employer’s fears is to explain the gap at the first opportunity. This approach is much better than letting the hiring manager’s imagination run to the negative possibilities mentioned above. You could incorporate your explanation into your cover letter, which might then keep your resume in the running. Or, depending on the cause of your gap, you could choose to explain it in your first interview. Here are four types of gaps and the best way to handle explaining them:
1. Getting laid off. People commonly lose their jobs when their company restructures, downsizes, changes locations, or is acquired. This often occurs during recessions when it’s really difficult to gain new employment, says Bronwen Hann, a long-time niche recruiter. “You can explain this type of gap to employers by making sure to emphasize why it was that you were let go from your previous job. Indicate the restructuring or downsizing that took place. And if it lines up with a recession, this ‘tells the story’ to employers better than just leaving a gap and hoping that they won’t notice before the interview stage.” If severance was involved, it could be something you’ll want to include in your story–an employer rarely gives severance to a second-rate team member.
2. Being terminated. Experienced recruiter and manager Ryan Mann advises that, above all else, you need to be honest. Reference checks can uncover things that you may have tried to hide, and perceived dishonesty is almost always a deal-breaker. “Make sure to humbly inform them you were terminated, and while you don’t need to go over all the gory details, I’d encourage you to close with what you learned. Perhaps your boss was unfit to be a manager, or the role and company were not a fit for you. Whatever the case, tell them generally what happened, and close with what you learned to make you a better employee in the future.”
3. Leaving voluntarily. Taking a sabbatical to travel or care for a family member is an acceptable and purposeful reason with which employers won’t find fault. Just explain the reason for your employment history gap in your cover letter or first interview. If you had an illness or other medical reason, there’s no need to explain in great detail. Simply give a general explanation and share that you’re now ready to get back to work. However, if you quit just because you couldn’t stand your former boss, says Hann, that won’t look good. It’s always better to share what you learned or how you grew than to highlight negative emotions or events.
4. Continuing growth. Perhaps you left your company to be an independent contractor or consultant, or to further your education. Even if you didn’t leave voluntarily, it’s good to explain any growth opportunities you took advantage of, such as gaining a new certification, volunteering, or tackling a major project. Include on your resume anything you did to further your professional standing or personal growth. That looks much better to an employer than simply doing nothing of consequence for your career.
As a candidate, what you are doing in an interview is basically telling the story of your professional life. You can be honest and still choose a positive way to frame this part of your story. But you shouldn’t wing it when talking about an employment history gap, cautions Amtec’s CEO Scott Kuethen. Be well prepared and well rehearsed with your answer to share this part of your story in the best light.
Also, don’t try to hide the employment history gap on your resume by only listing the years, not the months, of your employment stints, warns Kuethen. Savvy employers are aware of this trick and will specifically ask about any possible gaps in between jobs. It’s better to talk about the gap up front than to be caught off guard in the middle of an interview.
Employment history gaps don’t have to result in your resume being rejected. Understand how yours might look to an employer, and get out in front of it to explain your side of the story in a positive light. Focusing on what you gleaned from your gap experience and your eagerness to move ahead will be contagious.
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