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What can cause the most devastating damage to your work history? Not working at all, of course. Unfortunately, periods of unemployment leave permanent scars on the beautiful face of your resume. However, there are ways of presenting this circumstance to your future employer in a less unpleasant manner.
We’re going to compile all important information about addressing employment gaps in your resume, so it won’t be seen as a negative event, if not even a positive one.
How do employers see gaps?
Recruiters and hiring managers are human, just like you and me. They are aware that a gap in professional history can originate from most benign situations but they also know that it can represent an issue which will interfere with goals of the company.
You definitely don’t want to leave to your potential employer’s imagination to find the scenario for your gap. He might think you’re lazy and that you don’t want to work. Or that you’re not capable of finding a new job. Or that you have a criminal record and that you spent some time in jail. In any case, he could think that there’s some problem and that you’re hiding something. Instead, you need to explain what happened in a most positive way possible, so the hiring manager can reach only three definite conclusions:
- You had a good reason to exclude yourself from the workforce for some time, but that issue is now definitely resolved – Remember, the hiring manager has concerns that the reason for your absence is reoccurring and whether you will leave the next job for the same reason. Your mission is to persuade him that this is not the case.
- The absence didn’t erode your professional capabilities – If you were out of job for some time, a recruiter might wonder how it reflected your knowledge, capabilities or work attitude. You have to convince him and give him proof that your edge is sharp as it ever was, maybe even sharper.
- You are very eager and excited to work again – People who don’t work for some time often lose their enthusiasm and abandon themselves to depression and melancholy. Nobody wants that kind of coworker. So, your appearance, presentation and overall impression has to be like you’re fresh out of college, hungry for success and competition.
Never leave your employment gap unaddressed and wait for the interview to explain it. In most cases, recruiters are going to imagine worst case scenario and, with plenty of other candidates, there’s a good chance you’ll never even come to the interview to explain your gap.
Reasons for gaps
Gaps in your professional history can be the result of different circumstances. Let’s name the most common ones and see how to handle each of them:
- Maternity/paternity leave – This is one of the most common reasons for gaps in the working history and the easiest to explain. It’s enough to be straightforward with the employer and tell them that you wanted some time off to raise your children. Nobody will consider this a disadvantage as long as you make sure to fulfill two requirements:
– You made all arrangements for childcare after you start working. The place to address this issue is cover letter. Do it in one sentence, without details.
– You haven’t forgotten how to do your job. More on this later.
- Company downsized/restructured and you were laid off – In this time of recession, it’s not unusual to see this happening. Recruiters know that but questions remain: how come you didn’t avoid it, why the company didn’t transfer you to another department etc. In order to resolve that tension and to show that it was completely out of your hands, be sure to state:
– All achievements, rewards and any other indicators of your good work performance.
– References from your previous employer – In case of downsizing, all employers are willing to give good references to employees.
- Illness – This is a reason for absence that has two aspects. One is if you have recovered from a serious health problem. In that case, just state that in the cover letter and offer contacts of medical institutions where that health problem was treated. Be sure to stress out that you recovered 100% and that this will in no way influence your work ability. Do not go into further detail.
The other aspect is if you have an ongoing health issue that can affect your ability to work. Be sure to explain that in your cover letter and note what can be done to minimize the impact of the illness to your job. Leave this for the end of the cover letter or interview so you have a chance to leave a good first impression.
- You were fired – There’s not much you can do about avoiding this popping up in the conversation. Be sure to stay honest, no matter what. State why you were fired in the cover letter, but be sure to note what you have done from that point to ensure that won’t happen again. Maybe you worked on your skills? Or you had to go to the psychologist to resolve some issues? We’ll talk about that later in this article. But, whatever you do, don’t blame the employer. It’s very possible that your future employer will empathize with your previous company not with you.
- You quit because you couldn’t stand your employer – In this case never, and I mean NEVER, state the real reason why you left the job. Your future employer doesn’t have any reason to think you’re going to treat him differently than you treated your previous one. Instead, state that you quit because you wanted to improve your skills/educate further and prove that with your resume. We’ll see how to do that in the next chapter.
- You were in prison or in rehabilitation – This situation requires some serious damage control. The circumstance that you were in jail or recovering from drugs/alcohol abuse can’t be overlooked and is a major rejecting factor. The only thing you can do is to try to explain in the cover letter what you did from the moment you went into jail or rehabilitation center that will ensure that such incident is never going to happen again. Also, if you choose to state some additional education or work experience you gained during prison time, be sure to put “government” or something similar for employer and not “Prison”. It will look much better.
- Traveling or time off – Be very careful when saying that you were traveling or taking the time off to recharge. In most cases, applicants use that to cover more negative aspects of their gap in work history (they were fired or couldn’t find the job etc). That’s why these reasons are notorious among recruiters or hiring managers. But, if you really travelled, be prepared to answer specific questions about your adventure. A large group of employers even look at a travel-time in a very positive manner. During your long trip, you sharpened some of your most important character attributes and that’s definitely advantageous. There’s nothing wrong with taking time off, it’s just that most candidates lie about it.
- Taking care of sick family member – This is a very common reason for being absent from the workforce. It’s important to stay positive in your explanation of the employment gap. By no means you should involve emotions or take a defensive or apologetic attitude. It was your right as a human being and you should act as that. Do not apologize for something you consider the right thing to do.
What you were doing during your employment gap?
No matter if the gap in your work history is voluntary or forced, in order to show to the employer that you preserved the sharpness of your edge, you need to prove that you were working on self-improvement instead of doing 8-hour shifts in front of a TV.
There is a couple of ways to stay active and up-to-date and to reflect that in your resume, so your employer won’t see that gap as a lost time. Here are the most common ones:
- Name all certificates, licenses, trainings, courses and degrees you obtained during your absence from the workforce and try to connect them with the position you’re applying for. This is a big deal. It shows to your future employer not only that you were proactive and were actively seeking ways to lift your skills to a new level, but also that you were focused to a specific field.
- What you did for living during your employment gap? Some consulting? Contract work? Freelance? Maybe you did some volunteer or community work? All these activities are a perfect match for your gaping gap. Stick them into Unrelated experience or Other experience section of your resume with regular dates, positions and company names, as it was a real, paid job, and, voila, your gap is gone.
- Name all seminars, conferences and other gatherings in your field of expertise you attended during your employment gap. This is very important as it shows to your future employer that you remained connected with the guild, up to date with the industry standards and haven’t fallen back in lethargy. This shows that you’re professionally fit almost 100% as the day you stopped working.
- Write down all publications, articles and blogs related to your industry that you published during the gap. This indicates that you had to dig deep under the surface of your industry and can even turn the gap to be beneficial as you became more of an expert on the given topic.
- If you were taking care of your newborn, be imaginative about that experience. Don’t forget that you singlehandedly took care of family financials, pairing of busy schedules, mentoring your kid etc. These are valuable experiences and should be mentioned in Other experience in your resume. Describe it as you would any other job, just don’t go into details.
- Another thing you could do in the meantime is starting your own business. You have to mention this in your resume as it is known that self-employment develops a wide variety of skills crucial for later job engagements.
Remember, it’s very important that you show your potential employer that you didn’t just exist in limbo and wait for a miracle to happen during your employment gap. All aforementioned items could help you persuade a recruiter or hiring manager that you are as sharp as you ever was, up-to-date and enthusiastic about your next employment.
Resume formats in purpose of justifying employment gaps
There are only a few recruiters and hiring managers that won’t notice and ask questions about a glaring gap in your working history and it’s just because they overlooked it. Everybody else will righteously ask you about a hole in your marketing document.
To avoid that, you can use different formats of your resume in order to cover up the gap. Let’s see some Pros and Cons of resume formats in the situation of discontinued employment history.
- Chronological resume format – It’s the most common resume format where previous employments are lined up in a reverse chronological timeline. This format is most suitable for individuals who consistently climbed in ranks in the same industry. It’s easy to follow and recruiters are used to this format. However, if you have a black hole in the timeline of your employments, maybe you should consider another format since chronological resume is merciless to work history gaps. It shows them in their full meanness and will definitely raise a brow or two.
- Functional resume format – This is the format of resume which begins with Summary section and continues with Skills and Achievements followed by work experience not in chronological order. While a lot of authors recommend this format if you’ve got large gaps in work history, since they can be successfully masked, have in mind that recruiters and hiring managers also know this. In fact, if a recruiter receives a functional format resume, he’ll almost immediately know that you’re hiding something. Sometimes, it’s automatic redirection to “rejected” pile. You don’t want to risk this. Avoid functional format.
- Hybrid resume format – This format takes the best from both worlds and combines it into an honest statement of what and when you did, but emphasizing your positive sides before the gap comes into consideration. Hybrid format starts with Summary, Skills and Achievements sections followed by reversed chronological timeline of your work experience. This way, you emphasize excellent stuff you’re proud of in your work history, but you’re not “forgetting” to note a gap later on. This is highly desirable resume format for those who have gaps as it fulfills the basic purpose of a resume – to highlight positive and diminish negative items from your professional life.
In some cases people tried explaining the gap by combining a resume and cover letter. While it may sound as a good idea, this is highly undesirable since recruiters are a people of habit. If they expect to see a resume and find out that it’s some mixed bag document, they will, in most cases, dismiss that as not appropriate.
The format of your resume is a much broader topic than just seen from a job seeker’s with a gap in employment history point of view. Because of that, I’m going to deliver an article completely focused on resume formats very soon.
General guidelines in a situation of employment gap
Formatting of your resume (besides choosing an optimal resume format) may be crucial in highlighting or masking the time of your unemployment. That’s where the following tips will come handy, so try to apply them:
- List years in your dates of employment, omit months – If your gap happens to be inside of the one calendar year (not spreading to two consecutive years), the easiest way to conceal it is to omit months completely from your dates of employment. By doing that, nobody can notice that you were unemployed from July to October, for example.
- Do not omit dates completely – Be sure not to omit completely some form of dates of your employment. It’s an automatic red flag in a recruiter’s book and, furthermore, it may imply that your experience dates from ’70-ties or ’80-ties.
- Do not extend periods of employment on your resume just to cover the gap – If you’re tempted to add a couple of months on the date your employment was terminated and a couple of months before you started your next job, resist it. Your future employer may check those dates and you’ll never get a job then. In addition, during downsizing, HR Departments first browse job applications in order to find any inconsistencies in them and those employees are first who are laid off.
- Start a resume with Summary section – The Summary section is a great resume opener for various reasons and, regarding treating employment gaps, it’s absolutely irreplaceable. With Summary section you grab the attention of the recruiter or hiring manager with the most positive info on your previous work. When the gap is noticed they already have a great first impression and are more willing to “forgive” gaps in employment history.
- Combine multiple jobs under the same heading – This one may come handy in a situation when you had several similar positions for shorter periods of time within different companies and a gap between them. If you group your similar experiences under one heading and present just the global period of employment for that group of positions, your gap will go unnoticed.
- Include references and quotes on you – When you leave your previous job, be sure to ask for written references of your good performance. In a situation of employment gap, it’s particularly useful to have good references from the job you had just before the gap. It helps persuading a recruiter or hiring manager that the termination of your employment there wasn’t your fault. Also, take notes of every annual appraisal conducted in a company you work for. Later, you could use some positive quotes of your superiors from the appraisal of your performances and incorporate them into your work experience section to show proof of the quality of your work.
- Don’t write “- present” in employment dates if you don’t work anymore – If you are not employed in the present moment, do not try to conceal that by adding “- present” at the end of date of your last employment. Recruiters can check that easily and if they catch you in the lie, you can say farewell to that job.
- Don’t bold the dates, write them in smaller font – You don’t want to put a flashing sign in bright colors that says “I HAVE AN EMPLOYMENT GAP HERE, COME TAKE A LOOK” in your resume. So, try to make the dates of employment blended into other text in your resume, so they don’t attract attention. You can write them in smaller fonts and you should definitely not bold it, in contrast with position title and company name.
- Don’t mention the gap if it was in the distant past – General rule for the jobs you had more than 15 years ago is to write only title, company name and period of employment without any details. Nobody’s interested in what you did 15 years ago. If the gap occurred between 10 and 15 years in the past, you’re free not to mention it and to cut your description of work history to that period in the past.
- Omit the job you were fired from if it was irrelevant and is not the last job you had – If the job you were fired from is not relevant for your current job application, omit it from your work history. You may want to make an additional section “Unrelated experience” and list irrelevant jobs, maybe even without dates of employment. That’s because “Unrelated experience” is often overlooked. The logic is: “If you, the applicant, say that it’s not relevant, why me, the recruiter or hiring manager, should lose my precious time on that”.
- Positive spin – This is a general advice. When you look at your finished resume, it shouldn’t be noticeable at first glance that you have a gap in employment history. To be sure that you did it right, give your resume to someone who isn’t acquainted with the development of your career and ask him what catches his eye after 30 seconds of looking at it. If the answer is the gap, you’re doing something wrong. The point is to create a spin that will make the recruiter concentrate on positive items in your resume and not the gap.
- Do not explain or mention a gap in your resume, the place for that is the cover letter – Even there, do not go into details. Be brief and honest. Try to persuade the recruiter that the reason for the gap is over and that you’re eager to start again. Don’t be emotive about it. Also, by no means should you take an apologetic or defensive attitude. Just describe the facts.
- Do not lie! – I repeat this in almost every article about resumes I wrote and it still doesn’t seem to be stressed out enough. Do not lie. Negative consequences may be huge. Even if you land a job, there will always be a Damocles’ sword above your head. Just don’t do it. Don’t lie in your resume.
- Try with smaller companies – Large companies have strict policies on background checks of their employees-to-be. That’s why it’s more probable that the real reason for your employment gap will be found out, no matter what you did to conceal it. With large work history gaps it might be better to apply for a job at a smaller company which doesn’t have such rigorous background checks.
- Prepare for questions about the gap in the interview – If you have a gap in the work history, and you passed the screening of your resume, be sure to come to the interview prepared for a conversation about that gap. Prepare the same explanation you wrote in the cover letter. Be calm and manage cold facts. Leave emotions out of this mini speech. Be brief, honest and don’t go into details.
- Don’t be bitter, be enthusiastic – One of the main issues to handle is to stay positive in communication with the recruiter on the topic of your employment gap. This is very important as nobody wants to work with depressed and desperate people. Also, it clearly shows that you’re over it and that you’re ready for new professional challenges, what is a sine qua non for getting employed anytime soon.
If there is a single, most important takeaway from this article then it would be “Be prepared”! Prepare during your unemployment. Prepare your resume. Prepare your cover letter. Prepare for questions in the interview on your employment gap. Prepare to show positive and enthusiastic attitude. Prepare to receive a job offer. Prepare to work!
If you have any experiences regarding employment gaps, whether you’re a job seeker or an employer, please share those valuable pieces of real life situations in the comments.
Good luck with your job hunt!
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Featured photo via Laurence Grayson/flickr