Constructively handling resume gaps consistently ranks among the most stressful challenges that workers report facing while searching for new employment. This is true whether they are returning to the workforce after time away or are watching the days, weeks and months of their unemployment lengthen as they struggle to find jobs in tough markets.
While strategic resume structuring can downplay shorter gaps, prospective employers are all but guaranteed to ask about longer periods away from the workforce.
Fortunately, by applying a few basic principles, interviewees can turn their resume gaps from liabilities into strengths. Being prepared, setting the right tone and keeping the focus on interviewees’ readiness to reenter the workforce can allow workers to take control and steer interviews in their favor. Knowing what red flags employers are looking for can help applicants with employment gaps avoid common pitfalls and come out ahead, despite their less-than-perfect resumes.
Tell the Truth
First and foremost, Human Resources Representatives and Career Coaches universally agree that it is crucial for interviewees to tell the truth about gaps in their resumes. Lying is not only unethical, but can have severe and long-lasting consequences. Applicants found to have lied about their work experience lose employers’ trust. This can prevent them from getting the job for which they applied and often other jobs in the same industry or region.
Telling the truth does not mean that applicants must feel they need to share intimate details of their personal or family lives. There is no need to specifically disclose private medical histories or any other information of a sensitive nature.
Applicants who prepare for questions about employment gaps prior to interviewing routinely achieve the best outcomes. They are consistently more likely than unprepared applicants to protect their personal information, maintain control over their professional images and to impress interviewers.
Industry experts recommend that applicants decide in advance what they are comfortable sharing and practice delivering their answers concisely and coherently. Rehearsing their answers ahead of time can enable interviewees to select “power” words that frame their experiences in ways that promote respect or work to their advantage.
For example, compare the following phrases:
- “I took a sabbatical to…”
- “I left my last job to…”
- “I took time off to…”
The first example suggests that the applicant acted within recognized employment patterns with full intent to return to the workforce at the end of a set period. The haphazardness of the second example and casualness of the third, by contrast, might raise questions about the interviewee’s consistency and reliability as an employee.
Set the Right Tone
How interviewees approach and speak about their employment gaps strongly influences how employers perceive both the applicant and the gap. As a result, it is essential that applicants present their experiences in positive and empowering ways. For instance, consider the following statements:
- “I quit my last job because I hated it and wanted to do something different.”
- “I realized that to advance in this industry I need to move my career in a different direction and I left my last position to focus on re-tooling for that change.”
Both statements could be equally true, but the second is noticeably more positive. It also implies that the speaker is forward thinking and proactive, which will be attractive to employers.
Similarly, applicants can improve employers’ impressions of their activities during gap periods by thoughtfully portraying them in a beneficial light. For instance, applicants who simply say that they “volunteered” somewhere give little weight or value to their time and efforts in that role. By contrast, the same applicants might specify that they “gained valuable communication skills” by working with the coworkers, customers or clients they encountered while volunteering.
Focus on the Employer’s Needs
The primary reason that employment gaps of are concern to employers is that they represent time spent “out of the loop” of the industry and the workforce. This time away, they fear, may have caused applicants’ skills to lapse or put them behind on innovations and best practices in ways that will cost the employer time, money or quality if they are hired.
Applicants can alleviate these concerns by highlighting ways in which their unemployed time contributed to making them a good fit for the position for which they are applying. Frequent examples include:
- Relevant classes, workshops or trainings completed.
- Networking connections made.
- Volunteer, part-time or consulting work done.
When considering how to address employment gaps, applicants should remember to give themselves full credit for everything they learned and practiced during those periods. Even “non-traditional” or social activities can be used as evidence of skill development. For instance, coaching children’s sports teams and running social clubs can both improve applicants’ organizational, communication, time-management and budgeting skills.
According to industry experts, one of the most powerful things job applicants can do to minimize the potential negative impacts of employment gaps is to transition the focus from themselves to the employer. Transitions do not have to be complicated and often flow naturally from applicants’ explanations of what they were doing or what skills they learned or honed during that time.
The most important aspects of transitions, however, are that they emphasize applicants’ readiness to return to the workforce and link the applicants’ strengths to the criteria of the job for which they are applying. Transitions show employers that applicants are confident about their skills and their decisions which, in turn, increases the likelihood that employers will be confident about them as well. It also demonstrates applicants’ attention to and awareness of employers’ needs, suggesting that they would be great assets as employees.
Avoid Negativity Traps
Finally, speaking positively about gaps in one’s resume is only possible if applicants steer clear of negativity traps. Whether directed at people or circumstances, negative comments and attitudes can create the impression that applicants are unemployed or struggling to land a job because of they are not good workers or are unpleasant to be around. Applicants should avoid:
- Speaking poorly of former employers or coworkers.
- Complaining about the state of the job market or competition.
- Fixating on the need to get any job at all to bring in income as soon as possible.
- Disparaging themselves or their skills.
With a little practice and careful application of these simple guidelines, workers can confidently tackle interview questions about gaps in their employment experience with confidence and positivity.
Related Article: Setting a Re-employment Plan