What Is an Employment Gap, and When Do You Need to Explain It?
An Employment gap is any break in employment that might occur during a person’s working life.
Gaps happen for many reasons, and they happen to just about everyone at some time or another. Being laid off, stopping to raise a family, quitting an awful job, taking care of a sick relative, the list goes on.
You may fear that such gaps raise a “red flag” or a “warning” to prospective employers, and they may not want to consider someone who has a gap in their employment history.
This may not actually be the case! Sure, there are some recruiters out there who would consider a candidate with too many gaps as a possible hiring risk.
However, many recruiters and hiring managers understand that employment gaps are a normal part of a person’s career. They want to learn as much as they can about your background, and if there is a gap, they may ask you to explain it to them to better understand you as a person and as a job candidate.
Whether or not a question about an employment gap ever comes up in an interview, you should be prepared to explain it. This article will help you understand gaps and how to handle them on your resume and in an interview.
Addressing the Gap on Your Resume
Many people would ask, “Do I have to address an employment gap on my resume?”
The answer depends on several factors. Let’s take a look at a few common situations to see which ones may fit your circumstances.
The Short-Term Gap – This one is not really an employment gap. Rather it is the time immediately after you have left your last job and are currently looking for your next position.
Your resume will show the date you left, and if it is a few weeks up to several months in duration, neither recruiters nor hiring managers will raise this as an issue.
If, for example, you are a customer service professional like Joseph Smith from our example below, you should expect to be asked why you left your last job. You may also be asked what you have been doing since, but you do not have to explain it as a “gap.”
The Gap in the Past – If you are a person with lots of working experience, you do not have to list every job you ever held.
We recommend that your resume should not go back more than 10-15 years to be relevant in today’s job market. If there was a gap in your past that predates this time frame, it does not have to be included or explained at all.
The Actual Gap – As previously discussed, real gaps in employment do occur from time to time and they may have to be shown on your resume.
Have a look at Joseph Smith’s chronological resume fragment. If your resume looks like this one, you will certainly expect to be asked about the missing time. (We have left out many of the usual resume details to address just the gap issue.)
Looking at this resume, the interviewer may wonder:
- What happened between February 2014 when Joseph left Blackwell Corporation and November 2014 when he started with Jones and Company?
- Why did he leave Blackwell?
- What was Joseph doing during those 8 months?
- Was he looking for another job, or was he doing something else?
The resume does not mention or account for the gap. If the company is interested in Joseph and wants to interview him, the gap will need to be addressed when he meets with them.
There are several ways that Joseph can represent the gap in his resume by using one of the following methods:
The “Year-Only” Method – Instead of listing month/year on the chronological resume, this method uses only the year to identify start and end times on a job.
For instance, Joseph’s resume would show that he worked from 2007 till 2014 at Jones and Company, and from 2014 till present – at Blackwell. No gap appears on the resume.
In similar circumstances, if you choose to use the year-only method, there are a few things to keep in mind:
- Interviewers are aware of the year-only method and may ask more specific questions about those dates.
- Companies often reach out to former employers for information about you and will probably learn the exact dates you started and left their employ.
- If you completed an online job application, you probably showed month and year, which would look inconsistent with the dates on your resume.
If you want to avoid showing a gap on your resume, this method works, but you should still be prepared to discuss any gaps during the interview that did not appear on your resume.
And remember, if you do not have a good explanation for the gap, it may appear that you attempted to hide something.
Including the Gap Experience – If, while unemployed, a person decided to start his or her own business, pursue additional education, consult, or freelance, these experiences should be shown on the resume as a positive part of that person’s work history. It provides the prospective employer with additional information and insight into them as a candidate.
For example, in addition to his on-going job search, Joseph might have used the time between February and November 2014 to study to become certified as a customer service professional.
Obtaining this designation is closely related to his work. The time should be included on his resume under the “Experience” section of the resume, just as he would show any other work experience. By doing this, there is no gap to explain.
The Functional Resume – This resume format focuses on skills, abilities, and qualifications. Unlike a chronological resume, it does not emphasize work start and end dates and, therefore, may help with professional experience gaps.
In Joseph’s case, this type of resume would, upfront, summarize his experience, the skills he has developed on the job, and might also provide several STAR stories about successes in his career.
This would be followed by a list of the jobs he held, by employer name along with a brief summary of his responsibilities at each one. He may include the years worked at each employer, but they would be less emphasized than in a chronological resume, and a gap would be less obvious in this resume.
Explaining the Gap During the Interview
The keys to successfully explaining an employment gap during a job interview are:
- readiness to return to work
We will address each of these key elements below.
Preparation – If you had an employment gap during your career, there is a very good chance that you will be asked about it, and you should go to every job interview prepared to explain it.
Whether it was voluntary (e.g., time off to care for a sick and aging parent) or involuntary (e.g., company lay-offs), you should be ready to describe and explain the circumstances and what you did during this time.
Preparation means you will not hesitate, stutter, or seem indecisive when asked to explain. You want to appear both positive and confident when handling this issue.
Honesty – “Honesty is the best policy.” This quote, often attributed to Ben Franklin, really is the best way to approach the question of the employment gap. Never try to hide it or cover it up and never lie about the gap, explain it instead!
Employers are very perceptive, and well may see their way through an attempted deception, which will clearly result in no job offer.
Focus – Understanding why you left the job is necessary but not as important as what you accomplished during the period between employers. Focus on what you actively did during this time.
In addition to looking for your next position, did you learn or update a skill, attend school, volunteer at a local food bank, do freelance work, or help out at your uncle’s printing business?
How you dealt with the time given to you during an employment gap is an essential way to demonstrate to a prospective employer your ability to use it wisely in preparation for the next step in your career.
Readiness to Return to Work – Once you have handled the explanation, you must clearly demonstrate to the interviewer that you are ready and able to return to work.
This is a vital part of the employment gap discussion during the interview process. Emphasize to them that your efforts during this time helped make you a stronger candidate for the position.
Breaking Out of the Employment Gap
Let’s take a moment to discuss other ways in which you might help yourself during an interruption in your employment history.
Beyond being able to explain what you did during the gap (e.g., taking a course related to your career or caring for an elderly relative), you should consider all of the organizations created specifically to aid you during your transition and help you break out of the employment gap more quickly.
Did you know that there are thousands of networking groups all over the world that provide help and guidance to job seekers?!
These organizations offer friendly, supportive contacts with other people in transition, as well as the opportunity to hear from experts in job counseling, recruitment, resume writing, and interviewing. Some even offer training courses for job seekers.
If you google “networking for job seekers,” you will see many such offerings close to home that may help you move “from the gap to the job” that much sooner.
You can also join Meetup.com to learn new things, connect with new people, and find support locally, in person, or even online, thanks to increasingly popular virtual meetings across the globe.
Another way to help you survive the gap is to become a work search buddy with another job seeker (or seekers if you want to form a group). On a regular basis, you get together to share ideas on job seeking, provide support to one another during the transition, provide feedback, and share job leads. Working together adds strength to your own job search.
You may know someone with whom you can work or seek someone out through any of the organizations you join or the networking meeting you attend.
When you are explaining your employment gaps to the interviewer, be sure to emphasize how networking helped you make it through this time. It will demonstrate to them that you did not sit idly by waiting for an opportunity to come along. It will show that your every effort (including networking in all its forms) was to return to work as soon as possible.
As we have stated, there are many reasons a person’s employment history may contain an employment gap. All of the things shown on your resume, including your employment history (as well as any gaps in it) are what makes you the person sitting in front of the interviewer.
Be sure to embrace your entire story and present yourself as the right person for the job at this moment in time.
About the Author: Stuart Weiner has over 25 years of experience as a compliance officer and auditor, primarily in the healthcare field, and is currently the Principal of Integrated Compliance, a compliance consulting firm. He also serves as the registrar for the training committee at the Professional Service Group of Central New Jersey (PSGCNJ) – a U.S.-based organization that helps job seekers in their career transition.