Whether you’re gearing up for a triumphant return to the workforce or grappling with the best way to explain a recent gap in your employment history, addressing time away from the professional world can be a daunting task. Given that a glaring hole on your resume will likely be a red flag to prospective employers, you’ll want to take steps to proactively answer questions they may have.
Balancing your need to provide a reasonable explanation with your right to privacy might be a bit tricky, but it’s far from impossible. Employment gaps can easily be addressed directly on a resume, mentioned in a cover letter, or discussed during an interview. Read through the approaches below to determine the strategy (or strategies!) that’ll work best for you.
Addressing Gaps Directly on Your Resume
When it comes to a gap in employment on your resume, it’s best not to leave recruiters guessing. Including a brief blurb about your time away from the workforce will serve to proactively address any questions or concerns prospective employers may have. It’ll also make answering questions about that gap on your resume much easier when it comes time to interview, as you’ll have already laid the foundation for a direct, concise response. Let’s take a look five common scenarios and how to address them.
#1. You Were Raising a Family
Taking time away from the workforce to raise a child is often a deeply personal decision – one that you may not want to discuss with a prospective employer. This is perfectly understandable, and frankly, no one’s business! That said, being upfront about your time away could increase your chances of landing an interview by as much as 40%, so it’s worth including a brief, professional explanation. Try creating a “recent experience” section below your previous, more relevant work history or use a single line in your chronological experience section to explain your time away. Something as simple as, “Family Care Provider, 2013 – Present” will do the trick.
Highlighting charity work or continuing education courses will help to smooth over a gap, too. Volunteering in a classroom, helping out with a friend’s business, or taking professional courses can all be included as relevant recent experience.
#2. You Were Caring for Yourself or a Loved One
Your medical history or the health of a loved one aren’t really anyone else’s business (and interviewers aren’t legally allowed to ask), but most hiring managers can appreciate your need to take time away from the workforce to manage a health issue. Your explanation can be something as simple as “Took a leave of absence to care for a loved one” or “Took a healthcare sabbatical to address a now fully resolved medical matter.” List this at the top of your experience section, include the dates of your leave, and keep the explanation to 1 – 2 lines. Then, dive right into highlighting your most recent experience.
#3. You Went Back to School
Going back to school to finish a degree, gain additional expertise, or earn a certification are all perfectly acceptable reasons to step away from a job. Be sure to include your education at the top of your resume (this strategy is typically reserved for current or recent students, only) so that recruiters can easily see the progression of your career timeline. If you’d like to include additional details about your program or coursework, you can also list your education as experience.
#4. You Were Pursuing a Passion (Like Traveling or Writing a Book)
Unless your passion project is somewhat related to the jobs you’re now pursuing, you’ll want to keep this explanation nice and simple. That said, it doesn’t hurt to highlight a few interesting tidbits or compelling accomplishments here, either. Include a brief, one or two-line description of how you spent your career pause, and use a couple of bullet points (if relevant) to highlight your newly gained skills or achievements. When in doubt, a concise line like “Backpacked 2,190 miles across the Appalachian Trail, March 2016 - October 2016” is all you need.
#5. You Were Unexpectedly Unemployed
If you were unexpectedly let go from a job, chances are you didn’t have something new lined up right away. Depending on how recently you became unemployed, you may not have to address a gap at all. If it’s just been a couple of months, updating your resume and highlighting your most relevant achievements will probably be your most potent strategy. That said, if you were laid off, it wouldn’t hurt to include a brief explanation next to your end date. Something like, “(laid off due to loss of funding)” would be perfectly acceptable.
Unfortunately, if you were fired and it’s been more than a few months since you were last employed, addressing your employment gap could get a bit tricky. If you can supplement your time off with volunteer experience, temp jobs or part time work, you’ll be in pretty good shape. But if you don’t have any interim experience to highlight, try including a concise explanation like, (“departed due to shift in company priorities”). This won’t scream “fired!” but will also allow space for you to explain the circumstances of your termination in an interview.
Leveraging Your Cover Letter
Cover letters provide a great opportunity for you to supplement the information on your resume. If you choose to include a cover letter with your application, consider addressing your employment gap in the body of your letter. Saying something as simple as, “after taking a personal leave to care for an immediate family member, I’m eager to dive into a new professional challenge” should do the trick.
Bonus: If you spent your time off learning a new skill, or if you have a relevant, compelling anecdote to share about your career pause, your cover letter is the place to elaborate!
Discussing Employment Gaps in an Interview
The beauty of proactively addressing gaps in employment on your resume or cover letter is that you’ll be less likely to be asked about your time away during an interview. If the hiring manager knows that you were caring for your family for the past two years, she probably won’t have any follow-up questions for you. That means you’ll be able to spend more time talking about all the great skills and experiences you bring to the table!
If your employment gap does come up during an interview, keep your explanation short and sweet. Say something like, “I’ve been lucky enough to spend the past three years focused on raising my family, but now that my children are a bit older, I’m eager to step back into a professional role. I’m particularly excited about this opportunity because…” or “I’ve always wanted to pursue a career in advertising, and decided that it was time to complete my marketing degree. Now that I’ve graduated, I’m excited to leverage everything I learned in the classroom as I continue to grow my expertise in a role like this.” Notice how the first sentence addresses the reason for taking time off, while the second line pivots the conversation to your applicable experience or enthusiasm for the role. The key is to answer the question succinctly, then move the conversation forward.
Gaps in employment can be challenging to address, but if you’re honest, concise, and straightforward, you can proactively explain your time away, ease your prospective employer’s concerns, and efficiently redirect the conversation to your relevant skills and achievements.
Jaclyn Westlake is a career advice columnist, creator of the Job Hopper's Job Search Strategy Guide and founder of The Job Hop. With more than ten years of experience in the recruiting and human resources space, she is passionate about empowering job seekers to achieve their career goals. She's also particularly fond of coffee, every dog in the world, and the city of San Francisco.
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