Mind the Gap: How to Handle Holes in your Work History

Mind the Gap: How to Handle Holes in your Work History

Sometimes life just happens.

At one point or another, you'll probably need to take a detour from your professional life. Maybe to attend to a sick family member. Maybe to go back to school. Maybe unexpected layoffs will put you out of work. Or maybe you're young, and heck, you want to travel the world.

A few months' hiatus from the office is nothing to stress over. But recruiters will generally start asking questions if they see a void in your employment of six months or longer. Once you realize you have a resume gap, you need to do some damage control to prevent that glaring hole from jeopardizing your prospects.

Handled properly, a resume gap will be a minor blemish on the overall package you offer as a candidate. You might even be able to spin your employment lapse into one of those character-building life experiences. The main objective is to be prepared to respond to an employer's concerns head-on and assure them that you are committed to your career and the position. Here are a few ways to get that across.

Leave Explanations for the Interview

Don't waste valuable cover letter space discussing your resume gap, especially if your explanation will raise more questions than it answers. "The goal of a resume and cover letter is to get an interview," says Robin Ryan, career counselor and author of 60 Seconds & You're Hired. Play up your qualifications rather than airing your baggage. It'll be easier to address your hiatus in a face to face interview anyhow.

If you think your career gap is in fact an asset, you can and should include it in your cover letter. That decision to spend a year traveling through the wilds of Madagascar might be perfectly consistent with your interest in biodiversity and easily factored into your decision to pursue environmental law.

Be Transparent

Recruiters are people too, and they know life takes unexpected turns. When asked, it's best to address your gap openly-as a matter of fact. Don't get defensive. Don't get too personal.  And make sure to express your readiness to get back to work.

New moms may especially face hard questions about whether they're ready to leave the kids at home. "Make sure you have absolutely thought through childcare circumstances, because that issue will come up," says Ryan.

If you were laid off, you can simply explain that your position was eliminated as part of a broader business decision-a restructuring, merger, or shift in the business plan-and leave it at that. No need to describe what a huge mistake it was.

If you were fired, briefly explain why the role and/or organization wasn't a good fit for you at the time, and leave personality and any pending lawsuits out of it. Mention any lessons learned or valued relationships from your time in the position, and you'll sound the wiser for it.

Ryan says that it typically takes four to seven months to find a job, so a gap that long shouldn't occasion a second look. In an era of tough competition, employers can and will check your background, so don't fudge the facts. "Make the most of what you've done, but don't lie."

Show How You Stayed Relevant

The world doesn't stand still when you're out of the rat race, so it's important to be clear and focus on what you accomplished during that time. (Hopefully you didn't spend nine months lazing around mastering "Enter Sandman" on Rock Band.) If you participated in classes or leadership activities like sitting on a board or coaching a soccer team, bring it up and explain how it will inform your work. Show that you've kept up on industry trends by reading industry magazines and blogs.

You can even put activities such as volunteering on a resume. "People commonly don't include this because it seems unimportant," says Ryan, "but employers tell me it is." She adds that experience is what matters most, whether it's paid or not.

Cara Scharf

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