How to Negotiate a Gap in Your Career
There are lots of reasons that people have to take an employment hiatus—caring for a loved one, personal illness, getting laid off, staying at home with children, to name a few. These are all perfectly acceptable reasons that shouldn’t ruin your chances of ever having a career again. So why do so many people struggle to find a job after being out of the workforce? It’s easy to point fingers at recruiters, blaming them for being heartless to very personal situations, but if you haven’t put much thought into how you’re talking about (or not talking about) your career gap on paper and during interviews, then the more likely issue is that your reasons for being out of the game don’t look like valid reasons—even if they are. The key to negotiating a gap in your career is communication, which means you should be prepared to discuss your career timeline and why you’re ready to jump back in.
Understand the recruiter’s concerns.
It’s important to understand the individual on the other end of your resume. Recruiters are likely to be very understanding of your reasons for needing to step away from your work as long as they have a clear understanding of what you’ve been doing in the meantime. Recruiters (like all of us) fear the unknown, so you’ll have to understand their concerns so you can overcome them. The primary concern of a career gap is that you omitted information intentionally to deceive. In other words, you took a job, the job went poorly, maybe you got fired, and you left it off your resume. There is nothing inherently wrong with a gap of a few months or even longer. This is ONLY a concern if the recruiter is worried about what he/she doesn’t know.
Address the gap.
Many people try to avoid addressing a gap in their experience by leaving off their dates of employment or hiding their experience timeline behind a functional resume format. The problem with this is recruiters will know you’re trying to hide something; they just won’t know what. Instead, we encourage our clients to be straightforward about long career gaps on a resume. If you left the workforce for over a year, or especially if you have not been employed for the past few years, we often build an entry into the resume to merely account for the timeline.
Our goal is to give just enough information to satisfy your whereabouts without wandering into “too personal” territory. This means we might simply say “Stay-at-home Parent,” “Travel Abroad,” or “Medical Leave.” While it’s never ideal to have a multi-year employment gap, giving a short and basic description of that time gap can let the recruiter ask further questions.
Know the right time and place to talk about it.
If the biggest issue is “fear of the unknown,” the second biggest issue is “too much information.” We often have clients who take years off to care for sick relatives. It’s a noble use of one’s time, but it just doesn’t read well on the resume. So, we list the shortened version and let recruiters ask if they need to know more.
As a general rule, your explanation for employment gaps should be non-existent or VERY short on the resume, a little longer in the cover letter, and longest in the interview. This means you can expand slightly more in a cover letter, where you have more narrative freedom. That’s a prime place to say, “after taking a few years off to spend some time with my mother and assist with her medical care, I am eager to rejoin the workforce and aggressively seeking opportunities in the area.” And in the interview, if pressed further, you can speak at length about an employment gap if a) you aren’t giving information that’s too personal for a business setting, and b) you feel this is a sticking point with employers and they NEED to know more information.
Keep it positive.
If you approach your career gap as a hindrance in your career, recruiters are likely to see it that way. If you approach it in a more positive light, then recruiters are more likely to see it that way, instead. Seeing a pattern here? How you talk about the gap will ultimately determine how the recruiter feels about it. That’s not to say that the reasons for leaving your last role were positive, since many people leave positions because of difficult family or personal circumstances, but instead, you should focus on how your previous experience has prepared you for your next role and how, after a break, you’re excited to pick up where you left off.
If you were laid off from your last position, you might address it this way: “I had to leave my last position because the company I worked for reduced staffing in multiple departments, but since then, I’ve had time to evaluate the next steps in my career, and I’m excited about this opportunity as I believe I can bring with me some valuable skills that I learned in my previous role.” Notice how the focus of the response isn’t your reasons for leaving, but rather what this means for your future.
Don’t let your gap hold you back.
When you have several years of experience, the general expectation is that you aren’t living paycheck to paycheck and you can take a few months between jobs without it being a big deal. This means that nobody with even a few years of job experience needs to fret much over an employment gap of a few months. Jobs are competitive, and sometimes it takes a little time to find the right one. If you think your qualifications before the break in your experience make you a quality candidate for the role, go ahead and apply. Just be prepared to address the areas on your resume that might raise some questions in the interview.
For example, if you took off some time for personal reasons, you might address your time away like this: “I was fortunate enough that I could take some time off after my last role, (travel a bit/spend time with family/focus on my health) and I want to make sure the next career step I take is the right one for me. That’s worth a little patience.”
If you find yourself floundering in your job search because of a break in your career, we get it. We’ve helped countless clients successfully navigate a career gap on their resume, cover letter, and in job interviews. Check out the services we offer on our website, or submit your current resume for a complimentary critique.