Handling Gaps on Your Resume

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A frequently-asked question by job candidates is how to handle periods of unemployment that show as gaps on their resumes. While a few months may not be a cause for concern for some employers, gaps of six months or more may disqualify the job seeker from being considered.

Not necessarily. Hiring professionals are human beings, too, and understand gaps may exist for perfectly good reasons. In today’s business environment employers may be far more understanding and appreciative than in previous years. The important thing is to explain these periods of unemployment, and not leave them to the recruiter’s imagination.

Above all, be honest. As HR experts Sharon Armstrong and Barbara Mitchell wrote in The Essential HR Handbook, “Don’t hide it; explain it. During the entire process of conducting a job search, maintain your integrity and demonstrate it. Jobs come and go, but being known for being truthful—and conversely, deceitful—can last a lifetime.”

For the sake of simplicity and practicality, let’s first separate the types of employment gaps into voluntary and involuntary.

Voluntary
Did you take time off the have a child?
According to the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), “the birth of a child, or complications relating to childbirth or pregnancy, would qualify under FMLA as a serious health condition. Adoption, postpartum conditions, and parental leave for childcare may also qualify.” Taking time to raise a young child can be reasonable explained to a potential employer. Being truthful about such decisions is helpful, as well as indicating in a cover letter or the resume itself that you, while not employed, used the time for routine personal and familial reasons; that should be sufficient to get the message across.

It’s also probably a good idea to state that, while not employed, you’ve kept up with the latest developments in your field during this time. If your job involves social media either directly or indirectly – and what field doesn’t? – you may want to indicate that you’ve stayed current by learning and using the latest apps or took courses at local workshops, colleges, or participated in online webinars to stay abreast of new platforms and best practices in the constantly-evolving digital landscape. These may prove to be a major plus to a recruiter. You may mention such activities within the “Education” section of the resume and/or cover letter. You may also want to avail yourself of the many free videos created by the app developers themselves on YouTube that explain virtually all new programs or by watching the numerous TED talks also available online.

Were you unemployed for medical reasons or took time off to help a seriously-ill family member?
There’s no reason not to bring that to light in terms that you are comfortable disclosing; both are also covered under FMLA.

Were you just burned out and needed time to take a breath and recharge?
Add that you’re now fully recharged and eager to get back in the game! Caveat: It may be best to avoid using the term “sabbatical” since it may be negatively perceived by some recruiters.

All of these should be palatable explanations for employment gaps to a potential employer and may be mentioned in the cover letter.

Involuntary
Now to the other side of the coin:

Were you laid off, terminated, or have you changed career direction which has resulted in an extended period of unemployment?
If you’ve used part or all of your time volunteering in a charitable cause, have been involved in community activities, or otherwise stayed active, whether paid or not, say so. Serving as a consultant or providing services on your own should, of course, be stated (if self-employed, have 1099s or other validation of your self-employment available since they may be required when you’re hired and a background check is run).

Were you laid off by a company that went out of business or downsized, eliminating your position?
Ask for letters of recommendation from your previous boss. You may even want to pull quotes and use them in abbreviated form in the “Qualifications” section of your resume, or within your cover letter. Fired? So were many people, including Oprah Winfrey, Walt Disney, Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs, Mark Cuban, and Madonna. Consider being up-front about it; if you’ve got the skills the job requires and can explain your dismissal dispassionately and in a context that reveals your maturity and value to your next employer, you’ll stand a better chance of still being considered for the job than if you misrepresent or twist the facts.

Did you apply for numerous jobs while unemployed and, for one reason or another, didn’t get the job?
Particularly during the recent recession, this too is quite understandable:
“In December 2007, the national unemployment rate was 5.0 percent, and it had been at or below that rate for the previous 30 months. At the end of the recession, in June 2009, it was 9.5 percent. In the months after the recession, the unemployment rate peaked at 10.0 percent (in October 2009). Before this, the most recent months with unemployment rates over 10.0 percent were September 1982 through June 1983, during which time the unemployment rate peaked at 10.8 percent.” – BLS Spotlight on Statistics

Obviously, competition during the recession was fierce and unemployment was high. At the time of this writing, we’ve only just returned to a more job-rich employment environment. But if you couldn’t find a job in the U.S. between 2008-2013, be honest; calling to light continuous attempts at finding employment may very well be viewed with respect, not as a blemish on your career or a personal failing on your part.

Closing Thoughts

An alternative to the standard resume is to use a functional resume, which focuses more on skills, job functions and achievement rather than chronology. If your functional resume impresses a recruiter and you’re invited to fill out a formal application where you’ll need to explain gaps, you’ll at least have your foot in the door which enables you to more easily explain the pauses in your career. Be aware, however, that a recruiter may see a functional resume and assume you’ve avoided using a standard chronological resume to hide something. There is also a hybrid resume that incorporates a summary, skills and achievements, along with a reversed chronological timeline enumerating your jobs. Finally, if using a chronological resume, you may choose to simply list years and omit months. Doing so, however, may invite more scrutiny. Weigh your options carefully concerning the type of resume you use. You may even choose to explain its format as part of your cover letter.

“Hiring managers are more interested in knowing how you used your time away from the workforce as opposed to why you were unemployed,” says Anne-Marie Ditta, president of New York-based career-planning firm First Impression Career Services. Be honest and upfront about gaps in your career history and take the opportunity to explain those gaps in a way that employers can understand them.

Lewis Lustman

Lewis Lustman is a content marketer who enjoys developing materials that engage, inform, challenge, and hopefully entertain my audience. Lewis is a former journalist for Los Angeles Magazine and the Los Angeles Times, and has worked for a number of leading advertising, marketing, technology, and PR firms over the years. Interested in a topic that he hasn't yet tackled? Drop him a line in the comments section!

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