After Breast Cancer: Handling that Gap on Your Resume and Getting Back to Work

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HireRight, in recognition of Breast Cancer Awareness Month 2019, is pleased to again offer this article, first run in 2017.

And now the next and hopefully final phase of your journey with breast cancer begins: the return to work. Others may have fought the disease while still on the job. You, on the other hand, needed months or years off to undergo debilitating cancer treatment. Or maybe you were caring for a loved one fighting the disease. In either case, your Family and Medical Leave (FMLA) benefit ran out, you quit or lost your job, and now with a good prognosis, you are ready and eager to get back to work. Time to update that resume and hit the job boards.
Except the break created a lengthy employment gap on your resume that sticks out like a sore thumb. Will your hiatus guarantee you’ll automatically be eliminated from the competition to get a job for which you’re ideally suited? Should you try to hide or come up with creative excuses for your time unemployed?

For a person determined enough to have faced cancer head-on, dealing with that gap and getting a job could turn out to be quite a bit easier than you imagined. Let’s take a look at the job hunt and recruiting process to better understand why this just may be the case, and then consider ways to address concerns you may have.

OK, so you see a great job posted on Indeed, Monster, or some other site. Great, you’re ready to upload that newly-polished resume! But you hesitate, wondering if that gap will get you immediately disqualified. Is it even worth the effort?

The fact is that the Applicant Tracking Systems (ATS) – the artificial intelligence applications that takes a first pass at reviewing resumes submitted to job search engines and employer websites – typically don’t scrutinize gaps in applicants’ resumes. They’re tuned to scan for keywords and analyze qualifications, relevant experience and skills, not chronology (for best practices on fine-tuning your resume specifically for the robot eyes of an ATS, please see HireRight’s brief video or helpful infographic).

In some cases, the employer may have included a requirement for candidates to explain employment gaps of three months or longer. Consider the adage, “honesty is the best policy.” As stated 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.” It may be prudent, however, to be truthful but say as little as you absolutely have to. See below for more detail on addressing and comfortably explaining your situation.

Let’s take a look at how to address employment gaps in your cover letter and interviews.

The cover letter
While many recruiters simply don’t have the time to read every candidate’s cover letter, many do. Same with hiring managers. A cover letter can add substance and context to the abbreviated information on your resume. It can be a good place to take the bull by the horns and, right from the start, explain your situation. If you decide to do so, you may want to consider being brief and accentuate your recovery and fitness to return to the challenge of a job. Be positive. Express your interest in a long-term position.

But remember that a cover letter is a monologue, not a dialogue; unlike a phone, video or in-person interview, you don’t have the opportunity to answer questions that your cover letter may elicit. You may opt to not include a cover letter, a choice a great many candidates make.

One thing to keep in mind is that while you know why you took time off, the recruiter doesn’t – and that’s fine. For all he or she knows, you went back to school, traveled the world, or worked freelance, all of which could make you a better candidate. Not explaining your unemployment period in your cover letter – or not using a cover letter at all – may be the best avenue for you.

The ATS likes what it sees. Now what?
Resumes that meet the initial criteria then are reviewed by a recruiter, who will probably notice your employment gap. But bear in mind that he or she is flesh and blood, just like you. Hiring professionals understand that gaps may exist for perfectly good reasons, including yours. And especially in today’s business environment in which competition for qualified employees is fierce, employers may be far more understanding and empathetic than you’d imagine. You get a call – “How soon can you come in to meet with us?”

The interview
Now you’re face-to-face with a recruiter or hiring manager. “That question” comes up:

“I see you weren’t employed for quite a while. Can you please explain the circumstances?”

Bear in mind that the Americans with Disabilities Act protects individuals such as yourself from having to share with employers information that they are not comfortable discussing. In reality, employers may not even care about the details. Consider simply sharing that you were dealing with an illness. Period. More importantly, you are now healthy and eager to get back to work. Gently guide the discussion to focus on your qualifications. What created your time away from work is your business and shouldn’t be of interest to the employer unless it’s critical to the job.

You may want to add a positive spin: if applicable, state that the break enabled you to keep up with the latest developments or best practices in your field during this time. If your job involves social media either directly or indirectly – as most do – you may want to indicate that you’ve stayed current by learning and using the latest apps or participated in online webinars to stay up-to-date on 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. Also consider watching the many free videos available on YouTube that have been created by app developers themselves that explain thousands of new programs, or check out the numerous TED talks also available online. Such interest can demonstrate to the interviewer your enthusiasm for joining the team.

Alternative approaches
Still concerned about that gap on your resume? Perhaps you may want to consider a functional resume, which spotlights your skills, job functions and achievements, rather than list your jobs in chronological order. When you pass the initial hurdles and you’re asked to complete the employer’s standard application form 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 pause(s) 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.

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.

Final thoughts
FDR said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Keep your confidence up! “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. Without divulging more than you feel at ease doing, be honest and upfront about the gap(s) in your career history.

There was an old song called “Accentuate the Positive.” Maybe give it a listen. It could put a well-deserved smile on your face and lend you a few phrases to keep your spirits up as you enter the next phase of your life and career. That gap on your resume? It’s there for a very understandable reason and does not in any way reflect on your accumulated skills, experience and drive you can contribute to any job.

Accentuate the positive. Eliminate the negative. Latch on to the affirmative.

And don’t mess with Mr. In-between.


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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