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How to explain gaps in your employment record

16 Oct, 2020 Careers

Guest post by Haley Lyles

[During these uncertain times caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, many people have lost their employment through no fault of their own, which comes on top of usual changes in employment. This post by Haley Lyles explains how to best approach the problem of clarifying gap/s in your employment record to a potential employer. Great advice! Kim]

It’s important to be strategic when talking about a gap in your resume to show employers you’re still a top-notch candidate for the gig. You don’t want to over-explain and wind up digging yourself into a hole, but if you fail to explain enough, your interviewer may be left wondering about the mysterious period in your employment history.

While the prospect of how to explain gaps in employment is enough to stress anyone out, it’s not as rare as you think. In fact, according to Monster’s 2019 State of the Candidate Report, three in five Americans have had a career gap and over one-third of those occurred due to layoffs.

With the landscape of what to include in your resume constantly changing, it’s important to keep up with best practices for structuring resume gaps to ensure you start on the right foot.

Need to explain the gap on your resume but don’t know where to start? Keep reading to learn how to navigate the most common types of resume gaps.

What is an employment gap?

Resume gaps can be a fine line to walk. While you want to provide your interviewer with enough information that they feel confident in your candidacy, you also don’t want to disclose more than necessary.

When should I explain a gap in my resume?

Generally, any employment gap of six to nine months or more should be explained. This is circumstantial based on the reason for your gap — for example, being fresh out of college and having a six-month employment gap before your first job is relatively common. Under six months is a normal amount of time and can be considered a job searching period.

What about job hopping?

Job hopping is usually defined as people who leave a job after less than one to two years in a position. While job hopping is not necessarily a bad thing, a history of job hopping can seriously detract from your resume.

Career counselor Karen Chopra says, “Employers look at short stints and say to themselves, ‘I’m spending a lot of time recruiting, and you seem unlikely to stay here for more than 18 months. I should keep looking for someone who’s more stable.’”

While some job hopping can provide advancement opportunities in your career, too much of it can negatively impact your professional reputation. With job hopping comes additional resume gaps, so you’ll want to be careful if you do decide to job hop.

Common employment gaps

While some career gaps are pretty common, it’s important to highlight what you learned from the gap rather than just provide an excuse for it. Here are common types of resume gaps and what to say if you find yourself in the position to explain it.

Unemployment

With 16.3 million Americans laid off due to COVID-19 as of August 2020, unemployment is going to be a more common reason for a resume gap than ever before. Regardless of your reason for unemployment, you can frame your response to focus on the positives of what you learned during your time away

What to say: “Unfortunately, due to the health crisis, I was let go from my company. However, I’m proud of the work I did there and I used my time away to learn new skills relevant to my career, such as X.”

Travel

Taking time to travel is not an uncommon reason for an employment gap, especially for young people just getting started in their careers. Whether you spent a year backpacking across Europe or road tripping around the States, it’s important to highlight the soft skills you picked up along the way like confidence, independence and cultural literacy.

When talking about a travel employment gap, you should be transparent with your interviewer. Employers will see right through you if you make the experience sound like more than what it was. Instead, be honest about the time and highlight what you learned — ideally, things that can’t be taught in a work environment.

What to say: “I reached a stage in my life where I wanted to take time for my personal development. My time traveling taught me valuable lessons such as independence and cultural understanding which I can apply to my career by doing X.”

School-related resume gaps

A resume gap because you returned to school is usually the easiest to explain and is generally well-received by employers. If you went back to study something relevant to your career, you should highlight it both on your resume and during your interview.

However, taking a gap year between school and work can be a bit more complicated. If you decided to take a year between graduating and finding a job, you should explain to interviewers what you were doing in the time frame. Did you get online certifications? Were you finishing up coursework? Did you learn a new language while traveling abroad? Highlight what you did during that time to let employers know you were proactive during your resume gap.
What to say: “I wanted to expand my career knowledge by continuing my education. I accomplished X which taught me about Y. Now that I’ve completed this part of my education, I’m excited to get back into the workforce and make a meaningful difference in my career.”

Non-relevant job experience

Working a job that’s irrelevant to your career is a tough position to be in if you don’t want to take up real estate on your resume explaining it.

For example, if you were laid off from a corporate job due to COVID-19 and spent a few months working as a grocery stocker to make ends meet, should you bring it up during the interview? Or do you mention it in a cover letter?

The answer is: it depends. It’s definitely worth bringing up during an interview to show that you were still active during your career break. However, if you want a written acknowledgment, then mentioning it on your cover letter is a good compromise to taking up space on your resume with it.

What to say: “During the pandemic, I took a job in a non-relevant field to make ends meet. While it wasn’t my ideal position, I am proud of the service I did to help the public how I could while we got through the difficult times. However, I’m ready and excited to once again be pursuing the career I am passionate about”.

Family-related leave

Employers know that family-related leave isn’t a vacation. Whether you were caring for the elderly or raising your children, no employer should dock you for prioritizing your family.

With the average family-related leave lasting 25 months, it’s not an easy decision to put a pause on your career. When taking family-related leave, the most common reasons include:

  • Taking time to raise your children – 18 percent
  • Maternity or paternity leave – 15 percent
  • Taking care of a sick family member – 15 percent

What to say: “I made the difficult decision to take a break from my professional life to focus on helping my family. During this time, I kept my professional skills up to speed by doing X and I was able to hone additional skills like time management, compassion and communication.”

How to explain gaps to potential employers

Explaining resume gaps to your employer is a fine line to walk. On one hand, you don’t want to brush over it and risk them feeling apprehensive, but on the other, you don’t want to drag it out so long that it becomes your employer’s primary impression of you.

Here’s how to explain gaps in employment while searching for jobs:

  • Be transparent: When explaining gaps to potential employers, honesty is always the best policy. Be transparent and concisely explain why it occurred and what you learned.
  • Assure that it’s not a pattern: Seeing as it takes an average of six months to get a new employee fully up to speed, employers want to ensure that you don’t have a pattern of job hopping in the past — so that you’re less likely to do it in the position they’re hiring you for.
  • Explain lessons you learned: Highlight what you learned during your time away from the office by sharing soft skills, life lessons or any other important takeaways you had during that period.
  • Be concrete: When explaining a resume gap, you should know what you’re going to say before the fact and stick to the script. You want to avoid trailing off or rambling, lest the employer feels you’re unprepared or trying to conceal something.

Show that you are proactive: With COVID-19 disrupting the workforce, more than twice as many people were unemployed throughout 2020 as they were during the Great Recession. However, you can stand out to employers by being proactive during this period, taking online courses, and reading literature relevant to your career.

How to structure a gap on your resume

A gap on your resume can be an awkward conversation to have with employers. However, if you approach the topic correctly, you can highlight what you learned from the situation and avoid making a mistake when explaining it on your resume.

Focus on the positives

When structuring a resume gap, you should tailor your resume to focus on the positives. Whether you were a stay-at-home mom who learned time management by taking care of two small children or a young professional who traveled the world and became culturally literate, frame your experience to showcase the positives of what you learned on your feet rather than what you missed away from the office.

When figuring out how to structure resume gaps, start by thinking of some of the most common job interview questions and figure out how to weave what you learned into your answers. Use those answers as a basis for your resume — if you learned to be independent and self-reliant during a travel experience and came back looking for work as an accountant, you can highlight how you learned to be a problem-solver and look at problems from multiple perspectives.

Pick the right format

One of the best ways to structure a resume gap is to go back to the basics: the actual structure of the resume. There are three popular resume formats: chronological, functional and hybrid.

  • Chronological: These resumes show your work in reverse chronological order, with the most recent work at the top. However, this type of resume will highlight any large employment gaps, so if you have a gap that you don’t want front and center, this may not be the best resume format for you.
  • Functional: A functional resume highlights your skills, with work history taking a sideline position. This is a strong option for someone who has an employment gap but many valuable hard and soft skills, like someone who took a non-relevant position but earned several certifications during that time.
  • Hybrid: A hybrid resume combines the chronological and functional to feature both skills and work history significantly. For someone who wants employers to focus on their skills but also has an impressive work history to showcase, this is a great choice.

Resume gaps are a common occurrence, with over 90 percent of working people reporting being unemployed at some point in their careers. Navigating telling an employer about a resume gap can be awkward, but by approaching it with the right mindset, you can focus on the positives and highlight what you learned rather than what you missed.

Whether you’re navigating an employment gap or not, it’s important to always keep your resume up to date — you never know when the next great opportunity may arise.


Ready to build your resume now? You can check out this customizable resume builder to get started.

Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics  | SHRM

About the author of this post

Haley Lyles is a content creator who covers career development, job search advice, human relations, and more for Resume-Now. She graduated with a telecommunications degree from Texas A&M and dove head-first into digital marketing and content creation. In her spare time, she enjoys cooking, climbing, traveling, and volunteering with Austin Boxer Rescue.

About the author Kim Harrison

Kim Harrison loves sharing actionable ideas and information about professional communication and business management. He has wide experience as a corporate affairs manager, consultant, author, lecturer, and CEO of a non-profit organization. Kim is a Fellow and former national board member of the Public Relations Institute of Australia, and he ran his State’s professional development program for 7 years, helping many practitioners to strengthen their communication skills. People from 115 countries benefit from the practical knowledge shared in his monthly newsletter and in the eBooks available from cuttingedgepr.com.

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