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How to address career gaps on your resume and job interview?

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How to address career gaps on your resume and job interview?

How to address an employment gap on your resume and job interview?

We’ve helped many professionals across their careers with resume and cover letter improvements, and these questions come up frequently: How should you address a career gap in your job search? Should you hide it? Should you bother to explain the gaps in your resume?

We consulted with 15 recruiters and asked for their opinion. They unanimously said to keep the resume gap but address it professionally; what does that mean? Before diving into that in the sections below, let’s ensure you understand why it’s essential.

Table of content

Why do employers care about employment gaps?

You obviously know yourself very well, and it is clear to you why you should be trusted. But step into the shoes of a recruiter or a hiring manager and you’d be able to appreciate better why a gap in your resume can raise concerns. Employers make a bet when they hire you. This bet is much bigger than your salary. An employee who turns out incapable of fulfilling their assigned roles, might damage the business or customers, or incite internal dissatisfaction (and other employees to leave that company), etc.

In their worst-case scenarios, the gap in employment is due to a severe issue with your employability, and it is their responsibility as gatekeepers to get to the bottom of it. So even though these concerns are not relevant to you, the recruiter and hiring manager don’t know you yet. Worst, your resume doesn’t “speak” on your behalf to dismiss potential concerns. That’s why you need to proactively craft your resume and cover letter to preempt these concerns or at least minimize them until the interview.

Honesty is the best policy

Now that you understand the concerns, you can understand why honesty is the best policy. For the recruiter or hiring manager, it is a sign of relief when you explain employment gaps with mundane reasons: You took a career break as a stay-at-home parent, or you took time away for medical reasons, or as part of a pandemic era layoff, you decided it was high time to hone your skills. As long as there are good reasons (=mundane) behind your employment gap, you should tell it as it is (we will explore where and how in the following sections).

Reflect on the reasons for the time that you were unemployed. What did you learn or gain from that experience? Can you describe it in a positive way, as a time of growth? Did life give you lemons, and you turned them into lemonade? In some cases, gaps can showcase character strength, resilience, and a sense of responsibility. Employers love that.

Whatever the reason for the gap, you will need to briefly explain that it is no longer relevant and that you are fully capable of excelling in that job.

Are there any good reasons for trying to hide a serious gap in your work history? The short answer is no. Between your resume, LinkedIn profile, screening calls, interviews, reference calls etc. there is a very high probability that it will turn up at some point and will break the trust you’ve built and get you immediately rejected.

Explaining gaps in your resumes

Let’s first discuss what kinds of gaps shouldn’t be listed on your resume:

  1. There’s no need to explain a small gap of up to 6 months, especially if it happened years ago. You might be asked about that in the screening call or interview, but there is no reason to write it in your resume. In general, there’s no reason to write exact months for jobs that you had years ago, but that’s more of cosmetics. Note that your LinkedIn profile might still display months.
  2. A career gap that happened over 10 years ago. In general, jobs that you had over 10 years ago are less relevant to your current career, so you can even just mention job title and company without employment dates.

Another straightforward case is if, after the career gap, you had at least three years of work. You should explain your employment gap, but it is clear that you were employed well after that gap occurred.

So we’re left with a case of a gap of more than six months that happened less than three years ago. In this case, it will be essential to show that the reason for the gap is not related to the termination of your most recent employment. For example, if you had a nine-month employment gap due to medical reasons and you were recently laid off due to organizational change, the gap is of no consequence. In that case, you might want to add a bullet point to the most recent work experience, explaining why you were terminated or left the job.

Writing about a career gap in your resume

Adding a gap to your employment history is one way to clarify the reason for the gap. For example, you might have

Stay-at-home parent (June 2020 – July 2021)

If you can showcase how you turned lemons into lemonade, you should add a few bullet points to that effect:

  • Skills and educational achievements: Any skills, achievements, or certifications you gained during the gap, whether through courses, formal education, or self-study, should be highlighted. Note that, like every skill on your resume, they should be tailored to the job description.
  • Contract or freelance work: If you did any contract or freelance work during your career gap, list it just as you would any other job, with a clear indication of the nature of the work. Again, like every work experience, it should be tailored to the job description.
  • Volunteering: Include any volunteer work you did, but only if it helped you maintain or develop professional skills.
  • Projects: If you took on a significant project, you can indicate it as a bullet point and even add it in the resume projects section if it has high relevance to the job description.

Here is an example showing that if you explain gaps the right way, it can actually strengthen your resume:

Marketing Consultant, Self-Employed (July 2019 – January 2021)

  • Developed a comprehensive social media strategy for a local non-profit, increasing their online engagement by 50%.
  • Continued professional development through online courses in SEO and Digital Marketing Analytics.

On the functional resume format

The functional resume format is focused on skills and abilities and not on work experience. As such, it can be used to hide employment gaps in your resume. We don’t recommend using a functional resume format for that purpose. In one way or another, a recruiter will inquire about your work history, either through your LinkedIn profile or by asking you. When a gap is found, it will look like you’ve deliberately chosen a functional resume format to hide facts about your employment. This might be enough to get rejected – not because of the gap, but because of the lack of honesty.

How to explain gaps in employment in your cover letter?

Most job postings do not require cover letters, so job seekers don’t bother to write one, even if it is optional. Yet, cover letters are an excellent medium to explain gaps in employment. Building on top of the techniques above you’ve used to explain gaps in your resume, the cover letter should take it a step forward. In the cover letter, there is usually a paragraph in which you refer to your previous relevant experiences. Without going into too much detail, indicate the following:

  • Explain the reason for the gap ( e.g., Show recruiters good reasons for employment gap)
  • Explain that this reason is no longer relevant (e.g., You were a stay-at-home parent, and your kids are now in elementary school)
  • If you were terminated or left a job after the gap, you need to provide a reason for that termination, such that it will be clear that it is not related to the employment gap.

Along with the resume, your cover letter should be able to signal that you are a strong candidate and that the previous employment gap is of no concern to this job opportunity. However, expect to be asked about the employment gap in the screening call and interviews.

How to explain employment gaps in a job interview or screening call?

Even if you alleviated the concern about the employment gaps in your resume and cover letter, you will probably be asked about it in the phone screening and job interviews. Recruiters will look for consistency and might ask for more detail in order to mark this topic as covered. As we discussed above – honesty is the best policy – so if you stick to the facts, you should have no problem matter-of-factly providing more details. If you were not honest about the reasons for the gap, there is a good chance that recruiters will sense that you’re not truthful about it and remove your candidacy. Trying to evade questions (e.g., by not remembering) might also look like disingenuous.

We recommend that you refresh your memory about the facts and dates before writing the resume and cover letter so that you can provide clear, concise and consistent answers in your entire job search process. Explaining the employment gap as a setback from which you came out stronger, better, and more determined can get a lot of appreciation from employers. Behind the curtains, businesses constantly face challenges and sometimes deal with crises. That’s why they look for people who demonstratively dealt with hardships and prevailed. People like you.

Key takeaways

  • Professional gap explanation: Address employment gaps in your resume honestly and constructively, highlighting any positive outcomes or personal growth experienced during that time. 
  • Cover letter strategy: Use the cover letter to provide context for employment gaps, ensuring that these gaps are no longer relevant and do not impact your ability to excel in the new role. 
  • Consistent interview narrative: Be ready to discuss the employment gaps during interviews with a consistent story that matches your resume and cover letter, focusing on honesty and the value you gained from the experience.
  • Turn gaps into strengths: Frame employment gaps as periods of resilience and growth, reflecting an ability to overcome challenges, which can be attractive to employers who value such character traits.

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