12 Tips to Explain Gaps in Your Employment History

Bridging a gap in employment history concept

It’s all too easy to fall between the cracks when you’re job hunting, especially if you have a weak application. But what if those cracks are actually one giant gap in your employment history?

Whether you took time work to care for a terminally ill family member or were made redundant and had a hard time securing a new job, employment gaps can be a little off-putting to recruiters.

The good news is that there’s always a way to put a positive spin on a gap – no matter how big or small – and come off as the ideal candidate for the job.

Here’s 12 tips to effectively explain employment gaps on your résumé and during an interview.

1. Know You’re Not Alone

First things first, if it’s any consolation, employment gaps are quite common today – in fact, a whopping 90% of US workers have found themselves unemployed at some point in their working lives. You’re not the first person in history to have a hole in their résumé and you certainly won’t be the last.

And remember: we recently came out of a global recession. And if a company doesn’t quite understand what happened to the economy since 2008, then you probably don’t want to work there, anyway.

2. Be Prepared

Chances are employers are going to want to ask you about any long, and especially frequent, gaps in employment. It won’t necessarily prevent you from moving on to the next stage of the hiring process, but potential employers will expect an explanation. So be prepared to offer one, and take the time to figure out how you’re going to address the elephant in the room. (The best way to do this is to explain your gap upfront in your résumé or cover letter.)

3. Be Honest

They say that honesty is the best policy, and they – whoever they are – know what they’re talking about.

While a gap in your employment is no reason for a hiring manager to reject your application, being dishonest about it will. So whatever the reason for your time away from work (whether you were made redundant or you left your previous job on your own accord), the more transparent you are, the better your chances of landing the job you’re applying.

You don’t have to go into great detail about why you were out of work (in fact, some situations may actually benefit from discretion, like quitting your job because your co-workers were imbeciles, for example). But sweeping it under the rug or lying about it will only make gaps stand out like a sore thumb.

And, whatever you do, don’t even think about extending dates of employment to cover up your gaps! You will get caught!

4. Explain Your Reasons

Discussing periods of unemployment can be uncomfortable, to say the least, but it’s a necessary evil if you want to move forward in the hiring process.

The exact reason of your gap is unique to you, but you’ll find a few sample answers to help you craft your response when the time comes (and believe me: it will come).

  • Dismissal, layoff or redundancy: ‘The company was forced to make budget cuts and lay off two from the IT department — sadly, I was one of the team members hired last. But, having said that, I’m proud of the work that I did at Company ABC and can provide a positive recommendation from my former supervisor.’
  • Caring for family: ‘Between 2010 and 2012, I was caring for a seriously ill family member. I’m now ready to return to a professional role, and I feel my skills and qualifications will fit well in the position and the company.’
  • Travel: ‘I was lucky enough to be able to take 10 months out to travel extensively. I was presented with a number of challenges that taught me a great deal about myself and helped develop my skills. I’m really excited about putting these to good use in a new job.’

Other reasons for a gap in employment include redundancy, personal illness and studies.

5. But Don’t Dwell

You don’t need to give employers a ton of personal details, only the core facts. In other words, get in and get out as fast as you can, without dwelling on the specifics. For example:

After a successful six-year career as company secretary at Company ABC, I took maternity leave and then completed a postgraduate diploma in corporate governance. During that period, I have been preparing for the next step in my career development by developing the specific skill set your organisation is currently looking for.

While the applicant may be proud of the fact that she had twins – a boy and a girl – even after being in labour for a gruelling 12 hours, she focuses on what employers really care about: her professional suitability for the role.

6. Fill the Gap

The truth is employers don’t really care about there being gaps in your employment history. What they do care about, though, is what you got up to during that time. They want to know whether you’ve kept yourself up-to-date in your industry or if you just sat around watching Grey’s Anatomy reruns every day waiting for a new job to fall right into your lap.

Be sure to mention any consulting, freelance or volunteer work you did in the time you weren’t formally employed, any classes or events you attended, any groups you’re involved in – anything that shows you’ve kept yourself busy and engaged in your field while trying to re-enter the workforce.

7. Use Your Cover Letter

Every inch of your résumé is valuable real estate. So if you think that the space needed to explain a gap could be better utilised by talking about key skills and achievements, then you might want to consider omitting an explanation from your résumé altogether. Instead, use your cover letter to disclose and explain missing work history in a few sentences or less.

8. Be Positive

No matter what the reason for your employment gap (whether that’s getting fired, being laid off or quitting your job), it’s important to put a positive spin on it: what did you learn from the experience? What have you done to improve your overall performance?

This means that ‘I couldn’t find a job’ just won’t cut it. You’ll only look desperate and, as a result, put employers off you. And don’t even think about playing the blame game or badmouthing a former employer!

9. Know When to Go

Of course, there are times when the reasons behind employment gaps are personal and something you would rather keep private.

So if you find yourself in the uncomfortable situation where an interviewer keeps pressing you for details and specifics, try steering the conversation back to why you’re the perfect fit for the job you’re interviewing for.

Say something like: ‘I’d prefer not to go into more detail. However, I’m very much interested in sharing details about my experience and qualifications’. If that doesn’t work, you always have the option of putting the brakes on the interview: ‘I don’t feel comfortable with where this conversation is headed, so this may not be the right fit. Thank you for your time’.

Don’t forget to watch your tone, though!

10. Be Consistent

If you provide a record of your career track on your résumé, make sure that you do the same on LinkedIn and your other social media profiles.

Consistency is key to a successful job application. In other words, if something you say on your résumé is contradicted on LinkedIn (or vice versa), then not only will you confuse prospective employers but also make them distrust you and, therefore, miss out on a potentially once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

11. Be Resourceful

Some gaps don’t really need to be addressed – for example, if they only lasted a few months or they belong in the distant past. And there are a few tips and tricks you can implement to avoid drawing unwanted attention to missing work history on your résumé:

  • Use dates effectively: Skip months when listing dates and only include years for each position. For example, instead of saying you worked somewhere between April 2009 and August 2012 and you started your next job in November 2012, you could list employment dates as ‘2009–2012’ and ‘2012–Present’. (You might also want to consider using a smaller font than the one used for the company name and job title.)
  • Omit a job or two: The beauty about résumés is that you don’t have to list every single job you’ve ever had, especially if they’re not very relevant to the current job you’re applying for or you have a long work history spanning more than 10–15 years.
  • Include other experience gained during the gap: List any consulting, freelance or volunteer work you’ve done during your period of unemployment together with the rest of your employment history. Alternatively, you can group work experience into categories, like ‘Marketing Experience’ and ‘Training Experience’, for example.

12. Find References to Support You

Find someone you worked with during your time off who can vouch for your skills and back up your experience, like a client you completed freelance assignments for. Ask them if you can use them as a reference before you share their contact information with potential employers (this is non-negotiable) and don’t forget to send them a quick email saying ‘thank you’ – yes, even if you didn’t ultimately get the job.

Do you have any gaps in your work history? How did you go about explaining them to potential employers? Join the conversation down below and share your thoughts and experiences with us!