April 29, 2014

Three Things to Do About Your Employment Gap

job gapThe Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) recently released the results of a survey on resumés, cover letters, and interviews. It’s a fairly easy and interesting read, and I recommend it.

I’m bringing up the survey today because one statistic in particular kind of bothers me: when asked “what is the best way for candidates to handle gaps in employment on a resumé, 57 percent of the organizations surveyed replied that “candidates should neither emphasize nor hide gapes in employment.”

Sure, indecision is a terrible bane for leaders, but when it comes to letting jobseekers know what you’re looking for? Go ahead, be indecisive. Don’t give anyone a straight answer. Better yet, give them a we-can-neither-confirm-nor-deny-style non-answer.

What I’m saying is: this is a total cop-out, and as such it leaves jobseekers hanging. They know what they shouldn’t do (don’t hide, but also don’t emphasize), but they don’t know what they should do.

Not content to accept this nonsense, I wanted to supplement the SHRM report with some information that jobseekers could actually use. I can’t draw from personal experience — I’m young enough that I haven’t really even had time for an employment gap yet — so I did some digging, and here’s what I came up with:

1.) You did good things while you took time off, so share them …

It’s not mind-blowing, life-altering advice, and chances are that you’ve heard it already, but that’s precisely why it merits revisiting: it’s easy to let good counsel sink into the oblivion of cliché. We have to rescue it from time to time.

Oddly enough, I think this column from The Northwest Indiana and Illinois Times (of all places) puts it best: “But in many instances, there were several activities done during [the gap] that can provide relevant experience to the job target.”

Well, maybe it’s not syntactically the best, but it’s the best in terms of concise expression of the idea: during your gap time, you likely did things that count as experience. Play that up. Did you volunteer somewhere? What sort of duties did you perform? What sort of responsibilities did you have? What sort of skills did you learn or hone?

Even more quotidian tasks can be spun into valuable experiences. To quote the Times again: “Negotiating with health insurance companies and Medicare can provide opportunities for skills that were previously missing.”

So, when you breach the subject of your gap time with a potential employer, focus on what you did, not on what you weren’t doing (i.e., “working,” in the strictest sense of the word).

2.) … but your resumé isn’t the place for explanations.

Forbes staff writer Jacquelyn Smith wrote a pretty comprehensive article on the subject of red flags in resumés. Smith quotes professional resumé writer Ann Baehr as saying that “bad news or red flags should never be addressed in a resumé.” Your resumé is for documenting your skills and experiences, so stay focused on those.

But it’s customary to include start and end dates on your resumé, so how can you avoid addressing the gap? Some people recommend using years only, instead of the traditional month/year combination, when disclosing employment dates in order to minimize the appearance of gaps that lasted for a few months. But remember: you’re not looking to hide the gap; you’re just looking to make it subtler, so don’t think this move gives you a free pass to lie to the interviewer.

You should address the gap in your cover letter or during your interview. Of course, regardless of where and when you bring up your gap, you shouldn’t linger over it — e.g., don’t send the interviewer a lengthy email about it, and don’t dedicate half your cover letter to the subject.

3.) It’s okay to practice the truth.

Honesty is perhaps the single most pervasive idea in conversations about employment gaps: no matter whom you ask, they’ll tell you that you should absolutely, positively, never ever lie.

But just because you should tell the truth, that doesn’t mean you should sail unprepared into the interview. As recruiting firm WinterWyman points out, it’s a good idea to “refine your story.” They’re not talking about engaging in revisionist history or altering the details. They simply mean that you need to “get comfortable telling your story.”

Practice delivering the story in a quick, direct, authoritative way. Whittle it down to the necessary details. Know the story like the back of your hand, so that you don’t stumble or seem foolish when your interviewer (inevitably) asks you about the gap.

Read more in Resume Tips

Matthew Kosinski is the managing editor of Recruiter.com.