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How to explain an employment gap on your resume

How do you put a positive spin on a one-, four-, or even 12-month period of time when you weren’t working?

How to explain an employment gap on your resume
[Photo: AnsonLu/iStock]

Whether you took time off to care for a child or aging parent, or you were laid off and are having a hard time finding another job, gaps in a resume happen. Sharing them with a potential employer, however, can feel awkward. How do you put a positive spin on a one-, four-, or even 12-month period of time when you weren’t working?

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Being transparent about why you’ve experienced job loss can go a long way, says Kathleen Pai, vice president of human resources for the HR software provider Ultimate Software. “We’re all human, and none of us are perfect. It’s not always about your successes,” she says. “We often end up learning more during our greatest challenges or what might, at the time, seem like our greatest disappointments. There are likely new perspectives and stronger skills you can now bring to this position as a result of your past experiences.”

Be upfront

“Gaps in resumes are not as uncommon as one might think; there are a number of plausible reasons for a job loss that have nothing to do with performance,” says Shawn Tolan, managing director of The Tolan Group, an executive search firm.

Perhaps your company is acquired and there is redundancy in the organization, or maybe you work in a startup where the funding doesn’t come in and the company goes out of business.

Address the reason why you left a company in your resume, suggests Tolan. “This is a very brief explanation, usually no more than five to 10 words,” he says. “This is often enough to alleviate concerns from a hiring manager. If you don’t do that, you run the risk of being passed over.”

The worst thing you can do is to create doubt in the mind of the employer or hiring manager, says Thom Kleiner, executive director of Westchester-Putnam Workforce Development Board.

“If you ramped off to care for a sick family member, raise kids, another compelling reason, it’s best to say so directly on your resume,” he says.

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Don’t leave it out

In a survey by temporary staffing service provider OfficeTeam, 26% of professionals said they know someone who misrepresented work dates on their resume.

One of the biggest mistakes candidates can make is to be untruthful in an interview or on a resume, says Pai. “It’s imperative to be upfront and honest. Remember, this could be the start of a long-term, fulfilling relationship with a new company–marking the next great chapter in your rewarding career. Dishonesty can hinder your progress and even cost you a job opportunity.”

Anything that you’ve tweaked on your resume or information that you left out could potentially be found somewhere, says Ariel Schur, CEO and founder of ABS Staffing Solutions.

“It’s better that this information come from you versus your prospective employer, feeling like you’ve lied on the spot,” she says. “Your employer will be able to search for you and your past company on the internet, so I think it’s important to be up front and honest about any big, lingering stories that your new prospective employer might find.”

How to address being fired

If you were let go due to your performance, it can be trickier to handle, says Michele Mavi, director of internal recruiting, training, and content for Atrium, a staffing and employment agency. “[Use] simple and concrete terms that don’t involve hostility, defensiveness, or negative feelings,” she says. “You must be prepared to talk about it. If an interviewer senses reluctance or avoidance in answering questions about gaps, it creates distrust and distance, which will work against you. That doesn’t mean you need to go into every detail, either.”

Try including your response between two positive statements about what you’ve learned and what you plan to accomplish because of it, says Pai. “Prepare what you want to say, and practice it before the interview,” she says.

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Be extra cautious of your wording, says Stephanie Naznitsky, executive director of OfficeTeam. “Even if you faced challenges in previous positions, refrain from badmouthing past employers or bosses,” she says.

What’s important is that you show that it was a learning experience, adds Mavi. “You can say it wasn’t the right fit or that it wasn’t the right position for you for various reasons,” she says. “Perhaps you took a role that was too advanced for your skill set at the time. Or perhaps you were in a role you weren’t suited for and have since acquired new skills or transitioned into a role that’s more fitting. Whatever it is, being able to show that you took a negative situation and have learned from it and have been able to move on will be critical to the success of your interview.”

Accentuate the positive

If you used any of the time during the employment gap to volunteer, attend trainings, learn new skills, or conduct career research, talk about that, says Kleiner.

“Convert those activities to selling points on your resume,” he says. “For example, a stay-at-home caregiver might add ‘scheduled medical appointments, coordinated hospice care, managed budgets, executed care decisions under pressure, coordinated legal and insurance documentation.'”

“Mention professional development courses or volunteer activities that show additional efforts to keep your skills current,” adds Naznitsky.

But don’t stress over it too much

“Let’s face it, not every job works out, and that’s okay,” says Tommy Chenoweth, head of people strategy at the digital marketing agency January Digital. “What I’m looking to hear from candidates is why the job didn’t work, and what they learned from the experience. If someone can learn from a negative experience, that speaks volumes for their character.”

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Character is important to employers, Chenoweth continues. “Fundamentals can be taught, but character can’t,” he says. “Plus, what made someone ill-suited for one job may be exactly the skill we are looking to hire.”

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