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The Fast Company Executive Board is a private, fee-based network of influential leaders, experts, executives, and entrepreneurs who share their insights with our audience.

What’s behind the employment gap?

14 points to consider when you’re questioning a job candidate’s resume.

What’s behind the employment gap?
Members of Fast Company Executive Board share their expert insights. [Image: Courtesy of the individual members.]

As the nature of how and why people work continues to evolve, hiring managers will benefit from learning to understand the whole person before jumping to conclusions about a significant employment gap on an applicant’s resume.

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Instead of flagging previous career breaks as a deficit, focus on the potential new hire’s passion, aptitude and eagerness to tackle new career challenges ahead. Personal time off may be a sign of maturity that signals their potential to thrive in the current job opportunity and contribute to the mission of your organization for the long term.

Below, Fast Company Executive Board members provide 14 additional ways to approach this conversation during the interview process and help you make the best decision when attempting to find the right fit for your department’s needs.

1. KEEP AN OPEN MIND.

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Remain open-minded. The global economy is undergoing huge shifts. People changed the way they live, work, and learn. This may explain the employment gaps. – Nicholas Wyman, Institute for Workplace Skills & Innovation

2. FOCUS ON THEIR SKILL SET. 

Employment gaps truly aren’t a concern to me when I hire employees for my team. I appreciate them addressing the space of time if they would like to, but otherwise, it truly isn’t my business. I’m hiring them based on their energy, passion, and aptitude. Do I care if they took off a few years to study a new subject, travel the world, or raise a family? Not in the least, and you shouldn’t either. – Ashley Sharp, Dwell with Dignity

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3. REALIZE THAT EMPLOYMENT GAPS ARE NORMAL.

Many of our employees are moms who took some time off to care for their children. At our company, employment gaps are the norm, not the exception! We recognize that job candidates can have a tremendous amount of knowledge and industry background despite the presence of a gap on their resume. – Danielle Wiley, Sway Group LLC

4. QUESTION YOUR OWN BIASES.

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Make no assumptions and be willing to question your biases. For many people, the pandemic has changed the reason candidates may have gaps in their resumes. However, job loss during the pandemic hit women and women of color more than anyone else. For many women, this question results in a pit in the stomach because many are forced to choose between work and family. – Patti Fletcher, Limeade

5. COMMEND THEIR TENACITY.

The nature of work, including how and why we work, has changed significantly. There are numerous issues, from the pandemic and the current ongoing mental health crisis to the rise of side hustles, that can lead to a gap on a candidate’s resume, yet not reflect on their capabilities or potential. – Eric Zavolinsky, INFERENTIAL FOCUS INC

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6. LEAN INTO A CANDIDATE’S PERSONAL GROWTH EFFORTS.

When I interview candidates, I’ve sometimes seen an employment gap and not asked about it. Other times I have asked about it. It depends on what you’re seeking to understand by the gap. You may find something really interesting where a person has grown or gotten to know themselves better in the time they took by not working. It may be more influential in the decision making of the candidate than you expect. – Jennifer Hoff, Colibri Group

7. FIND OUT WHAT THEY GAINED FROM THE EXPERIENCE.

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I’ve taken two sabbaticals during my career. An employment gap on a CV does not necessarily mean a red flag. On the contrary, if the time was used productively and purposefully, it can be a career asset, especially if the employee returns to the workforce with fresh energy and a widened perspective. Ask what the candidate gained from the experience. – Todd Miller, ENRICH: Create Wealth in Time, Money, and Meaning

8. GIVE PEOPLE THE BENEFIT OF THE DOUBT.

Employment gaps are not uncommon. I find it is best to ask about it during the interview process and give people the benefit of the doubt. If someone is working hard, going through the process, and trying to secure employment, a gap in their history is not a concern or even necessarily a negative.  – Paola Doebel, Ensono

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9. DETERMINE THE CANDIDATE’S EAGERNESS.

More than anything, life happens. Employment gaps on resumes can account for all sorts of reasons, especially following the past couple of years of COVID-19 lockdowns and uncertainty. While these gaps should not be ignored, they should be put into the context of whatever the candidate was going through personally at the time. The right candidates will be eager to prove themselves from the get-go. – Brandon Pena, BrandON Media Group

10. EXPRESS CURIOSITY ABOUT THE WHOLE PERSON.

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Demonstrate your curiosity about the candidate by exploring the diverse experiences gained during that time. This is a wonderful opportunity to learn about the whole person and to translate those invaluable experiences to the role. Another invaluable channel is returnship in the marketplace. For example, the individuals who temporarily left the formal workforce are a part of an untapped talent community employers should not overlook. – Britton Bloch, Navy Federal

11. DON’T FLAG IT AS A DEFICIT.

It’s hard to paint a chair when you’re sitting in it, and the same thing holds true for identifying gaps on your own resume. That’s why I’m always candid about what I see as notable resume gaps and encourage the leaders I work with to embrace this candor as well. However, when you point out a gap on someone’s resume, don’t flag it as a deficit. Frame it as an opportunity for learning and growth. – Camille Preston, AIM Leadership, LLC

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12. PUT THE GAP IN PERSPECTIVE.

It is important to know the context of the gap. If it was caused by unemployment, it is important to know how long they were out of work and what their job search strategy was like. If they took time off to care for family members, there may be other reasons, such as illness or disability, that made them unable to work. – Kristin Marquet, Marquet Media, LLC

13. LISTEN CAREFULLY BEFORE MAKING A JUDGMENT.

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Many factors outside an employee’s control can affect a worker’s employment history. An illness, company layoffs and the ongoing pandemic are all examples of outside forces that could cause an employee to lose or leave their job. Listen carefully before making a judgment and keep an open mind. Realize that people can experience personal issues that can temporarily affect their ability to work. – Evan Nierman, Red Banyan

14. ASSESS THE CANDIDATE’S MATURITY LEVEL.

No personal path or career path is straight. Careers can be messy and disjointed by family obligations or even the need for personal time, but taking a break does not make a candidate less qualified. In fact, employment breaks may indicate a candidate has the wherewithal and maturity to know how to put first things first when choosing between career and life decisions. – Tyrone Foster, InvestNet, LLC

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