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Explaining gaps in your work history

This post is the second in a series where I’m examining some misunderstood notions about employment. Every rule has an exception. Last week, I wrote about job-hopping. Today, let’s get real about gaps in your work history. 

The misunderstanding here is the idea that gaps in your work history are “bad.” They aren’t. There are many different reasons why a person might not go straight into one job after leaving their previous employer, all of them plausible. In fact, this happens to most of us at some point in our careers. Those people who work at the same company for multiple decades? They are increasingly rare. What follows is advice for the rest of us.

Family or medical reasons

Sometimes, life preempts work. Maybe you left a job, or didn’t return to work after a leave of absence, because you had a baby or you needed more time to deal with a health concern (yours, or someone else’s) than a leave of absence would cover. Maybe a loved one died and you needed time to process the loss or settle an estate. Give yourself the gift of this time, and pat yourself on the back for having your priorities in order. No one ever says on their deathbed that they wish they’d chosen work over family or health. If asked in an interview, simply say, I took some time off for family (or medical) reasons. The details are not important, and savvy recruiters won’t ask for them. In fact, it’s uncomfortable for them when you offer too much detail in this category. Resist the urge to over-explain.

“Quarter-life crisis”

You ground your way through college, then straight into grad school, then went right into a job and worked and worked and worked to climb that ladder until one day you woke up and realized you were close to 30 (!), so you decided to resign from your job and take some time before finding a new one, either in your same profession, or to explore a different career. Phew! Maybe you decided to travel extensively, or write, or relocate, or do something completely unrelated to your profession for a while. This one is easy to explain: I realized I wasn’t my best self at work or at home and I needed time to regroup so I could be ready to focus on my next career opportunity. My time off was exactly what I needed, and I’m focused on starting the next chapter in my career. Any raised eyebrows you get in response will be rooted in jealousy, not in judgment. Who doesn’t dream of being able to do that?

Photo by Khamkhor on Unsplash

(While I used “quarter-life crisis” as the heading, this can happen – and be completely reasonable – at any age.)

Involuntary separation from employment

Like so many employees over the past few decades, you were laid off or otherwise separated involuntarily from employment. (that’s HR-speak for “fired.”) Maybe your company had a reduction in force, or a new management team came in and replaced existing staff with their own people. These situations are beyond your control. It’s OK to talk candidly about these; they should not be a source of shame. Respond honestly: I was part of a 10% reduction in force, or, a new senior management team replaced existing staff. 

Termination for “cause”

For whatever reason, you were deemed to not be meeting the performance standards established for your job, and your employer terminated you. First of all: I’m sorry. I know it sucks. Please give yourself the time you need to process this loss. You will almost certainly experience at least some of the many emotions associated with grief:  Shock and denial, disbelief, pain, guilt, anger, bargaining, depression, reconstruction and working through, and acceptance. You may feel these emotions even if you realize the termination was merciful and in some ways a good thing. But know this: You will put your best self forward in interviews when you have arrived at the “acceptance” phase of the process.

Here’s a good way to respond to a question about why you left your job in this situation. This suggestion is paraphrased from this post on Indeed’s website, which includes lots of great guidance on explaining changes in employment:

“I can see now that my former employer and I had different expectations about what success meant in my role. As I reflect on that experience, I realize there are some things I could have done differently. I learned a lot, I know myself better now, and I’m excited to bring this understanding to my next job.”

Don’t say you were “consulting” (unless you were)

Anytime I see “My Name & Associates” on a resume between two employers, I assume the candidate is trying a little too hard to cover up a gap. It makes me wonder what they’re trying to hide. Even if you did pick up a consulting client, you were still job searching, right? I’ll give it to you straight: You’re not fooling anyone. I recommend leaving this smokescreen off your resume, and if asked in an interview, respond with candor by saying, During this time, I devoted myself full-time to finding my next job. Period. Especially if you find yourself in an employer’s market due to economic conditions, this is entirely plausible. Everyone knows that finding a new job can itself be a full-time job.

You tried running your own business

Now, if you actually did try consulting or other self-employment and have decided it wasn’t for you, explain it honestly: I gave it my best effort, but realized I am not ideally-suited for entrepreneurship. Or, the fluctuations in income inherent in being a sole proprietor weren’t enough to meet my family’s needs. Be prepared to explain what you have learned from your experience and why you feel you are better-suited to work for someone else.

Regardless of the reasons you changed jobs: Own your career story. Resist the tendency to feel sheepish or apologetic about the reasons you changed jobs or experienced some time between employers. If asked in an interview, don’t be dodgy or make up excuses. Simply offer a concise, honest answer, and prepare a brief response to follow-up questions. Be sure your demeanor conveys confidence and sincerity. It is far from unusual to have a gap between jobs, and it’s completely typical for recruiters to ask why you left one job or took another. Being prepared for these questions will help ease any nervousness you might feel around interviewing.

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