iStock/andreypopovWhen Jen Lucas’ husband was offered a job he couldn’t refuse in New York City, she left her position as a controller for a bath-and-beauty company in Chicago and the couple headed east. The then-pregnant Lucas hadn’t expected to leave her job and had even strategically planned her due date and maternity leave to coincide with a slow time at work. Fast forward seven years. “Time flew by. I had a second son. We moved to London with my husband’s job, and then moved back to New York,” she recalls. Try explaining this on a job interview with 10 other candidates waiting patiently in the reception area!
Lucas is not alone. Resume gaps can happen for a number of reasons, including a faltering economy, getting fired for cause, illness, family matters, life changes such as pregnancy, parenthood, moving, or any combination thereof, and they’re common.
But resume gaps need not ruin your career.
“Having a gap in your resume isn’t necessarily a negative,” says David Klein, a partner at KDS Staffing in New York City. “It can be an opportunity for candidates to show how they’ve used the time productively to further their career, whether through continuing education, enhancing their skill sets, or brushing up on industry knowledge and networking.” Even if a resume gap comes from an unfortunate circumstance—company-specific issues or the economic environment—there are still ways to present the gap in a positive light, according to Klein. “Whether you’ve got a short gap, an extended gap, or multiple gaps, your best bet is to be prepared to answer the question honestly, and to be confident in your answer.” (Here’s how to answer other tricky questions during your job interview.)
One strategy is to own the gap before it defines your credentials. “Make it sound like it was your choice,” suggests Kim Brody Shyer, a recruiter in New York City. “Say ‘I got a great severance package and I really wanted to spend the summer with my family, but now I am recharged, and ready, willing, and able to dive back in.'”
If you left the work force to raise a child, make sure any prospective employers know that you have a solid childcare plan in place and are excited to come back to work. “Pivot questions about the past by focusing on the future,” she suggests.
Keep in mind that potential employers can’t legally ask about personal health conditions during the interview process as per the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Short gaps can easily be glossed over, but longer periods of unemployment should be addressed on paper and in person, adds Robin Levitt, president of 4D Executive Search in Encino, California. “Instead of leaving a massive blank space on your resume, include what you did with your time off, such as ‘1992–1997: Family leave to care for aging parents.’ Spelling it out reduces skepticism.”
Whatever your explanation, practice it in advance so it will sound polished. “We always instruct candidates to practice answering the question prior to the interview and provide examples of how they made their time off useful,” Klein says. “Be prepared to discuss industry publications you’ve read, events you’ve attended, new contacts you’ve made, training you completed, and any paid or unpaid consulting or freelance work.” Keep in mind that there are other ways to boost your resume during unemployment.
Jen Lucas, now 43, eventually did land a job that then led to the position she has now as director of finance of You Gotta Believe, a nonprofit organization that aims to connect older youth in foster care with permanent families before they age out of the system. Still, the process was far more challenging that she had expected due to her seven-year hiatus.
Whether your work history gap is years or months, use these tips to make your resume stand out from the crowd, and get ready with that confident explanation.