Dealing with Employment Gaps in Resumes
By Sharon Graham.
It may come as no surprise that Canadian employers are wary of any applicant who submits a resume with glaring employment gaps. Employers want to hire motivated, productive, and diligent employees. Gaps on resumes cause concern because they might indicate that the applicant is unable to secure work, could not perform the duties of the job, disobeyed company policies, or did something else that was seriously wrong or illegal.
Most Canadians will run into a time during their career where they may not be working. In many cases, there is reasonable justification for the hiatus. A person may need time off for a personal reason such as caring for an ailing parent, child rearing, or dealing with an illness. An individual may leave a position for a constructive reason such as upgrading skills, furthering educational credentials, career development, or performing volunteer work. Or, a company downsizing or bankruptcy may require an employee to be let go.
Ideally, to effectively address a period of unemployment, the job seeker needs a face-to-face interview. However, it’s unlikely that an interview will even be offered if the resume emphasizes the employment gap. It is difficult to explain a gap fully in the resume, however a candidate can assuage some concerns and open a door to that interview.
It’s possible to write a resume that shifts the emphasis from an employment gap to the candidate’s value proposition. The goal is not to “trick” the recruiter, but to allow the candidate the opportunity to provide a clear picture of the individual’s strengths. Focus primarily on building a document that features the candidate’s best attributes and not the employment gaps. By purposely sharing personal career successes, an applicant can open a door to the interview.
Avoid typical resume formats such as chronological and functional
Recruiters generally prefer a reverse chronological resume format. This structure helps them to determine how a candidate performed in each position by looking under the appropriate job title. However, the ordering of positions creates a visual emphasis on start and end dates. Any employment gaps will be easily discerned by the reader.
Because the chronological structure tends to expose the candidate’s breaks in employment, many job choose to incorporate their career details into a functional resume format. They categorize career history under key phrases – job functions or areas of expertise.
There is a compelling reason to stay away from a purely functional format. Most recruiters are aware that this tactic is used extensively to mitigate gaps, so they will immediately peruse the career history which is listed near the end of the resume. Because the functional format necessitates listing job titles and dates back-to-back, any gaps will clearly stand out.
The most effective way to mitigate an employment gap is to stay away from typical templates. Customize a hybrid document that includes a strong “feature section” upfront, and both the functional and a reverse chronological piece. Incorporate the candidate’s best attributes, personal career successes, and meaningful competencies in the feature section. Categorize and list the candidate’s strongest accomplishments early in the resume. Then, add a career history section which includes “meaty” content under each job title.
Beef up the resume profile with strong attributes and personal career successes
The top third of the resume can help mitigate an employment gap. Paint a strong picture of the specific value offered to the employer by capturing important elements from the past. Avoid rehashing typical profile wording such as “results-oriented professional.” Instead, lead with a powerful statement that clarifies the target position and captures some historical experience “Administrative Assistant offers data entry expertise and practical experience preparing detailed management reports.”
To create interest, introduce some accomplishments within the profile – YES, in the paragraph or section at the beginning of the resume. There is nothing wrong with adding a specific example such as “overhauled the filing system and organized 300 patient records within three months of hire,” or “refined the customer exchange process, cutting returns by 10%,” or “produced $12 million in sales in the first year.” You might even namedrop well-known employers: “Provided an optimal customer experience for top Canadian retailers including Reitmans and The Bay.”
List meaningful competencies upfront
Dedicate a section of the resume to competencies that are required by the employer. An inventory of skills can help readers learn about the candidate’s assets before they notice an employment gap.
It’s not good enough to select requirements from the job posting. To maintain the integrity of the resume, list only those competencies that are acquired through previous roles. Determine the talents and strengths that were developed out of each position held. Then, select those that will be directly applied to enhance the new role being filled.
Front-load the resume with accomplishments
If there are many meaningful accomplishments in the distant past, then list them in a series of bullet points before getting into the career chronology. This will ensure that they show up on the first page without harming the reverse chronological format that recruiters prefer.
Don’t eliminate the reverse chronological piece
Employers are likely to immediately disqualify any applicant who does not include a listing of work history in the resume. A reverse chronological piece will assuage recruiters. Separate each set of dates by including company information, responsibilities, and a few additional accomplishments under the respective job titles.
Take an authentic approach with integrity
It goes without saying that there is never a reason to lie in a resume. Don’t include “fake employment” or “consulting gigs” if they never happened. A simple background check can uncover black and white concerns such as fudged dates or job titles.
It may be tempting to omit dates of employment to disguise career gaps, but don’t do this. Recruiters know that missing dates can only mean one of two things, either the candidate is trying to hide a poor career history or is just plain careless. Always include employment dates to pass the detailed resume review. To extend the longevity of the resume and minimize gaps, consider listing the year only, instead of month and year.
Use strategic positioning to deemphasize the gap
If the gap is recent, it might appear near the top of employment chronology. It might be beneficial to lead in with education rather than employment so that the gap is nearer to the end of the resume.
If the employment gap occurs in the distant past, consider eliminating all positions that occurred prior to the gap. If this is not possible because prior positions are relevant to the targeted role, beef up the more recent position with strong accomplishments that are connected to the target. By including a good chunk of valuable information in the most recent section, the career gap will be organically pushed down further in the resume.
If appropriate, consider splitting the employment gap between two pages. For example, list the position held immediately after the break at the bottom of page one. Start page two with the previous position. This structure naturally diminishes a glaring gap between positions. Of course, truthfulness is paramount, so keep the dates visible on both positions. This will allow the recruiter to read the content of each position before honing in on the gap.
Use strategic content to deemphasize the gap
It is best never to leave a “gaping hole” in the career chronology. But, before taking action to explain or fill an employment gap, thoroughly review the resume to determine if the gap is a potential disqualifying factor.
When appropriate, explain the interruption in employment with something useful. If the candidate left the workforce for a period of time to care for an ailing family member, then include this information in the resume. Don’t discuss negative reasons for leaving a position such as being fired, having quit, recurring personal or medical problems, or any personal conflicts. Find a way to provide a brief, honest description of something positive that was accomplished while the candidate was away from the workforce.
There is nothing wrong with discussing any formal academic studies and/or informal learning that took place during the period of absence directly in the career chronology. For example, if the candidate went back to school during a hiatus, then include the name of the academic institution, program, and associated dates where the gap would have occurred. Under that section add one line that says something like this: “Upgraded professional development and attained current skills credentials.” Fill the gap further by listing any credentials, certificates, or diplomas that were attained.
Here are some examples of sections that could be included within the career chronology:
University of Toronto, Masters of Business Administration (MBA), 2011-2013
Upgraded professional development through academic studies and attained current credentials.
Habitat for Humanity, Volunteer ReStore Truck Driver, 2014-2015
Appraised potential donations for suitability for resale, politely declined unsuitable donations.
Sabbatical, Compassionate Care Leave, 2005-2009
Embarked on a sabbatical for compassionate care leave to support an ailing parent.
There is always a way to position a candidate’s career history strategically to alleviate potential concerns. A strong, strategic resume will allow the individual to provide their prospective employer with a good understanding of the situation.
In addition to creating a strong resume, it is crucial that job seekers also prepare themselves to address specific concerns in the interview. It’s best to develop a list of questions along with a script. Respond with the employer’s needs in mind and practice delivering the response authentically and professionally.
Employers know that not all employment gaps are the fault of the candidate. Individuals who have serious barriers to employment are best to obtain advice from a professional resume strategist. Qualified and trained professionals can help people mitigate barriers and prepare them to re-enter the workforce.