Dealing with Employment Gaps in Résumés
It may come as no surprise that Canadian employers are wary of applicants who submit résumés with glaring employment gaps. Employers want to hire motivated, productive, and diligent employees. Gaps on résumés cause concern because they might indicate that the applicant is unable to secure work or hold on to work, could not perform the job duties, 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, pursuing career development, or performing volunteer work. Or, a company downsizing or bankruptcy may require an employee to be let go.
Ideally, the job seeker needs a face-to-face interview in order to effectively address a period of unemployment. However, it’s unlikely that an interview will even be offered if the résumé emphasizes the employment gap. It is difficult to fully explain a gap in the text of the résumé, however it is possible to assuage some concerns by purposely sharing personal career successes.
A résumé can be structured so that it 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 his or her strengths. By focusing on building a document that features the applicant’s best attributes, and not the employment gaps, it is possible to open the door to an interview.
Use a hybrid alternative to the typical chronological and functional résumé formats
Recruiters generally prefer a reverse chronological résumé 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 seekers choose to incorporate their career details into a functional résumé 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, though. Most recruiters are aware that this tactic is used extensively to mitigate employment gaps, so they will immediately peruse the career history, which is listed near the end of the résumé. 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 employment gaps is to stay away from typical résumé templates. Customize a hybrid document that includes a strong profile or “feature section” upfront, and both the functional and reverse chronological sections. 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 résumé. Then, add a career history section which includes “meaty” content under each job title.
Beef up the résumé profile with strong attributes and personal career successes
The top third of the résumé 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 résumé. 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 Lululemon and The Bay.”
List meaningful competencies up front
Dedicate a section of the résumé 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 résumé, list only those competencies that have been acquired through previous roles. Determine the talents and strengths that were developed in each position held. Then, select those that will be directly applied to enhance performance in the new role.
Front-load the résumé with accomplishments
If there are many meaningful accomplishments in the candidate’s 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 résumé. 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 to ensure integrity
It goes without saying that there is never a reason to lie in a résumé. Don’t include fake employment or consulting gigs if they never happened. A simple background check will undoubtedly uncover 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 résumé review. To extend the longevity of the résumé and minimize gaps, consider listing only the year the position was held, instead of month and year.
Use strategic positioning to de-emphasize the gap
If the gap is recent, it might appear near the top of the 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 résumé.
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 positions 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 résumé.
If appropriate, consider splitting the employment gap between two pages. For example, list the position held immediately after the gap at the bottom of page one. Start page two with the previous position. This structure naturally diminishes a glaring gap in dates 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 homing 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 résumé 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 résumé. 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 not employed.
There is nothing wrong with including formal academic studies and/or informal learning in the career chronology if it took place during the period of absence. For example, if the candidate went back to school during a hiatus from work, then include the name of the academic institution, program, and associated dates in the spot where the gap occurs. Under that section, add one line that says something like “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 in the career chronology:
University of Toronto, Masters of Business Administration (MBA), 2011-2013
Upgraded professional qualifications through academic studies and attained current credentials.
Habitat for Humanity, Volunteer ReStore Truck Driver, 2014-2015
Appraised potential donations for resale suitability, politely declined unsuitable donations.
Sabbatical, Compassionate Care Leave, 2005-2009
Embarked on a sabbatical to provide personal care and home support to an ailing parent.
There is always a way to strategically position a candidate’s career history so that potential concerns are alleviated. A strong, authentic résumé will allow the individual to provide their prospective employer with a good understanding of the situation.
In addition to creating a strong résumé, it is crucial that job seekers also prepare themselves to address specific concerns in the interview. It’s best to develop a list of potential questions along with strong responses. Responses must address the employer’s needs and be delivered 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 résumé strategist. Qualified and trained professionals can help people mitigate barriers and prepare them to re-enter the workforce.
Sharon Graham is founder and executive director of Career Professionals of Canada. Committed to setting the standard for excellence in the career development profession, Sharon has authored top-selling paperback publications and textbooks, and has established a range of certification, professional development, community development, and mentoring and award programs. As executive director of CPC, she provides foresight and leadership within the career development sector and ensures that the mandate of this national organization is upheld with integrity.