Mind the Gap: How to Explain Employment Gaps in Your Next Interview
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- Employment gaps were once looked at negatively in the hiring community.
- Now, career gaps are less taboo, especially since the pandemic shifted the way we work.
- Address employment gaps honestly in your job interview and explain how you used that time to successfully take the next step in your career.
An estimated 59% of Americans had experienced unemployment or a gap in their career path, according to a Monster 2019 survey. With the Great Resignation continuing into 2022, more people are leaving their jobs to explore other opportunities. But employment gaps can happen for many other reasons, such as medical leave, personal development, or burnout recovery.
If you have ever been under- or unemployed, you are not alone. But there are ways to approach this topic during the interview process that may improve your chances of landing your next job.
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Don't be blindsided by questions about your unemployment gap in your next interview. Keep reading to see how to explain career gaps in your resume, application, and interview so that your confidence and competencies can better guide the discussion.
What Are Employment Gaps?
Employment gaps are periods during your professional career during which you did not have secure, formal employment. Historically, employment gaps were times when the applicant did not work at all. In the digital age, career gaps happen for various reasons and do not necessarily mean that the person has been completely out of work.
Freelance work, gig work — which accounts for 29% of primary jobs in the United States — community service, and continuing education could all occur during job gaps. Having the opportunity to explain any pauses in your career is important and can tell a hiring manager about your character and work ethic.
Types of Employment Gaps
Career breaks happen for many different reasons. In fact, LinkedIn added a ‘career gap' option to their site, so you can explain your circumstances before interviewing. How you spend your time during job gaps can sometimes be more important than why you were without a job in the first place.
Some career gaps happen because you want to work on yourself. You may decide to go back to school, complete an internship or externship, or consider what you want out of your career. You may also spend time developing skills employers want outside of a classroom.
If you experience an injury or illness that leaves you unable to perform the basic duties of your work, it might not bode well for employment. In these cases, some people decide to take a medical leave.
The pandemic led to greater layoffs. "Most recruiters won't consider a career gap an indication of poor work ethic, especially since the pandemic hit," Rachel Roff, founder and CEO of Urban Skin Rx, said.
Expecting parents who work for companies lacking proper parental leave may leave their jobs to support their growing families. Stay-at-home parents often experience difficulties re-entering the workforce after focusing on their kids
As family members get older or circumstances change, you may take on the role of caretaker to another person. Sometimes, job gaps occur because caretaker responsibilities require a lot of time and effort.
Workplace Harassment or Discrimination
There are many workplace harassment and discrimination cases that end in temporary career gaps.
Sometimes, companies choose to lay off even their best and their brightest. So indicating that you were laid off in an application or during an interview should not negatively impact your chances of getting hired.
Some people experience burnout in their careers and need to take a break to re-establish their health and boundaries and recharge.
The Great Resignation
Similar to burnout, many people realized during the Great Resignation that they were not being valued in the workplace. So, they left their jobs to find something more aligned with their personal goals.
Hiring managers and team leaders who value their employees may inquire about the job gap. But many hiring professionals also respect an honest and productive answer.
Tips for Talking about Employment Gaps at Interview
The biggest thing to remember about explaining an employment gap during an interview is that you do not need to give specific details on anything. If prompted, you may want to expand on any questions they may ask. This part of the interview, however, is not the most important.
Focus on steering the conversation toward your flexibility in handling your situation and discuss your strengths. You can be honest and upfront without getting too personal or long-winded.
Address Why There Was an Employment Gap
You can tell the interviewer what caused your job gap. Sometimes, a career can take you down a path you no longer align with. Workplace harassment, budget cuts, and injuries or illness can all cause career breaks.
"If the employment gap was due to the pandemic, you don't need to go into too much detail," Matt Erhard, managing partner at Summit Search Group, said. "Hiring managers know many people were facing extremely difficult circumstances over the past two years. Briefly describe your situation and what has changed that is now allowing you to re-enter the workforce, and resist the temptation to apologize or over-explain."
Another issue to think about is if your job was deemed irrelevant or redundant by a previous employer. Brian Vander Waal, career coach and recruiting manager, has the best advice for this scenario. "If you are asked about being made redundant from your previous job, try to stress it was a business decision or the result of COVID, if applicable," said Vander Waal. "Describe what positive actions you have been taking since that time."
Explain What You Did During the Job Gap
Did you start a company? Did you go back to school or learn how to code from home? Or maybe you networked and created working relationships with people at a company of interest. Going after networking opportunities can show initiative for making connections and learning from others. Whatever your story may be, explain it to the hiring manager if they ask.
Focus on What Was Gained
Focus on the positives instead of discussing how awful your former manager was or how rough it was to be unemployed. What insight did you gain from your job gap? Was travel or community service involved that taught you a different perspective you could lend to the hiring team? Use this part of the interview to show them how you grow through unforeseen circumstances.
"The best approach I've found is to focus on what you gained during that experience that will make you a more valuable employee," Erhardt said. "An answer that shows the gap was purposeful and intentional and that you've continued to grow personally or professionally during it will assuage any doubts or concerns the hiring team had over the gap."
What Not to Say at Your Interview
No matter how you approach your interview, you may want to avoid a few things.
- Avoid speaking negatively about previous employers, as this could leave a bad taste with the interviewer.
- Don't ask what the company does, as they expect you to enter the interview with base knowledge about the team and position you are applying for.
- Do not, under any circumstances, respond to a question with "I don't know." If you truly do not know something, let them know that you will educate yourself. Not knowing an answer is fine, but how you respond can demonstrate your work ethic and willingness to learn.
- Prepare a few questions to help focus the conversation on your future together.
Frequently Asked Questions About Employment Gaps
Are employment gaps bad?
Employment gaps are not necessarily bad, but they can cause some employers to worry. Hiring managers want to know what circumstances surrounded the situation to assess your growth trajectory and how you would fit in with the team culture.
Hiring managers may want to know about injuries or mental health conditions that could affect how you work, but they mostly want to know how you took advantage of your job gap. Frequent employment gaps could be a red flag, as they could signify a difficult personality.
How long is too long of an employment gap?
No employment gap is too long that it would leave you unemployable. However, a Swedish study reports that after nine months of unemployment, you may see a reduction in interview offers and follow-ups.
"If you are very stuck and the period was too long ago to re-educate to fill the gap, be honest," said Katherine Kirkinis, Ph.D., a career coach. "Employers are much more understanding in a post-COVID-19 world where we all know the hardships of health, family, layoffs, pandemics, etc."
Should I put employment gaps on my resume?
While you should be honest about your work history where it applies in the interview process, Kirkinis does not advise adding job gaps to your resume. "My advice is to try not to have employment gaps on a resume whenever possible. It's very likely that you were doing something during this time -- write about it!"
Sometimes you cannot avoid a glaring gap in your work history. Roff offers some advice in this case. "Don't try to hide the gap in your resume. You can even prominently acknowledge it by listing it in the appropriate spot in your work history."
Be proactive by providing notes where you can, but do not worry about getting into the details. Companies that recognize your talent and see the potential you can bring to their team often will not make a decision that hinges so much on a career gap.