Many people, and for many reasons, need a little time out from the workforce. The decision might be spurred by a health issue or caretaking responsibilities, or it might be the product of a layoff or career transition. Whatever the cause, a job-seeker’s “resume gap” from a period of unemployment has long been seen as kryptonite by recruiters. But that’s beginning to change.
For one, career breaks are becoming more and more common, a trend that gained new visibility with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. In a 2022 LinkedIn survey of nearly 23,000 workers, almost two-thirds reported having taken a job pause at some point in their working lives. Perhaps most telling of the current shift in the landscape, the professional-networking platform announced its survey findings in conjunction with the unveiling of its new “Career Breaks” feature that lets users flesh out the story behind the periods of unemployment in their profiles.
Despite the potential awkwardness of job-seeking on the heels of a career break, the experts I spoke with agree that honesty is the best policy for tackling the subject with prospective employers. Candidates should, however, think carefully about how they plan to present their career break, both in their job applications and throughout the interview process. After all, a candidate’s time away from the workforce wasn’t spent doing nothing; what they did during their break may have even led them to develop professionally applicable skills that make them an even greater potential asset to an organization.
“Job seekers should share how their employment gap is part of their story,” says Rebecca Ahmed, an HR executive and leadership coach based in Las Vegas. Ahmed offers the following framing questions to help steer a candidate in the right narrative direction:
- Did you use your gap to energize you?
- Did your gap provide you clarity on your goals and passion?
- Did your gap lead to a career or industry shift?
- Did you use your employment gap to go back to school?
- Did you use your gap to spend time with a loved one?
- Did you use your gap for childbirth or family bonding?
“The cover letter is a great place for job seekers to share their personal journey and highlight the transferable skills gained from their employment gap that will be leveraged in their new role,” Ahmed adds.
Elle O’Flaherty, a New York City-based executive coach who works with managers and C-suite executives on both the hiring side and as job candidates, similarly recommends being proactive about positioning career breaks as a part of a bigger professional picture. She advises her clients to format their resume gaps the way they would any other professional experience on a CV, replete with a title (such as “Stay-at-Home Dad”) and dates. “By addressing the gap up front, candidates can remove a question mark in the hiring manager’s head and turn that time into a positive,” she explains.
The same logic applies to the job interview. “To feel confident walking into an interview, it’s important to have your explanation for a resume gap polished and practiced, because it will come up,” says O’Flaherty. “Instead of trying to gloss over that time, have a thoughtful explanation that briefly explains the gap and, more importantly, new skills and experiences you’ve gained as a result of it. Think about taking online training or a volunteer experience to cover that time and improve your skills, too.”
Employers stand to benefit from tapping this historically overlooked talent pool, particularly amid ongoing worker shortages in the U.S., U.K., and elsewhere. But some recruiters remain hesitant to consider candidates with recent gaps in employment history. The LinkedIn survey found that one in five hiring managers outright refuse to hire such applicants.
This attitude comes at a cost to companies. O’Flaherty proposes that hiring managers evolve their understanding of what makes an ideal employee. From there, she recommends that hiring managers communicate their thought process to the candidate at hand.
“I’ve had clients who took time off to help a terminally ill parent or special needs child,” O’Flaherty says. “These are brave decisions that show a lot of character. These are the kinds of people that are great additions to a team. As a hiring manager, one of the best things you can do during an interview is to tell the candidate that. It instantly puts them at ease. It also shows that you are the kind of empathetic leader people want to work for, and it tells the candidate a lot about your organization’s culture. These are the kinds of things that leaders do to instill loyalty and build long-term relationships with their staff.”
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