By Elizabeth Alterman
May 13, 2014
When I was laid off in January, in addition to the usual concerns, like “How quickly will I find a new job?” and “How will we pay the mortgage?” I also worried about having yet another employment gap on my resume.
Because I’d taken a timeout from my career to raise my children, I already had a Grand Canyon-sized gaping hole on my CV. I feared that with this layoff, employers would think I was taking more breaks than an aging rock band.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s April statistics, 9.8 million Americans are unemployed, so I know I can’t be the only one wondering how to downplay my downtime and play up my skills.
Curious about how to best address my widening gap, I turned to a pair of experts for some much-needed advice. Here’s what they said.
Whatever the reason for your time away from work, career coach and author of The Essential HR Handbook Sharon Armstrong says honesty is always the best policy.
“Don’t hide it; explain it,” Armstrong advises. “During the entire process of conducting a job search, maintain your integrity and demonstrate it. Jobs come and go, but being known for being truthful—and conversely, deceitful—can last a lifetime.”
Here’s an example: When I went for an interview in February, I was certain the gap would come up, and it did. When I told the potential employers the truth—that I’d wanted to be home with my children and felt fortunate that I was able to do so—an excruciating silence followed. In an attempt to lighten the mood, I joked that during that time I’d done some freelance work, but I also spent a fair amount of my day tackling mountains of laundry. What happened next surprised me: They laughed and thanked me for my honesty.
“You have no idea how many people come in here and fumble through telling us about some extended project they were working on,” one of the interviewers scoffed.
Though I was relieved they found my response refreshing, I wished my answer had been a bit more polished, which leads me to my next point:
Stuttering and stammering your way through your first sit-down is as unimpressive as showing up late or calling your female interviewer “sir.” Just as you’d prep to discuss your previous positions, employers are going to ask about your time off, so be ready to address that as well, says human resources director Victoria Di Santo. (In fact, one application I recently completed stated, “If there is a gap of more than three months on your resume, be prepared to discuss.”)
“I’ve heard a lot of people say they’ve taken time off to raise their children or care for a sick parent,” Di Santo notes. “Others have taken a sabbatical and traveled the world, really successful people, too, who just needed to recharge. Corporate America can burn you out if you let it, and sometimes you just need to take a break so you can return refreshed. Employers understand that. Life happens.”
Whether you managed a household, co-chaired an event that raised much-needed funds for charity, or trekked across the globe, chances are you picked up some important skills along the way—think communicating persuasively, becoming a master organizer, or adapting to unknown situations. Identify them, think through how they apply to the job at hand, and craft a short, compelling statement you can use in interviews.
“Again, be honest—it’s very possible to get solid experience in non-traditional settings: volunteer, community work, or running a home,” Armstrong says. “Hopefully you have done some volunteer work, stayed up-to-date with your industry, or done some professional development. Mention those activities that reinforce the job you are going for.”
While the thought of discussing how you came to be unemployed, especially if you were let go or fired, might make you uneasy, don’t panic. Resume gaps are not as uncommon as job seekers might think, Di Santo says.
Armstrong agrees. “If a company doesn’t understand what has happened to our economy since 2008 and the impact on individuals, well, you likely don’t want to work there anyway.”
While answering questions about any period of unemployment can be uncomfortable, know that you’re not alone. Being prepared for whatever comes your way and having confidence in the skills you’ve attained during that break can go a long way to bridging the gap with poise and professionalism.