How to Handle a Gap in Employment

If you have left the workforce or been kept from it for an extended period of time, that may hurt you when it comes time to look for work again. Employers may wonder what happened, and sometimes even a small doubt can be enough for a hiring manager to pass on your resume.

To minimize the chances of that happening, you have to get in front of the situation. Sometimes that means being direct with potential employers, while other times it means being a little bit more coy (while still being honest).

How you handle a gap in employment depends upon why you had the gap in the first place. That may not be fair — and in many ways, it shouldn’t matter — but not all gaps are created equal.

It’s possible, but not always easy, to explain a gap in employment. Image source: Getty Images.

What if your gap was just trouble getting hired?

If you’ve been unemployed for an extended period of time, employers may wonder why other companies in the field passed on you. One way to combat that is to make good use of your time off in order to at least make your extended unemployment look productive, even if it’s not intentional.

Take an online class. Do some volunteer work that relates to your field. Consider freelance work or other assignments that will mitigate your extended absence and make it look more like you were busy, if not with a full-time job.

What if it was child related?

This might be the toughest type of employment gap to handle. While this should not be the case, there does seem to be some bias against parents (both moms and dads) who take time off to raise a child. My Motley Fool colleague Maurie Backman recently wrote that in a “study of over 3,300 resumes, stay-at-home parents were only half as likely to get responses from potential employers as applicants who were simply unemployed.”

You have to assume employers worry about new parents’ priorities. All you can do to counteract that is show an eagerness to get back to work and highlight your dedication to your job/career.

In some cases, you may want to consider a smaller company that normally would not be able to hire someone with your skills or background. Sometimes an employer will be more willing to hire you — and more flexible once you are hired — when the perceived “weakness” in your resume makes you both attainable and more flexible in your choices.

What if it was a one-time issue?

You’re not obligated to explain if your absence was related to a personal health issue. If, however, your situation was a one-time event that’s clearly in the past, you may want to be upfront about it.

For example, if you took time off to deal with a dying parent who has since passed on, you may want to disclose that. The same is true if you were dealing with a health issue that is fully in the past.

Tread carefully, however. If, for example, you had cancer, a clean bill of health may still scare potential employers. Again, that’s not fair, but it’s possible that full disclosure could hurt you.

In this situation, you may want to be vague, but direct. “I was dealing with a health-related issue, and am happy to say I now have a clean bill of health.” That may still leave questions or invite hiring prejudice, but it does answer why you weren’t working.

Be persistent and active

Ideally, you’ll spend a period of unemployment building new skills and making yourself a more attractive candidate for the future. Admittedly, that may not be possible if your absence from the workforce was health- or child care-related.

Still, once you are ready to make your return — really once you are even able to dedicate any time to something at all — you should work on making productive use of your downtime. Whether it’s taking classes or doing side projects, show that you are committed to getting back to work.

This may not be an easy process, but be diligent. Use your network and put yourself out there. Meet new people, schedule informational interviews, and leave no stone unturned when it comes to showing that you’re ready and eager to get to work.

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