THE ULTIMATE GUIDE
How to Approach Employment Gaps
Having a gap in your work history can be a major stressor when it comes time to look for a job again. An employment gap is something to approach thoughtfully, but it by no means has to hold you back.
Understanding Your Employment Gap
Being surrounded by employed people as you likely are, considering your own situation and how long you’ve been out of work can start to feel like there’s no way you’re ever going to get hired again.
Having an employment gap is pretty common. In fact, this study found that 84% of Millennials are expecting to take a break from their working lives at some point in their career.
Some of the reasons to step away include:
- Having children
- Raising children
- Recovering from an illness or surgery
- Supporting a partner’s career
- Caretaking for parents or spouse
- Going back to school
- Burn out or mental health
- Pursuing entrepreneurship
- Pursuing a life dream
- Military service
- Volunteer work
Whatever your reasons, your absence from work will affect your re-entry into the workforce. The good news is that many, many people have done this successfully. Though philosophies of work/life balance differ, the fact remains that work is only one aspect of life, albeit a very significant aspect.
It’s completely understandable that you took time away. And most employers won’t have an issue with this, provided you can explain your employment gap reasonably.
Post-COVID-19, many thousands of people are either out of work or changing careers, so at the current moment, some disturbance in your career trajectory will not be unusual or surprising to hiring managers.
How to transition back into the workforce
If you’ve taken some time away from the workforce, you are probably dealing with a lot of feelings about going back. What you will specifically have to navigate will depend on your circumstances and how long you’ve been away.
For instance, if you are returning to work at the same company in a familiar role, one of your main challenges will be getting back into the swing of things. The rest of the team will have carried on without you, creating new dynamics and systems.
You may find that the way you were used to doing things is no longer how it’s done. There may have been a data migration, new tools implemented, or new team leadership that makes it like learning a whole new job.
Stick with it. Take a breath and remember that it’s okay that things have changed. You’ve changed too. Your workplace may not be the same way you left it, but realize that nothing stays frozen in time. Take some time to process and let go of how you thought returning to work would be and take steps towards accepting how it actually is.
Spend some time orienting yourself to the new software, make new friends, and re-establish yourself with leadership. You’ve still got this and it’s going to be just fine.
Starting in a brand new role at a different company, however, can pose its own challenges.
You may be feeling like an imposter or that you’re very far behind everyone else. But remember, you would not have been hired if you were not qualified. You have every right to be where you are and can learn anything new you need to know and refresh anything you’re rusty on.
Writing a resume with employment gaps
One of the obstacles to re-entering the workforce is explaining your employment gap on a resume. Hiring managers are trained to identify and follow-up on gaps in employment dates, so it’s something that’s going to come up. There are a few things you can do to circumvent the resume obstacle. Let’s take a look at a few of them.
Leave dates off your resume
Though it’s standard resume best practice to include employment dates on your resume, you can opt to leave them off. This will mean the hiring manager won’t be able to tell when you worked for what company or for how long.
This may help you get by at first, but it also may raise more of a red flag than simply leaving the dates on would have. Either way, if you leave the dates off and get an interview, be prepared to talk about your employment gap, because you will certainly be asked about it.
Use a different resume format
Instead of using a standard resume format, you can use a project-focused resume. This format is often used by freelancers and consultants. Instead of displaying time worked at specific companies, it emphasizes the skills and projects you’ve undertaken. This type of resume along with a portfolio can be a strong endorsement for your skills without what dates you worked ever coming up.
Address your employment gap in your cover letter
If your goal is to be above board and prove you have nothing to hide, you can address your gap straight away in your cover letter. You don’t need to go into a lengthy explanation, but you can mention what you were doing in your time away and how it has prepared you to re-enter the workforce now.
Employment gap cover letter example #1
After leaving my last job as a Staff Writer for ABC Magazine to have my child and be there for her first 3 years of life, I developed a blog that has gained a daily readership of 10,000 people. This project has not only kept my writing skills sharp but also allowed me to learn social media marketing and google ads–both skills I have been wanting to add to my toolbox for a long time and now I have grown quite proficient in them both.
Employment gap cover letter example #2
After taking some time away from work to recover from surgery, I feel fully revitalized and ready to take on new challenges. I was able to attend a virtual conference while I was recovering that brought me up to speed on the exciting things happening in the Accounting industry and I can’t wait to put what I’ve learned into practice.
Employment gap cover letter example #3
I learned so much during my year in the Peace Corps about leadership, organization, and accountability. I also became fluent in Spanish during my time in Chile, and that ability has served me well in my professional endeavors. It helps me have cultural fluency and the ability to communicate more effectively with global team members.
You’ll notice all of these cover letter examples are snapshots of things you can say about your absence that briefly give a reason for your employment gap while pivoting the attention to the strengths that came about as the result of your absence.
This is the name of the game. You don’t want to dwell on the fact that you were out of the workforce, but on all of the ways you were proactively growing while you were gone.
Taking a career break has become so common–especially for mothers and other parents–that some companies have finally recognized the need for a formalized reentry into the workforce. This has given birth to the “returnship.”
A returnship is similar to an internship and is designed to give you a gentle reentry into your working life. Tech companies in particular have been keen to invest in returnship programs to foster a more age-diverse and parent-friendly workforce.
Returnships are usually paid and usually run 12-26 weeks to help you get back on your working feet again.
Some companies that offer returnships include:
Feel free to start Googling and see if the company you’re interested in working for offers some sort of returnship program. It may be the exact step you need to take to assess if going back into the corporate workforce full-time is right for you.
Return to work your way
With your changing life circumstances, you may have discovered that returning to the standard workforce is no longer right for you and that’s okay too! There’s no wrong way to set up your working life. If you need the flexibility of becoming a freelancer, pursue that route. If you need to work part-time at a family-owned business that understands the other demands on your time, you can do that too.
We’ve written an entire guide on Career Advice to help you assess your values and how to choose a career that aligns with your skillset and what you want the most out of your working life. Take some time to read it once you’ve finished reading about approaching your employment gap.
You may also want to delve into our guide on Job Searching that will walk you through how to network, apply to jobs online, navigate job boards, and more.
The bottom line is, whatever you choose to do is possible. Just take baby steps and be patient with yourself along the way. You’ve got this!
Ready to land your Dream job?
How to Talk About Your Employment Gap
Knowing how to talk about your employment gap is absolutely essential when you go into interviews again after time away from the workforce. Many hiring managers are trained to find red flags in potential candidates. Their job is to find the best person for the job, after all, so if they miss a glaring red flag–an employment gap, for instance–it will reflect very poorly on them.
For this reason, you can guarantee that your interviewer is going to notice a gap on your resume and ask you about it.
The good news is if you have gotten to the interview stage, they likely don’t see your gap as being a dealbreaker. But they will want to hear your explanation for your employment gap(s) and it’s essential that you take this opportunity to put any fears they may have about you to rest.
When it comes to talking about your employment gap, there are a few pivotal details you should use to guide your answers.
Tell the truth about your employment gap
There are many assumptions that can be made about why you’ve been out of work. These can range from fears that you are unreliable or unprofessional to suspicions that you may have substance abuse or behavioral issues.
We know it isn’t fair for hiring managers to be making these judgments about you without even knowing you or anything about your story, but it’s their job to be cautious and imaginations are almost always more far-fetched than facts.
That’s why it’s important to be honest about the reason for your employment gap, helping the hiring manager to see that there is a reasonable explanation and you are not a risky hire.
Don’t be overly candid
You want to be honest, but you don’t want to shoot yourself in the foot. If you had a 6-month gap 7 years ago, it’s probably not relevant anymore and doesn’t need to be on your resume.
Additionally, if you had a work situation that went up in flames in a very brief time and you ended up quitting without notice and walking away, there’s not really a need to bring that up either.
The goal is to focus on the positive and leave any unnecessary or negative details out of your story.
Don’t be defensive
Negativity of any kind about a past job, boss, company, or colleague is considered a red flag and unprofessional and can hurt your chances of getting hired elsewhere even if your negativity is 100% justified.
Avoid negative speech and bringing up negative experiences in your resume or your interviews wherever possible.
Do not launch into a defensive tirade about how you were justified to do what you did (even if that’s the case) and steer clear of unprofessional language, including slang, curse words, and aggressive remarks.
All of the above are considered red flags and will not help your case in presenting yourself as a strong candidate and a good hire.
It’s good to have realistic expectations and not be arrogant, but don’t go into a job interview with a meek and mild attitude. Be confident in your skills, experience, and abilities, look them in the eye, and give them a firm handshake.
If you go into your interview expecting that you don’t have the right to be there and acting as if you need permission to exist, the hiring manager isn’t going to think you have what it takes to reenter the workforce.
From their perspective, if you don’t think you have what it takes to succeed, why should they?
Interview questions about employment gaps
We’ve mentioned several times already how hiring managers are sure to ask you about your employment gap, but what are these questions actually going to be? And more to the point, how should you answer them?
Questions about employment gaps will usually come up in the following ways:
Tell me about yourself – this is a classic opener to job interviews, but it’s important to understand it’s not an invitation to tell your life story. You need to think about the best way to tell your career story succinctly.
Just as we discussed doing in your cover letter, this question is a chance for you to talk about your employment gap proactively. Weave it into your career history while emphasizing your strengths.
(If you would like to learn more about answering “tell me about yourself” in detail, read our in-depth guide.)
Why did you leave your last job? – this is a common question even if you don’t have a gap, so it’s good to be prepared for it. This is also a good time to mention your gap proactively if you didn’t fold it into your “tell me about yourself” answer.
Why do you want to work here? – the intent behind this question is to figure out why, after an extended break from the workforce, you are wanting this particular job at this specific company. They are looking for reassurance that you are in it for the long haul, so make sure you craft your answer in such a way that proves your reliability, and that this is a well-thought-out decision, not merely the first thing that came along.
Explain this gap on your resume – this is a very direct-to-the-point approach to trying to figure out the reason behind your gap. If you’ve already mentioned your gap, simply circle the conversation back around and reiterate your reasons and why you are a stronger candidate for having taken some time away.
Have you ever been fired? – this question is your hiring manager trying to figure out if your employment gap is due to performance issues on your part. While this is not a completely fair assumption–there are many reasons you could have been fired that had nothing to do with performance–it’s important that you put their mind at ease and assure them you are not a risky hire.
Why have you been out of work for so long? – this question could be trying to get to the heart of your initiative and work ethic. Jobs can be very hard to get and employers understand that, so make sure your answer reflects the initiatives you’ve taken to find work and your eagerness to get started in a new job.
Aren’t you overqualified for this job? – being overqualified can be a challenge when you’re returning to the workforce. The key here is to tailor your answers to the job description. Don’t emphasize your many years of experience and leadership abilities, instead focus on the skills that are directly being asked for in the job description and demonstrate how you are the right person for the job.
Practice before you get there
If you’re returning to the workforce, you may consider yourself an old hat at interviews. This can be your first mistake.
While the general structure of the interview has remained largely consistent through the years, the workforce is changing rapidly. This means things like company culture, formality of speech and manner, wardrobe expectations, and a host of other things have likely changed since the last time you were in the interview room.
Don’t make the mistake of going to your interview unprepared.
We developed Big Interview precisely for situations like yours. Our software sets you up with a Mock Interview simulator that mimics a real-life interview so you can get practice in real-time.
Additionally, we have an extensive video and written curriculum that covers every aspect of the job interview process, from building excellent answers to how to negotiate your salary. We even have specific playbooks written exclusively for people rejoining the workforce.
If all of that sounds a little too overwhelming, you can still take advantage of our free resources that teach you how to answer even the toughest interview question.
Once you’ve got your approach locked down, practice to yourself in the mirror or with a trusted friend until you feel confident enough to give a great answer even if you are very nervous or outside your comfort zone.
We’ve seen time and time again how good practice and preparation made the difference between landing the job and going back to the endless grind of sending out resumes. Make your next interview your last one!
Ready to land your Dream job?
Common Challenges of Employment Gaps
We’ve helped lots of candidates prepare for interviews after an employment gap and some common fears and challenges come up again and again. Let’s take a look at what they are and how to address them.
Having confidence in your abilities
If you’ve been out of work for a while, you may start feeling insecure about your abilities. Or maybe you started out feeling good, but the more you’ve learned about the changes in your field and new technology in the workplace, the more insecure about your abilities you’ve become.
There isn’t a magical potion you can take to suddenly give yourself confidence, but there are steps you can take and perspectives you can shift to help boost your belief in yourself.
The power of “yet”
Instead of thinking of yourself as someone who has lost years away from the workforce and is way behind in technology, think of yourself as someone who is not where they want to be yet.
You may not be as comfortable and savvy as a colleague who hasn’t taken an employment gap right now, but that does not mean you are staying in that place forever. You simply are just not where you want to be yet.
Every day that you show up ready to learn and do your job well is a step towards that person you are aspiring to be. Embracing the power of “yet” keeps you from sinking into a rut and believing that you’re all wrong for the job and an imposter and instead puts you in a frame of mind to improve upon yourself.
Every day that you see your small successes growing, you will increase in confidence and self-reliance and you won’t have time to indulge the self-doubt.
If you don’t know, ask
The only way to learn something you don’t know is to ask. If you aren’t comfortable with learning new technology or skills by asking a colleague, then you can put in the time on your own.
There has never been a time in human history where you have more knowledge at your fingertips than you do now.
An easy web search will offer you hundreds of articles, tutorials, examples, and step-by-step guides for anything you want to learn.
Arming yourself with knowledge and practicing anything you feel unsure about on your own time will have a big effect on your confidence level during your workday.
If you’re feeling like you’re just being dragged along by the scruff of your neck and you have no idea what you’re doing, start being proactive and take control of your learning yourself.
You may be overqualified for the jobs you start applying to after an employment gap. This can cause an extra layer of difficulty when trying to get hired again. It sounds counterintuitive because you’d think hiring managers would want someone who is very experienced in their field. However, they may have a few worries about how qualified you are for the job.
They’re afraid you’ll be bored
If you have more experience than they are currently looking for, a common worry from hiring managers is that you’ll be bored in the role.
If you’ve managed teams and projects before for instance, the hiring manager may be worried you will be easily bored with a role that is more junior-level and doesn’t require a lot of leadership skills.
Bored employees tend to be more disengaged and unmotivated, resulting in poor performance and high turnover. In their eyes, this is a big risk.
Be honest with yourself about if this really is the case or not for roles you’ll be applying for and target your job search towards roles you can demonstrate a genuine interest and enthusiasm for.
They’re afraid you’ll be resentful
If you’re taking a job you’re overqualified for, your interviewer may be wondering if you feel “above” the position.
They may worry that you would have trouble taking direction from someone younger and less experienced than you, that you’ll feel some tasks are beneath you, or that you may always be trying to undermine your manager.
How you present yourself and talk about the role will go a long way towards putting them at ease about these concerns. Express that you are eager to learn and be a team player (if you can do so honestly) and this worry from your hiring manager should be laid to rest.
They’re afraid you’re not committed
If you are very overqualified for the position, your interviewer may worry that you are just waiting for something better to come along, something that aligns more with your experience.
Your primary obstacle will be to convince the hiring manager that you don’t see yourself as overqualified and would be excited to take on the role.
You need to strike the balance between highlighting your valuable experience while not giving the impression that you think the work (or title or salary) is beneath you. That you are committed to taking on the role and growing with the company.
In the end, being overqualified may be an extra hurdle to overcome in the job search process, but understanding how to navigate the worries of your hiring manager will guide you in how to craft answers that will make it a non-issue.
Ready to land your Dream job?
Whatever your particular challenges or obstacles, you can overcome them and re-start a career that helps you thrive.
The workforce is going to be different from how you left it, but you can adapt, learn, and rise to the occasion. Make sure you are leading with your strengths, projecting confidence, and preparing well and you will be on your way to your new career.
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