Got a Gap on Your Resume? Here's How to Own It
Free Book Preview: Unstoppable
Should I be honest? How can I frame this?
After a year off of work, I found myself staring at a blinking cursor, struggling with how to update my resume.
Conventional job-hunting wisdom (and plenty of trusted friends) said that a gap in my job history was a surefire way to get my CV into the rejection pile.
I had a sneaking suspicion, though, that any employer who would judge me for taking a break from the rat race was one I didn’t want to work for. So I made the call to own that gap year and explain honestly why it made me a better person, employee and leader.
To be clear, my year off was a personal choice (and I’m absolutely grateful that I was able to take it). I’d realized I was burned out. I took this time because I needed it. But even though it was a choice, I was still worried: What assumptions might a future employer make about that time? What misperceptions might this cause?
Many of us are scared to have a gap on our resume precisely because we think employers will judge us. As someone who now leads a team of several hundred people, I get it. If a candidate’s resume is riddled with holes, that can be a red flag. But preemptively passing judgement about time off means you risk missing out on exceptional hires — and post-Covid, this will arguably be truer than ever.
For employers: Rethinking work gaps
Because of the pandemic, 21.5 million workers in the U.S. have either been laid off or stepped out of the labor force. Some have faced layoffs or furloughs, taken time off to be full-time parents or caregivers or pivoted to focus on personal goals or self-care.
As those people re-enter the workforce, we’re on the cusp of seeing an awful lot of hiccups on resumes.
So let’s get used to it. In fact, I’m hopeful the Covid recession might actually create some new empathy for people with any sort of work gap. The truth is that time away from work is only a liability if we — the people hiring, first and foremost, but also jobseekers themselves — decide it’s a liability.
Thinking back to an earlier leadership role at IBM, one of the hires I’m proudest of had a resume with long gaps during the years she was raising young kids. She never had a chance to get her bachelor’s degree. But — because of, not in spite of, those same factors — she brought exceptional drive and focus to a role in marketing automation, a skill she had taught herself.
“Give me an email list of 5,000 people,” she told me in the interview, “and I’ll find a way to deploy it ... even if I have to send each one myself.” While I’ve since moved on from the company, she’s moved up: today, she’s a global VP at IBM.
So how can companies avoid overlooking candidates like these and find ways to attract and champion those with work gaps?
The first and most important shift for employers is a mental one: acknowledging that choosing time away can often be a sign of confidence, self-awareness and commitment. It also means bringing empathy to those who have survived a job loss or layoff and realizing that how people handle crises or tough times has incredible value too. At the end of the day, bringing in people who have diverse experiences beyond the corporate ladder is what keeps a company fresh.
Then, be explicit in your values or mission statement about embracing candidates with “non-traditional” resumes. The phrase we used pre-Covid was “Life sometimes gets in the way.” Post-Covid, I’m realizing it’s far more accurate to say life and work are inseparable — and it’s important to be clear with current and future employees that we get that.
For employees: How to make a less-than-linear resume an asset
Accounting for gaps in resumes starts with owning them. I’ve seen so many people squeeze “consultant” into their work history to cover up a blank space. But gaps don’t have to be something to be ashamed of — forget the defensive language and share your truth.
I loved hearing recently about a colleague who decided to step away from her corporate gig even though many people warned her it would derail her career. She’s got no qualms about how she’ll explain the gap to her next potential employer: “I spent a year juggling three kids and a demanding job, during a global crisis. I needed to recharge and my kids needed their mom.”
Likewise, time away comes with its own learnings, which shouldn’t be downplayed. During my own time off, I learned a ton about the value of work-life balance — a lesson that I brought back to my team and was able to apply to my leadership practices. For those who have experienced unexpected breaks, there are still nuggets of personal growth to be found, even in the darkest of times. Emphasizing a gap, rather than hiding it, is an opportunity to build your own narrative of what your time away taught you.
Finally, I’d encourage candidates to use their resume gap as a litmus test. How a company responds to “holes” in your CV — with receptivity or with rejection — speaks volumes about their values. If they really are flexible and open-minded, this is a chance to prove it. Ultimately, ask yourself: Do you want to work in a place that treats time off as a crime?
One of the biggest trepidations I had as I was about to take time off was whether or not I’d fall off everyone’s radar. But I’ve seen firsthand that stepping back can actually be what helps move you forward. Job seekers: Own that time off — bringing intentionality and self-awareness to the table can turn a career gap into a career accelerant. Hiring managers: It’s time to open up our minds to applicants who may have a less-than-linear work history. If you don’t, you might just miss out on your next superstar.