Handling Employment Gaps on Your Resume

Hiding gaps, dissembling about negative reasons for gaps and failing to upgrade skills when you are out of work are all no-no's.

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By Doug and Polly White


Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

One of the tasks we do quite often is provide clients help with their recruitment. In an average week, we look at hundreds of resumes. And from what we've seen in that context, we can tell you that the economy has improved, and that people who have been unemployed for months or even years are coming back into the workforce.

Related: 18 Ways to Improve Your Resume (Infographic)

That's great news, of course; higher workforce participation is a good thing. However, hiring managers tend to see gaps in employment on a resume as a red flag. These employment breaks raise concerns about why the candidate wasn't working.

Did he or she lack the ambition to keep up the job hunt? Does the candidate lack skills, have a criminal history or some behavioral flaw that has kept him or her from achieving employment?

Gaps can also raise concerns about skills degradation. An administrative employee who has not worked for the past several years because he or she has been raising a family, caring for a sick relative or other completely legitimate reasons, may be seen as lacking skills in current technology.

If you are a candidate with just such breaks in your employment history, you'll have to decide how to handle this issue on your resume, but we have three tips that will help.

1. Be up-front.

Candidates sometimes try to hide gaps in employment. They'll do this by not putting dates on their resume. Sometimes, candidates use an alternative to the typical chronological format to list their job experience, skills and qualifications. That's okay. However, it is always a good idea to have a section on the resume that lists job title, company/organization and employment dates.

If the chronology of your work history is not clear, most good interviewers will ask you to give them the information they need to piece it together. When they discover the gap, they'll likely have the impression that you are being less than completely honest. Hiding things that might not be favorable on a resume suggests to a potential employer that you will try to cover up mistakes you make on the job. I our opinion, it is better to be forthright.

When we see a resume that lacks employment dates, we often reject the resume. There are too many people applying for our clients' job openings that supply us the information we need to make a good decision. Our advice: Don't make the recruiter or hiring manager work hard when trying to discern your employment history. If you do, your resume will probably end up on the "no" pile.

2. Explain the reason.

Be prepared to provide a truthful reason for any gaps in employment. If you took time off from your career to care for your family, say so. That's a legitimate life choice and few people will fault you for that decision. Even if you needed an extended period to find a new job, you can offer a legitimate and acceptable explanation. For example: "The economy was bad, I didn't want to move my family, and I wasn't willing to compromise. I wanted to find a job that was a good fit."

Even if the reason for the employment gap is not favorable, such as incarceration, we advise candor. In this case, we would suggest saying, "I made a mistake. I paid for it, and I have learned my lesson." If you try to hide something like this, prospective employers will find it when they do a background check and will eliminate you from consideration.

If the prospective employer doesn't discover this piece of information and hires you, you'll have to live with it hanging over your head. If your employer subsequently discovers the omission, you could face termination.

Also, be prepared to give an honest answer to your reason for leaving each job. Particularly if there is an employment gap, prospective employers will want to know why you left the position immediately before the gap. They will assume that it was not voluntary since you left a job without having another position.

3. Develop yourself.

Developing yourself while you are not working will help you to address concerns about skills degradation. Further, it shows that you are an industrious self-starter. Take classes. Attend workshops and seminars. If you can't attend physically, there are many online options. Read books. Listen to tapes. Conduct research and write articles in your field. Learn a foreign language.

If you can show that you have invested in yourself during your time out of the workforce, that action may change what might otherwise be a negative into a positive.

We recently placed a young woman who found it difficult to find a job coming out of college. However, we were impressed that she had volunteered with a couple of non-profits while continuing her search. These roles actually gave her the experience that her new employer wanted to see.

Related: 5 Components of an Attention-Grabbing Resume

A lapse in employment can be a red flag for prospective employers. The three tips above will help you to address the issue and secure the good job you need and deserve.

Doug and Polly White

Entrepreneurs, Small Business Experts, Consultants, Speakers

Doug and Polly White are small business experts, speakers and consultants who work with entrepreneurs through Whitestone Partners. They are also co-authors of the book Let Go to GROW, which focuses on growing your business.

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