Everyone knows a gap in car insurance coverage is a red flag to your next insurer. It signals either recklessness (like a drunk driving conviction) or carelessness, like failure to pay on time. Gap customers pay for this suspicion for years in the form of increased premiums.
But what about gaps in employment?
I’m not going to lie to you. Beyond a certain age (say, 25-30) employment gaps of more than a few weeks CAN look suspicious. But unlike car insurance gaps, they don’t HAVE to look suspicious.
As with so many situations in life, unemployment is perceived as positively or as negatively as you frame it. Luckily, a few months (or even years) out of work doesn’t need to be a scarlet letter on your resume.
Allow me to lay out three strategies for framing an employment gap positively, so that it not only doesn’t harm your candidacy, but actively enhances it!
Strategy #1: The Envy-Inducing Sabbatical
If a hiring manager senses that you just “took it easy” for six months and only applied when your savings ran out, that’s an instant no-hire. One solution is to flip the script entirely. Instead of treating it like a shameful stretch of social uselessness, frame your employment gap as a thrilling and rejuvenating sabbatical!
Did you volunteer for Habitat For Humanity? Take your son to every major league ballpark? Follow your favorite band on a cross-country tour?
Suddenly, your sabbatical sounds not just acceptable, but impressive! It doesn’t have to be these exact activities, either. The truth is, virtually ANY activity that isn’t 100% rooted in laziness can be spun to sound interesting. If all else fails, Tim Ferriss offers a powerful script in The Four Hour Workweek that you can modify:
I had a once-in-a-lifetime chance to do [exotic and envy-producing experience] and couldn’t turn it down. I figured that, with [20-40] years of work to go, what’s the rush?”
Finally, emphasize that you are now back in “career-mode” and ready to hit the ground running.
Strategy #2: The Intentional Career Change
Another unspoken fear triggered by employment gaps is “will this person leave after I invest lots of time onboarding them?” Indeed, there are few worse fates than being labeled a “job hopper”. If your resume portrays a career of fits and starts (with no lengthy stays or consistent arc) then you need to fight this perception aggressively when applying.
Remember: hiring managers (unless otherwise stated) are looking for people they can build around and rely on for a long time. They don’t want to “hold you over” for a few months until you figure your next move out.
That’s why it sometimes pays to position your employment gap as an intentional career change. Tell the hiring manager you felt called to this industry and decided to spend as long as it took developing the skills, expertise and contacts to break in. Talk about what drew you to them, the contributions you plan to make, and how excited you are to get started.
By the way, this should all be TRUE. Hiring managers can spot false enthusiasm (and the desperation beneath it) a mile away. That said, the gulf between “I held out for my dream job” and “I had to go back to work eventually” is as wide “you’re hired” and “not interested.”
Strategy #3: The “Family Obligations” Justification
Hiring managers can be demanding, but they are not heartless. Everyone can empathize with someone taking time off to care for urgent family obligations (a sick relative, a troubled child, etc.)
That said, don’t feel pressured to spill every last detail of your family crisis. It is neither necessary nor appropriate for a stranger to know the intimate particulars of your personal life. Quite the opposite: a dramatic and long-winded delivery usually suggests exaggeration. Convey only enough information to get the point across and prove that “the storm has passed.”
The key to all of these strategies is separating your employment gap (whatever you spent it doing) from your current and from-now-on focus on your career. Employers only care about what you will do for them. Thus, your past only matters as a guide to whether or not you will produce now.