Handling The “Work Gap” Question During An Interview

August 9, 2016

You may never see it coming. Despite the best-laid plans for your career, life happens to us all in unexpected ways. When it happens to you, you can be forced to adjust accordingly.

You could realize that you want to become a stay-at-home parent who has to tend to your children at an early age or there may be an elderly parent you need to take care of. You may be a casualty of a merger or acquisition. You could experience a total dissatisfaction with your job to the point of where you can’t stand going to work anymore.

No matter what the reason may be for leaving your job, you may find yourself among the lucky bunch that lands their next opportunity right away. Other times, however, it may not be that simple. Even if you don’t encounter a life experience like the ones above, you may find yourself in the midst of a job search that’s taking much longer than you anticipated.

All of the sudden, there’s a gap in your work history. If you’re preparing to go back into the workforce, you know you’re going to have to explain this gap. You can’t ignore it and hope nobody else notices that hole of time in your resume, but this is usually wishful thinking! So what’s the best strategy for dealing with such a work gap?

One of the things I try to counsel people on is to engage in an activity during the work gap that adds to your skill set or develops an existing skill further.

Some examples include going back to school, attending a management seminar, taking a public speaking course, joining a networking group, learning a programming language and more. It’s not activity for the sake of keeping busy but rather showing how you’re passionate about improving your marketability and enhancing a skill set in order to give your next employer the very best you have to offer.

Next, be honest about what happened. Employers would generally rather hear legitimate reasons for why you left your last company than a fabrication. Whether you had a parent to care for or you simply couldn’t bring yourself to walk in the door anymore, this honesty will probably serve you much better during an interview.

However, you also need to define how you leveraged your time off in a positive way.

Honesty is great but you can’t let the honest reason for why you left…hang in the air by itself. Very quickly, it’s crucial to turn it around and speak to how you used the time off to grow your relevant skill set or improve upon many others. Did you take a class? Hire a business coach? Attend a series of seminars? Employers like to know that their candidates aren’t sitting on the couch idly waiting for the next opportunity to happen. Think about the difference between how these two candidates sound:

  1. A) “I had to get out of there. The head person in our department just had it out for me and it was time to go. So I took some time off and went to Europe to decompress for a while.”
  2. B) “During this time off, I wanted to ensure I maintained my relevant skill set and knew I should attend more new business presentations. Therefore, I hired a coach who helped me understand how I could be better at presenting my work both internally and to a potentially new client.”

Show what’s in it for them. During your time in which you had a work gap, you invested your time and money into a worthwhile career activity. How does that investment translate into a positive for the employer and how would you plan on using it in your new role? That’s a potentially powerful connection to be making.

Ah, now we’re taking it up a notch, aren’t we?

We’ve moved from a work gap that was primarily about your own career self-improvement (mind you, not a bad thing) to a work gap that also had your future employer in mind. Even though you probably didn’t know at the time who that employer would be, you knew you were adding skills for their benefit just as much as yours.

What if you have a work gap but haven’t built up your skill set yet? Don’t panic. There’s still time to get out in front of this challenge. If you can see yourself going back into the workforce after a certain life event, consider three important factors: 1) The timeline for when you’d like to be re-starting your job search 2) The additional skill you feel you can learn within that time 3) How likely you’ll be able to learn the skill by the time you go on your first interview so you can reference it for a potential employer

Truthfully, learning a valuable skill may take several months but it may be incredibly worthwhile to pursue between jobs. For one, your next interview may be more focused on why you’re better than you were before as a result of what you did during your work gap.

Reality: Work gaps happen to everybody, but they still need to be explained. It’s easy to say, “Why can’t an employer just look past my work gap?” Well, like it or not, they probably can’t and won’t. That doesn’t mean that your work gap can’t be used to convey your determination for keeping your skills sharp during this “time off.”

Candidly, whenever I view a candidate’s resume that has a gap, it’s not an immediate negative. However, I won’t ignore it either. I’ll write down a simple question on the resume where the gap has occurred: “Why?”

What I mean by that “Why” is: What happened here? Where did you go and what did you do? So you went to Europe for a month or two as part of your own sabbatical to think about your next career move and reset priorities? Good to know – Steve Jobs went to India for a period of time too. The key is to acknowledge the work gap exists, explain with honesty why the gap occurred and communicate what was done to further your skill development during that period.

That way, when someone across the table from you inquires about the work gap in your experience, you can say, “Glad you asked!”

What kind of work gaps have you had in your career and how challenging was the gap to overcome as you resumed your job search? Did you employ any strategies for learning new skills in the interim? We’d love to hear any stories for how you turned the experience of having a work gap into a positive one for the next chapter of your career.