Career Move Challenges: Explaining Those Gaps

By Ellis Chase

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One of the tougher aspects of career transition is explaining any gaps in a work history. Some interviewers, or those on the other side of an informational meeting, will frequently get hung up on gaps in employment, as though you’ve committed some kind of criminal activity. Others will ask, because they simply don’t know how to interview very well, and are focusing on resume issues more than skills or experience. They need something – anything – to talk about. Some may want to find out of if there are any problems in the work history, occasionally a more logical reason for such questioning.  


These gap questions usually fall under the “Why are you looking?” category, and the other person might think that any gap is a problem – just because. Either way, you need to have good responses prepared for all the contingencies. Normally, I think that this is one of those issues that’s better dealt with on a one-on-one advising basis, but here are some general thoughts about possible explanations for gaps:  


Left a Job – Why?

If a potential employer, or anyone else involved in your transition, doesn’t understand today’s work climate well (or, for that matter, the past 30 years or so), they may think that anyone who changes jobs, or who has left a job either voluntarily or involuntarily, is tarnished goods. Unfortunately, there have been way too many bad pieces in the media about this false notion, even in well-reputed media outlets.  


The notion is ridiculous. The facts are that nearly everyone will have made changes in employment during their work lives, and frequently several. Not just career moves, but career changes, too. There is no need to feel defensive, even if you were terminated for poor performance or a bad fit. You’re now in marketing mode, and there’s no room for negatives. There’s always a substantive way to market yourself effectively. It’s important to understand that part of the cultural norm now is to make changes, whether or not the person sitting on the other side of the desk understands that.  


The key is to never be negative about the former employer. By saying that, for instance, the organization was badly run, or that your boss was insane or just garden-variety narcissistic (unfortunately, very common), or that the organization had terrible financial difficulties, the takeaway for the other person, somehow, is that YOU are the negative one, that you are the one who is associated with the negative connotation. That’s not the brand you want.  


You didn’t leave the job for a new challenge; that’s like announcing you’ll leave the next one for the same reason. You didn’t leave for more money or better work conditions (although these may be true). You left for better reasons.  


Your reason for leaving statement should be something along the lines of your having left due to your wanting to more fully utilize what you have learned over the course of your career, and that the opportunity didn’t exist with your former employer. Again, this is something that needs to be crafted on a more personal basis, but I wanted to give just an idea here. There are many variations on this theme.  What you want to accomplish is a positive, logical reason for wanting to make a change. Whether it was your choice or not. You want that reason to make you look good.  


Of course, if an entire division was laid off or there was a restructuring of some sort, or if you worked at Bear Stearns or Lehman Brothers in 2008, then just say it. But also say that it was a huge disappointment because you liked your job a lot, liked the organization, and had the opportunity to . . . (and here’s where you get to pivot into a couple of quick accomplishments).  


Period of Unemployment

“You seem to have been out of work for several months. What’s the problem?”  

Yup, that one gets asked frequently. I don’t think it’s a particularly useful interview question, that it’s designed to put the interviewee on the spot, which is never a great way to conduct an interview, but - it does get asked. Way too often.  


Seriously, is a long period of unemployment indicative of anything other than either a difficult or, even, a bad search? Being bad at search, or being unlucky, or being discouraged, or somewhat stuck in a contracting industry – all of these may be the real reasons. Do these disqualify you from great opportunities? I don’t think so.  


But, since we’re in self-marketing mode, we need to explain this more positively.  How about making it appear that the too-long period of search was somewhat by design? Why not “I am working hard on a daily basis to make sure that I make an intelligent decision for my next move. A great fit is critical to me, and if it takes time, so be it.” That makes you look good, that you’re serious and deliberate about your career plans, and hey, it may even be somewhat true, too.


One more thing – it is NOT a stigma to be unemployed. It’s just part of the work process, and has been so for a long time now. Get over it. Don’t let it effect how people perceive you.  


Consulting

Maybe you’ve been consulting, either by design or as a stop gap during your period of unemployment. While some will say “I’ve been consulting” is somewhat of a cliché, be prepared to back it up with evidence of your building skills during this period.  

If you’ve actually chosen to consult, maybe for years, prospective employers will be suspicious of your wanting to return to a more traditional job.  They may be concerned that you’ve hit a rough time, and are only planning to return to the “job job” for a limited period, just to get back on your feet – and then leave to consult again.

So when you’re asked about why you don’t want to consult anymore, you can state that you’ve had a great experience, had the opportunity to . . . (and here’s yet another opportunity to talk about gained skills and experience). But, you miss the ability to work on a larger team, brainstorm, and have a wider array of resources to be able to do larger scale work. As a consultant, you feel sometimes isolated, and sometimes an outsider, and you miss being part of an ongoing group that sees a strategy through to completion.  


Family Medical/ Childcare/ Personal/ Personal Medical

If you’ve had a family medical situation and needed to take an extended time off, or a personal or medical situation, or took off time to help raise children, none of these should be problems to explain. The only problem is when you feel defensive about it, or are uncomfortable explaining. Have a response prepared, and make sure it’s confident and assertive. You’re in charge of your situation.  


With medical situations, state that there was a personal/medical situation that you needed to deal with, that it’s over and resolved, and that you’re ready to return to work. Period. No details, no emotion, matter of fact.  


The children issue is sometimes trickier. While it’s illegal in the US to ask questions about having children, it does become important to explain a large gap in the work history by discussing having had children. It’s important to pre-empt the possible questions about childcare by offering your plan for childcare, that it’s several layers deep (babysitter/nanny/mother-in-law/sister/husband/cousin) and that there will never be issues about coverage, and will not affect your work in the least. You’re confident about this and you state this with no reservation. Don’t wait for it to be asked.  


Clearly, the gap questions will need to be tailored to each job seeker’s particular story. What I wanted to show here is that they can be addressed. I’ve rarely encountered situations that couldn’t be dealt with effectively.  

 

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