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Gaps in Your Career? Try These Strategies to Manage Them

Career gaps are a reality for many of us. Taking time to raise children, care for an ailing relative, manage our own health, study, travel and of course search for a job ... Whatever the reason, the resulting gap can cause challenges during the job search, especially if the time away from work is lengthy.
 
executive_career_managment_career_gapsExecutives often worry about how to address the gap on their resumes and LinkedIn profiles and what to say when networking and interviewing. Here are some strategies for dealing with gaps, with an eye toward minimizing the negative impact and managing any anxiety you may be feeling.
 

On the Resume

If the gap was lengthy, explain the gap in one or two lines. Put yourself in the recruiter’s or hiring manager’s shoes. She is scanning your resume and notices that there was a period of time when you weren’t working. She starts to wonder what happened, what you might have been doing…Now her full attention is on something other than how great you are and why you are perfect for the position. Addressing the gap directly eliminates that question (at least until the interview). Here’s what you can do:

  • If the reason for your break from work was anything other than conducting a job search, simply state briefly what you were doing—e.g., “Sabbatical,” “Family Leave,” “Full-Time Certificate Program”—and the dates.
  • If you were looking for work, find a way to insert something that shows relevant activities or professional development—e.g., “Contract Assignment,” “Board Leadership,” “Coursework in…,” “Pro Bono Assignment”—and the dates. A discerning reader will know that you have also been searching for a new position but will appreciate that you have been engaged in relevant and productive activity.
  • If the gap was brief or a while ago, you probably don’t have to worry about it at all.

 
Use years only, not months and years, in your career history. This approach should minimize the appearance of a gap. In all likelihood, you will still have to provide more detail later, but remember: The purpose of the resume is to get you in the door. You may never have the opportunity to explain if you get “screened out.”
 
In most cases, avoid a functional resume—use a hybrid chronological/functional resume instead. The problem with a functional resume is that recruiters and others prefer a reverse-chronological one, and a functional structure often raises suspicion. Your reader may wonder what you are trying to hide! It is better to have an outstanding and branded summary that includes a powerful presentation of select key achievements and capabilities, followed by your career history. This front-loaded hybrid approach will, ideally, be compelling enough to minimize concern about any gap.
 

On LinkedIn

If your gap was in the past, you can probably choose not to mention it in the experience section. You can use the other sections—Education, Courses, Volunteering and Causes, Organizations—to highlight your activities during this period. If you were active on a Board of Directors, however, it may be beneficial to present this in the experience section.
 
If your gap is current, resist the urge to use a headline like “Seeking New Opportunity” to broadcast your status as a job seeker. Focus instead on who you are and what value you bring. Use whatever section is appropriate to highlight the activities you have been engaged in while looking for work.
 

When Networking

If your gap was in the past, you don’t have to bring it up!
 
If your gap is current, focus the conversation on who you are, what you’re looking for, and what value you offer. If someone asks, be prepared to explain what you have been doing since leaving your last job (more on this below), but don’t linger on it or over-explain. Think of the conversation in percentage terms: you want 99% of it to focus on your goals, your selling points, and your relationship with this person. Don’t let the gap take up too much “air time.”
 

When Interviewing

Have a good explanation ready. Regardless of the reason for your career gap, you’ll want to prepare a clear, brief explanation that makes sense, is honest, and conveys your positive attitude. It usually takes some thinking to develop language that is neither too brief (which will only raise further questions) nor too expansive (which will draw inordinate attention to it). Especially if you were fired or laid off, you’ll want to prepare an answer that uses matter-of-fact, dispassionate language.
 
Practice your explanation with a trusted colleague, advisor, or friend. Your goal is to be able to convey the reasons for the gap in a way that avoids sounding resentful, embarrassed, or defensive. Your tone and body language will communicate as much as your words. You also want to practice moving the conversation from the explanation of the gap to your excitement and readiness for the position you are pursuing.
 
While career gaps present challenges, they should never be seen as insurmountable hurdles. Take a strategic approach to managing the gap and refocusing your energy on what’s most important—the value you will bring to your next position and the contribution you will make.

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