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How to effectively explain gaps in your work history

We have a song in The Bahamas with a chorus that made it very popular: “If you can’t find your friends in Nassau, they’re in Freeport or they’re in jail.”

We joke about it locally when we haven’t seen someone in a long time. I’ve certainly asked that when I see a resume with gaps that can’t be explained by the chronology of the resume. Where have you been, and what were you doing during that period?

HR professionals and hiring managers want to know what you’ve been doing when you can’t show that you’ve been employed or enrolled in continuing education. If you can’t account for those times it paints another picture of you that could be viewed negatively: unstable, job hopper, unemployable, involved in illegal activity, or yes, even jail.

I’ve encountered people who have taken time off from work to take care of their children or an elderly parent, tend to the needs of a sick spouse or child, or just for a break from work. I’ve also met people who have had to return to the workforce after a long absence due to divorce or loss of a job for the husband. Others have had extended medical leave, but sensitive employers leave them on the books, so even though they would have had a long absence from work they would still be shown on record as employed. Then I’ve found those persons who were victim to the current economic climate, been laid off, resigned or terminated, and in times past, it was easy to transition from one job to the next. Now, it could easily be a year or more before you find a full time job. It’s almost a catch 22 for those persons because people tend to say, ‘Take any job you can find,’ but these persons will tell you that while they may be prepared to do that, they are told that they are either not qualified or even over qualified for the particular job and are refused employment. And to add fuel to the fire, once times improve, when that job is listed on the resume, future employers question its relevance to their previous jobs and career path.

If you find yourself with gaps in your resume, consider this advice:

• Tell the truth. While you may get away with a few white lies initially, the truth will be found out. It’s better to bring it up before an employer finds you out, and they will. What I’ve found is that while traditional background checks work, living in a small community reveals more than they ever could. One or two conversations with key persons, deliberately or inadvertently, can send an employer down an investigative path that you would not have imagined.

• Make personal or professional changes. Acknowledge those characteristics that hinder you from nailing the job and keep you unemployed. There is a saying that your reputation precedes you. If your character or work ethic is so telling that you are the talk of the town, you need to make a sincere, consistent effort to change. I know of someone who persistently applied to a company for which I worked and I was instructed to not hire because of the person’s loud and boisterous nature, personality and grooming. This personality style was not a corporate fit, but as far as this person was concerned, they had the expertise the company needed and couldn’t understand why an employment opportunity was not offered.

• Use a functional resume style. Functional resumes focus more on skills and accomplishments rather than on the chronology of work and education experience. With this type of resume, you can highlight key skills and accomplishments and minimize listing dates of educational and work experience. There are lots of samples online to reference this particular resume style.

• Maximize your time away from work with meaningful activity.

• Whatever the reason that kept you away from the workforce, employers look for ways you were still able to make a contribution to society or business. Did you maintain a blog, volunteer, commit to a charity, join a special interest group or work part-time? All of this can be seen as valuable use of time away from the workplace with transferable skills that can be used in an organization.

So unless you want your next employer to reflect on the song and wonder: “If you can’t find your friends in Nassau, they’re in Freeport or they’re in jail,” find a way to truthfully and meaningfully explain gaps in your employment.

Simmone L. Bowe, MSc, HRMP, is a seasoned human resource and organization development consultant and trainer, speaker, author, and mentor who focuses on helping business owners, leaders and professionals diagnose their people and performance problems and implement strategic solutions. For comments, queries and bookings, email [email protected].

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