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Dealing with Gaps in Employment

This week's job searching tip deals with gaps in employment on your resume. If, by looking at your resume, an interviewer can see an obvious gap between recent jobs, their perception of what that gap means could hurt your chances of being considered for a job. This week's tip discusses strategies for dealing with these gaps.

What is the best way to handle being away from the job market for an extended period of time (over 2 years) both on the resume and in interviews? My absence was due to medical/psychological difficulties and I want to be honest, but discrete. Any information you can provide would be greatly appreciated.

-- K.M.

Dear K.M.,
If an employment gap is short or occurred several years ago, most employers and recruiters won't notice and you probably don't need to bring it up unless they do. However in your case, it sounds like the gap is noticeable. There are several ways you can deal with the situation.


A solution many resume writers would recommend is to use a functional resume instead of a chronological one. This can work if you have a complex job where you have achieved many things in various areas. For example, a programmer who has worked with several technologies could legitimately use a functional resume, dividing up the resume by technologies worked with instead of time periods. This can also work with other technical professions like engineers, attorneys, etc. If the work you do is rather straightforward and you work with a fairly limited range of skills, using a functional resume could make it seem like you're trying to hide your dates of employment.

If you do use a functional resume, many people looking at it will still want to know what kinds of companies you've worked for and what the most recent employer's line of business was. You can deal with this by including a note above your list of experiences indicating the most recent employer's name, location and line of business. In this same section you can list other employer names and lines of business you have worked in.


Another approach is to include an explanation of the gap on the resume itself. This makes sense to do if using a functional resume instead of a chronological one would seem odd because your profession doesn't lend itself to such a resume format. It's also important to note that most people reading resumes prefer the chronological format. If you have a legitimate story as to why you have a gap in your employment dates that most people could sympathize with and understand easily, just being forthright and listing it on your resume is fine.

If you have a noticeable gap in employment dates but don't explain it on your resume, many recruiters will either just discard your resume and move on to the next one, or come up with their own theory about why you weren't working. Although you might still be considered for the job, the recruiter's (probably false and somewhat subconscious) story about why you weren't working could put you at a disadvantage in their mind compared to other candidates they're considering.

If you had a medical condition that has since been resolved completely or nearly completely, my sense is you're better off explaining that briefly on the resume instead of not mentioning anything at all. For example:
Dec 2002 to Nov 2004: Took sabbatical from work to deal with a medical problem. The issue has been completely resolved and the doctors feel it will not reoccur.

If it's a minor problem that most people could understand, like a problem with back pain, you could even bring it up in the interview. An employer might not feel comfortable bringing up the subject 'especially because if they asked about it, it could look like they were discriminating against you illegally 'but if you think you can make them feel more comfortable with the fact that the problem has been solved by explaining it, you could give it a try. The biggest concern an employer will have about a gap in employment is whether it is any indication of your likely future performance.

If it was a medical problem, they could be concerned that it could happen again and that they'd be stuck with having to find a replacement for you. If you don't provide any explanation, the employer might think you couldn't find a job and were unemployed because your skills were not up to par.

I would recommend leaving out the psychological aspect since psychological illnesses are rarely understood by the general public.

Another alternative would be if you did some other things during your time off which could be mentioned while leaving out the part about the medical condition. For example, if you spent more time with your kids, you could put down:

Dec 2002 to Present: Left work to spend more time with children. Children are now older and I'm ready to return to the workforce.

The bottom line is you're best off having some kind of story to tell that the employer will find palatable. You don't want to tell an outright lie, but you may want to emphasize certain things more than others depending on what you find gets the most favorable response (in terms of replies to resumes and in interviews).

About the Author
Scott Brown is the author of the Job Search Handbook ( As editor of the weekly newsletter on job searching, Scott has written many articles on the subject. He wrote the Job Search Handbook to provide job seekers with a complete yet easy to use guide to finding a job effectively.

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