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Q-and-A: Gaps in Employment

Career counselor Bob Skladany offers tips on how to answer questions about work history gaps when interviewing for jobs.

I receive a multitude of questions from people concerned about how to explain gaps in their work histories. This is a concern shared by older candidates who were raised to believe that any break in employment reflects a weakness or problem.

I hope that one of the following situations mirrors your own, and that you can put some of these talking points into practice during your next interview.

Q: A number of years ago I encountered overwhelming personal and family problems. During this period, I was fired from two jobs in the space of a year. My work history in the years before then was spotless, and it’s been fine since I got through those difficult few years. How do I explain the period when I was unemployed after being fired twice? Arthur, California

A: It’s good to know you got through those troubled times. Getting fired doesn’t mean you’re a bad worker or a bad person—although many if not most of us learned the opposite when we were kids. I have been fired, and I have felt awkward about it to this day. The first thing to remember is that potential employers only really know what you tell them, and you control what information you disclose. That said, tell the truth to potential employers.

If you were fired more than 15 to 20 years ago, I don’t believe you need to disclose the information at all. It’s common practice for workers 50 and older to detail their most recent 15 to 20 years of work history in a résumé. Any experience coming before that is grouped together at the end of your work history as “Previous Employment.” This paragraph would typically say, “Previous work experience in (state the industry, occupation, and level of job). No dates, no periods of time, no explanation needed.

If you were fired within the past 15 to 20 years, you should know that in today’s résumés, there is no need to state the month and year of employment—just the year is fine. This is also true for potential employers’ application forms: Just leave the month blank. This may allow you to “skip over” short periods of unemployment that did not span a calendar year.

If you’re more comfortable listing the short-term jobs, simply explain if asked, that you left for a better opportunity. Over time, employers have become accustomed to people changing jobs more frequently. Staying with one employer for your entire career is the rare exception. In my experience, employers seldom ask about reasons for leaving a job, and you should feel no need to volunteer that you were fired.

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