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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.

Q: About seven years ago, I had to stop working to care for my elderly parents. I cared for them for more than three years until their deaths. I began a new career but was laid off when our plant closed. I’m searching for a job again and want to return to my original occupation. How do I explain the three-year gap in my work history and changing occupations? Mary Ellen, Idaho

A: Don’t feel awkward about your three-year employment gap. Stepping out of the workforce to care for elderly parents and other relatives has become more common, and most employers understand family obligations.

I recommend you highlight that three-year period on your résumé and describe your job as “family caregiver.” Broadly explain the nature of your obligation, and call out any additional education or self-development during that period. Acknowledging your caregiving role is a point of pride for you or anyone who treats family commitments this seriously. Your years as a caregiver, as difficult as they were, probably made you a tougher and wiser person.

As for changing occupations, most employers would understand that you wanted to use this gap in your work as a chance to rethink your career goals. I think changing careers is pretty courageous.

Getting laid off from your last job doesn’t suggest you weren’t a conscientious and capable worker. If anything, it makes a stronger case for your decision to return to your original profession. Your value as a worker is the sum total of all your life experiences and capabilities. If I were interviewing you, I would be impressed at your tenacity and maturity in setting a course and knowing when to change directions.

Q: I was out of work for almost two years because of a major illness and am now recovered. As I prepare my résumé, I’m not sure how to explain the gap. I’m also concerned that I’ll be asked about my health. I have a few minor problems, but nothing that would keep me from doing a good job. Carla, Michigan

A: Yours is one of the most challenging gaps to address. Employers generally don’t have a positive reaction to candidates with chronic or serious illnesses or physical limitations. While the laws prohibiting disability-based discrimination are relatively effective, your situation is different. You’re not disabled today, but your medical history could inhibit your job search.

For starters, you are under no obligation to disclose your medical history and current health condition—and employers cannot ask you about your health. If asked, I suggest you politely decline to answer and add that your health is not an appropriate topic for discussion unless your physical capacity is a legitimate job requirement. A relevant question about physical capacity would be, for example, if the job required you to lift 80-pound boxes and you physically could not do that.

I can’t emphasize strongly enough that your health, physical limitations, and disabilities are off-limits during the recruiting and selection process. Once employed, you may choose to notify your employer of any limitations and ask for “reasonable accommodation” to enable you to perform your job.

I suggest you simply skip those years on your résumé or application. If asked about the gap, you can attribute it to an accident from which you’ve recovered, or to family caregiving (for yourself) obligations. Do your best to appear fit and healthy for the interviews. But do not lie to the potential employer.

Q: I’m not alone, but I feel terrible since being laid off almost 10 months ago. Every time I even think about applying for a job or going to an interview, I get a knot in my stomach and dread questions about getting laid off and being unemployed. How can I handle this? Bob, New Jersey

A: Thirty and 40 years ago, layoffs were the exception, not the rule. “Layoff” was a polite word for being fired. This is simply no longer the case. When U.S. employers started large-scale layoffs about 25 years ago, job loss became a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sure, employers use layoffs as a fairly safe way to fire some employees. In general, layoffs are a matter of numbers and not capabilities or work performance. More than 6 million people have lost their jobs in the past 12 months—and the overwhelming majority of them are good workers.

Being laid off, and being unemployed for an extended period, is simply a fact of life for many folks today. It’s not cause for embarrassment or apprehension, even though your self-confidence does take a hit. Prepare your résumé, target the employers who are still hiring, and launch your job search.

If you’ve been out of work for some time, recognize that it’s difficult—physically, financially, and emotionally. Take a week and clear your head. You’ve gotten knocked down. Now get back up and win.

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