Got a blank on your résumé? Fill it in, honestly

Globe and Mail

Globe and Mail

Gaps between jobs isn’t a career killer — as long as you have a good reason, ROMA LUCIW writes

by ROMA LUCIW

Bryan Childerhouse is not hiding his employment gaps, but he’s not going out of his way to advertise them either.

“I don’t want to be discounted before they even get me there,” says the 54-year-old, who has been out of full-time work three times over the course of a career that spans three decades. A quick glance at his résumé shows that his latest desk job ended when he was downsized last June, and that he has been relying on consulting to pay the bills.

Mr. Childerhouse, who has worked as a project manager and is a former director of operations, says he does not dwell on spells of unemployment during job interviews. “I try to tell them what I can do for them and then the gaps are insignificant.”

Career advisers agree that an extended break from full-time work no longer means prospective employers will automatically toss your résumé into the trash — provided you can explain what you were doing.

“A gap in the résumé is not necessarily frightening, but it does raise a flag,” says Kathy Murphy, owner of Starting at Nine career consulting services in Toronto. “It is good to explain why you were off because it can be the elephant in the room.”

Employers, she says, don’t want to have to guess or make assumptions about what people were doing. Be upfront about your time off, and spin it in a positive way by telling hiring managers how the experience has made you a better worker.

The best place to address the working gap is in the cover letter, says Lara Dodo, vice-president of consulting and staffing agency Robert Half Canada in Toronto. A brief sentence — something along the lines of “the last eight months of travel have broadened my horizons and I am now looking forward to a career with a global perspective” — could trigger an interesting discussion at an interview, she said. At the very least, it won’t leave them wondering if you were in jail.

“Individuals who have legitimate reasons for gaps in their employment and who are honest and candid with employers,” will not struggle to make it to the interview stage, Ms. Dodo says.

Hiring managers will often consider applicants’ prior employment history. If their previous job lasted 10 years, a short gap will not be a problem. If, however, a résumé is littered with working gaps, an employer could think the candidate is a bad worker or not a team player.

Ms. Dodo says people take breaks from employment for all sorts of legitimate reasons: caring for children or an elderly parent, medical leave, travel, relocation, going back to school, or needing to return to their country of origin. The most popular explanations among job hunters are that they were consulting, freelancing, doing contract work or were self-employed.

More iffy reasons that have popped up in Ms. Dodo’s interviews are: they did not want to work, were suing their former employer, were taking cooking courses for a year, didn’t know what they wanted to do, or “embellished” a health issue, such as struggling with low energy.

“Someone who spent a year lying on the sofa and watching TV, they really need to reconnect with themselves . . . if they are going to find the right opportunity,” Ms. Dodo says.

Exactly how much time off can be a problem depends on the individual and the industry, career counsellors say. For someone in the rapidly changing information technology field, a four-month absence could be considered too long. People who took four or five years off work to focus on raising children may not get hired at the same level as they were when they left, but they are certainly not out of the running.

Toronto-based career counsellor Colleen Clarke says applicants with gaps could do what Mr. Childerhouse did and structure their résumé by focusing on years of service. By omitting the months, a common feature on the CVs of middle- and high-income earners who tend to hang on to work longer, it will appear as though jobs were held on a back-to-back basis. Another option is to set up a functional résumé, listing accomplishments and skills at various employers under headings and not the jobs held by chronological order.

Time also has a tendency to heal résumé gaps. Widespread unemployment in the 1990s left many résumés with gaping holes, Ms. Clarke says. “No one cares about what happened 10 years ago. What people want to know is what you did more recently.”

Although omitting months from a résumé is acceptable, career experts advise against deliberately extending job dates to camouflage periods of unemployment.

In any event, the stigma associated with taking time off has eased dramatically, Ms. Clarke says. “With all of the mergers, buyouts, the fluctuations in the stock market, it is pretty common. You can’t tell me that people at Nortel Networks were not talented.”

Joseph Klement is unapologetic about his recent employment gap. In June, 2005, corporate restructuring eliminated his sales and project management job at a Web-content management company. Undeterred, he made a conscious decision to focus on selling his four-bedroom home in the Don Mill area of Toronto. He and his wife embarked on a major lifestyle change, moving into a smaller apartment in the city’s downtown core.

Mr. Klement, 47, started pounding the job pavement last January and was hired in March. “I had the opportunity to focus on getting my personal affairs in order, which now allows me to focus on my job,” he says.