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leadership lab

Career adviser, certified career development facilitator with 20-plus years of experience in manufacturing

Some people work continuously from the beginning of their first career position right through to the point when they retire. A few even do this in just one company. You might call these people the lucky ones, as they haven’t experienced a lot of upheaval through job loss, illness or family emergencies. However, in this modern era of constant mergers/acquisitions, downsizing, rightsizing, offshoring and outsourcing, it’s become very rare to find many people who haven’t found themselves unemployed through no fault of their own.

The problem is this: If you have been out of the work force for a year or more, how do you deal with that gap in a job interview (presuming it hasn’t already knocked you out of contention)?

The fact is that HR and recruiting people are – and always have been – suspicious of people with gaps in their employment. They vastly prefer to see candidates who have been continuously employed in their fields, preferably with regular signs of advancement.

The only acceptable gap of any more than a month or two, in their minds, is for further education that relates directly to your career path. Taking off a year or two to complete a Master’s degree in your field or in business management would never be a hindrance to securing an interview. Filling six months or so with a full-time certificate course that relates to your profession is just fine. Anything else will either cause them to cull you from the herd or, at the very least, grill you in the interview.

So what do you say if you had to take time out of your career because of a serious illness or the need to care for a family member? What do you say if you were unemployed for a long time purely because you weren’t able to land another position?

The simple answer is the truth, but you have to be careful how you say it.

In some cases, taking a break from employment to care for a close family member is both expected and necessary. If that was true for you, just say you did what you had to do. Now that it’s over, you’re ready to get back to work. (They don’t have the right to ask if it might happen again, by the way.)

The most difficult situation to explain is the gap caused by one’s inability to get another job. I’ve worked with clients who were unable to secure appropriate employment for long periods of time. There were often multiple factors involved, but the big two were a lack of desirable opportunities and/or employer requirements that didn’t match the candidate’s qualifications.

When asked why they were unemployed for the period involved, I suggested they reply that they were being selective in their search and only applying to positions for which they had the right qualifications and ones that matched their long-term career goals. While that answer might not satisfy every recruiter, if it was the truth, it was the best answer one could give. It’s far better to sound focused on one’s career direction and discriminating as to which opportunities one pursues. The worst possible response would be one which makes you sound resentful.

Always keep in mind that you have been invited for an interview either because of or in spite of what your résumé has indicated about you. If there’s a sizable gap in your career, they’ve probably noticed it but decided you’re worth meeting anyway. Don’t worry about it. Just go in with the confidence that you’ve already moved ahead of dozens or hundreds of other applicants.

Your performance in the interview will determine whether you’re the right person for the role and the recruiter’s answers to your questions will help you decide if this is the right situation for you.

In the unlikely event they don’t ask about the gap, don’t be the one to bring it up. Just leave it alone and focus on doing your best to be the person they want when answering their questions. Once you have established your credibility in terms of skills and abilities for the role, the main determining factor will be personality and fit. Always remember if they don’t like you, it’s highly unlikely they will hire you.

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