Career Q&A: “How Explain Long Employment Gap?”

“Matt, I’m really struggling here.  How do I explain being out of work for almost two years now?  Is this stretch between jobs going to prevent me from ever getting hired again?”

Over the past few years, as the economy has continued to dawdle, more professionals than you might believe have found themselves out of work for periods of a year or longer.  For those who find themselves in this position, it can become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, since your confidence is usually at a record low — and what’s more, you can easily become riddled with anxiety about how to explain this gap to employers, recruiters, and networking contacts.

Is there a stigma attached to an unemployment period of this length?  Absolutely.  Let’s not live in fantasy-land or pretend otherwise.  While employers have grown more tolerant of employment gaps, in general, there’s no question that they’re going to have some serious concerns (whether they vocalize them or not) about somebody who has been out of the workforce for a stretch of 365 days or more.  They’re not only going to wonder about the sharpness of a person’s skill sets, but may also grow suspicious about why a person’s hasn’t been picked up by another employer if they’ve been diligently on the hunt for work.

I even heard a different (albeit unusual) reason the other day about why a company might take a pass on somebody who hasn’t drawn a paycheck in a while.  The way the story was told to me by a client, he ran into a hiring manager who reportedly wouldn’t consider any unemployed applicants because he was adamant about only talking to individuals “who were highly motivated to work for his organization, versus just hunting for a job, any job, in general.”

All I can say is that I hope this person doesn’t lose his job anytime soon.  If so, he’d quickly realize how offensive, unfair, and small-minded this kind of thinking really is!

At any rate, no matter how we might wish otherwise, it’s going to be an uphill battle for any job hunter to convince an employer or recruiter that a year-long period of unemployment isn’t a significant concern.  If you’re a person who has found themselves in this situation, however, it’s a battle that has to be fought, nonetheless.  So rather than getting sheepish or just saying whatever comes to mind, I’d suggest you carefully develop, outline, and practice a response to the “Why have you been out of work so long?” question until you’ve got it down so perfectly you start mumbling it in your sleep.

While there’s no perfect formula for such a response, I’d suggest you try building your story around one of three possible angles:

The “make them jealous” approach: With this strategy, you’d attempt to persuade the employer that your long stretch of unemployment is actually an intentional move on your part, reflecting your a) financial success and your b) desire not to settle for anything less than a great assignment.  While it’s a tough strategy to pull off if your confidence has really taken a beating, your answer might sound something like:

“Why have I been looking for so long?  Frankly, I had the good fortune of receiving a great severance package upon leaving my last employer, and my family and I have also been pretty shrewd with our finances and our investments over the years.  So unlike a lot of folks out there, I suppose, I was lucky enough to take a healthy break — call it a sabbatical, if you will — where for most of this past year, I was able to relax, recharge, and fulfill some long overdue life goals in terms of some international travel and the chance to spend some quality time with my two young kids.  So while I’m still not in any rush, I’m just starting to dip my toe back in the employment waters and this role you have really caught my attention…”

The “make them sympathetic” approach: Another route you could try?  Being honest and emphasizing that you’ve been working your tail off and just need to be given a break, any break, by a conscientious employer.  While there are definitely some cold fish out there who won’t be moved by this strategy, my sense is that many people still love to root for the underdog — and might respond positively to somebody who comes right out and says something like:

“Yes, as you can see on my resume, I’ve been on the prowl for a new job for over a year now.  Having been a hiring manager before, myself, I know how that must look — but I’m refusing to let this economy beat me down and I continue to work my butt off, each and every day, to keep my skills sharp and find an employer who will recognize the contributions I can make.  I’ve never had a problem finding a job before in my entire career and have tons of outstanding references lined up to say great things about me, but boy, this economy is a bear.  So I just do my best to stay positive, patient, and persistent each and every day.  And if there’s one thing I can promise you, when the right break comes, with the right employer, I’m going to blow them away with what I can do for them — since my motivation level is going to be through the roof!”

The “it’s not what you think” approach:  Lastly, and perhaps the most effective angle you can leverage if you’ve got at least a few facts to back it up, is to try and camouflage your period of unemployment behind an umbrella of consulting or contract work.  Be warned, though, that most hiring managers will see through this tactic if you can’t support it, since they’re well aware that many people automatically label themselves “consultants” when they’re not working.  If you’ve tackled a few engagements here and there, however, even on a volunteer basis, you could say something like:

“Am I currently working now?  Well, sort of, depending on how you look at it.  While my last W2 position was back in 2009, I’ve actually kept pretty busy this past 18 months handling a series of projects and short-term contracts for various companies I’m connected with around town.  I helped this one startup company write their business plan, for example, and to land the funding they needed to become operational.  I’ve also done a couple of stints through Volt where I helped some local firms build out some new marketing channels they wanted to concentrate on  All good projects, for sure, but I’m definitely itching for something more permanent where I can settle down with the right team and make a more lasting contribution.  Consulting’s great for generating cash flow and keeping your skills sharp, but I guess I’m a company guy, at heart, and want to find a situation that offers a little more staying power.”

Perhaps there are some other creative strategies out there that people could use to address these situations, but even after sweeping the web for other suggestions and  ideas, I found this issue to be almost entirely ignored.  And without question, just giving a “neutral” answer won’t do your candidacy any favors.  Nor will getting defensive or combative.  You need to take this objection to your candidacy hyper-seriously, figure out a positive story angle, and practice your response until you take as much fear and anxiety out of it as possible.

At the end of the day, employers have every right to question whether a long period of unemployment is cause for concern — and whether a person’s “time on the bench” signals a legitimate risk in terms of their ability to perform a given work assignment.  If you seem upbeat, enthusiastic, and deliver a confident answer that takes the “scariness and mystery” out of your unemployment tenure, however, an employer might just take a cue from your attitude — and move on!

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16 Responses to “Career Q&A: “How Explain Long Employment Gap?””

  1. Sandhya: Thanks for your comment and very sorry, of course, to hear about some of the challenges you’ve had to deal with in recent years. In my opinion, if you can avoid discussing the “family” issues and instead just talk about the last two years as a period where you had the good fortune to focus on your artistic passions — and are now returning to the traditional workforce, having accomplished some of your art-related goals — that would be preferable and raise less questions. While I do think companies today are becoming more open to people having to take time off to deal with family issues, and you certainly COULD say that you needed to take some time off to assist an ill family member, the fact that you’ve worked in the art field during this period, as well, allows you to focus on that more professionally-related option instead — which is what I would do, based on what you’ve shared above. Good luck!

  2. I was a technical writer in the engineering industry and have been unemployed for more than 2 years now for various reasons. I was unlawfully terminated from my last job and pursued a successful lawsuit against that company. Six months after that job ended, my mother died and my sister got cancer which put the family into a great upheaval, after which I was in two car accidents. Following that, I was on disability benefits for a year. Also during this two-year period, I’ve worked very hard on becoming a visual artist and had my work in several art shows. I volunteer as an art studio host, work on large community art installations, help produce art shows, and have the potential to start selling my art at some point. Now I really do need to get a job as a writer in the world of business and technology once again. An HR Director whom I met through networking after my first year of unemployment recommended explaining that I was dealing with some difficult family matters which are now resolved and I’m ready to join the work force again. (She cautioned against explaining what the family matters actually were.) Do you think her recommended approach sounds helpful? She didn’t know about my endeavors in the art world. Is there any way I can use my art experience to good advantage when looking for a regular job in the business world?

  3. Idiano: Many thanks for your comment and glad you found my article useful! And yes, one of my main goals in writing my blog is to provide very specific advice and examples of how to deal with career-related issues — since there’s already so much “generic” stuff out there. Glad to hear you felt this way about my suggestions…

  4. Sir I’m trying to write an explanation about my two year gap and I’ve read some 80 articles online and most are good but generic and alas i found yours. You have provided concrete written examples and talked about it in a heartfelt manner. It has helped me immensely.
    Thank you !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  5. Steve: Thanks for your note — and in response to this fairly common issue you’re facing, there are different schools of thought on it. The most common opinion is that a person should make sure they’re doing some sort of quasi-professional things during their unemployment period (e.g. taking classes, self-study, volunteering, getting involved in related professional groups, etc.) and then mention that during their time looking for the right full-time job, they’ve been keeping their skills sharp and seeking to build out their network. Beyond that, there aren’t all that many other options. If you run a Google search with a phrase like “how explain unemployment gaps” or something similar, too, you’ll find LOTS of advice out there from other folks on how best to handle this issue. Good luck…

  6. How can I explain unemployment due to a lack of open positions in my field? Or if I broaden my horizon’s and look in other fields, how do I explain the unemployment in that?

  7. Ok now lets get real. If you are over 40 and have 2 years of unemployment on your resume, you’re essentially screwed unless you saved your money when you had a ‘career’ in the corporate world. The only thing you can do now is spend your last 5 grand to get a face lift and practice the phrase ‘do you want fries wit that?’

  8. James: Thanks for your note and straight up lying is certainly an option, you’re right, but a very dangerous one. While a resume is not a legal document, from what I’ve been told, the consequences of being caught (immediate termination) are severe — and with all the different ways information is shared out there these days, such as social media, one’s odds of being found out are pretty high even IF the company doesn’t do a thorough reference check at time of hire. More importantly, though, I don’t think the majority of my clients would be comfortable doing this from a moral standpoint — and I can’t blame them. So while I’m not going to personally judge somebody who makes stuff up, under the rationalization that they “gotta eat” and feel this may be their only workable way to get hired, I don’t think the solution is going to fly for the vast majority of folks out there. It’s an option, though. You’re right.

  9. Matt,

    Good article as it is so relevant in this economy…You seemed to graze over the OTHER option which is straight up lying. No one wants to be put in that position where they have to lie…Unfortunately people gotta eat…Its desperate out there… Yes lying can get you caught…But what about calling your past employer your current employer? Companies typically wont contact current employers and if your previous employers (those before your current/last job) check out could it work? No one is advocating making up a degree or making up a job you dont have…expanding the years of your last job so as to appear your still there is an option

  10. I went back to college in 2008 to finish a degree in public relations after working for seven years in the PR industry. When I graduated in 2010 there were hardly any jobs in my field to apply for so I did temp work outside of my field. Now that things seem to be picking up a little I am getting passed on because my last PR job was in 2008. I explain that I studied PR full-time for a little over two years and have since taken my time to find the right company. It still isn’t working and I’m very concerned that my career might be over now that I’m in my late 30’s. This is the most horrible job market I’ve ever faced and the education I just worked very hard to complete and the employment gap that goes along with it are actually huring instead of helping.

  11. Thanks for your comment, Sandhy, and just to clarify a point that relates to some of the other questions people raised, below, there’s a WORLD of difference between addressing the “long unemployment gap” issue in an interview — versus on a resume. In an interview situation, it’s far easier for a job hunter to build credibility around their story, since their “explanation” will be greatly enhanced by the additional dimensions of attitude, energy, vocal inflection, and body language. In other words, if you were to say what you wrote above, out loud in an interview, I think it would be awfully impressive — and convincing. When you write those same words on a piece of paper, however, they lack these other essential ingredients that make the story come alive. So in that case, emphasizing the extent of your job hunting activities on your resume, per se, would actually seem a little weird (at least to me) and I’d probably stick to filling the gap with more accepted “professional” activities such as taking classes, attending industry events, doing relevant volunteer or consulting work, etc.

  12. Great article, Matt! In the eyes of employers, do you think it counts whether a person is taking lots of career classes, attending networking and professional society events, and staying in touch with networking contacts? It actually takes a lot of time to do all of this stuff…and if you’re also doing volunteer work and taking education in your career field, you are pretty damn busy! How can I parlay these facts about what I’ve been doing during my 13 months of unemployment into something that sounds goods in job interviews?

  13. I came upon this site looking for some creative ideas. I have been out of work for 26 months now…
    Have tried “make them jealous” and “garnering sympathy”, neither has worked and I would advise against making it appear you actually have enjoyed your time off tho personally I need a job because i am self supporting but i’d rather win the lotto and not work, never having found my “niche” and always being miserable at work. I have a feeling i may go overboard with trying to get employers to call me in for an interivew because I have exhausted my unemployment benefits. Many are not aware that it’s still tough out there esp. if you just have passable or mediocre skills and were not employee of the month in your last job. I am seriously thinking of this story: I took time off to care for my jr. high school age children who are now old enough to be alone at home after school. I am neither married or have kids but at my last job they thought i was and for some reason people always assume this about me? I dunno if anyone has tried it. The desparation is really creeping in. I’ve gottenn over 1500 rejections at this pt! well the majority are no response at all. I am only 40 so I cannnot opt for early retirement but I can’t even get a part time job, my last interview was in December and the guy told me he was looking for someone with integrity and who was fast and sharp with technology, I guess I appeared otherwise. I am also worried that am getting negative reviews from past employers or that my reason for leaving doesn’t match what is in the personnel file, in my 2nd. to last job i was forced to resign so i tell employers i quit but dont go into details now i wonder if my file says i was forced, a friend of mine tried to to a fake employer ref. but they don’t do it over the phone. Not sure about my last job, it would depend on whom answers the phone but I do notice a dearth of discussion on this topic esp. if your leaving was not voluntary and you were either fired or laid off

  14. GREAT advice and information! Here’s my personal example of how I plan to attack this issue should it even be an issue for me in the future. I’m wrapping up my current contract at the end of this month and have already been actively pursuing new job leads. Although I’m hoping I won’t have to face this issue as I seek my next employment opportunity, in the event there is any significant gap between jobs, I’m prepared to handle the “inevitable question” with something like this: I recently purchased my first home and after my last assignment ended, I chose to devote a period of time to several “do it yourself” remodeling projects. Not only was it a fantastic experience in project management, I also significantly improved my accounting, math, and organization skills and learned how to be even more resourceful than I already am! So imagine the increased value I will bring to your team with this new skill set in addition to the specific knowledge and experience I already possessed which initially qualified me for this position.

    I can then show specific examples, if necessary, of each area of growth and I’m actually very excited to be embarking on this “DIY projects” adventure. I will continue to actively seek out full-time employment opportunites after my current assignment ends but should there be a gap until the next job comes along, I’ll be spending the time on the DIY projects.

  15. I have used the Make Them Jealous approach with great success. I have, in fact, taken exented absences before and called them sabbaticals. I say that “the Plan” was to take “another” sabbatical for travel with our motorhome and to make extensive upgrades to our house (both of whicch really happened but were more “why nots” than “planned”). I also say that “what was NOT planned was getting back into the job market in the middle of the worst resession in decages”. This approach usually results in many envious questions about where we went and what we did to the house, which I can easily relate details of my “great adventure”. This usually leads to many other topics and seems to eliminat any negative vibes about being off for over two years. Works great for me!

  16. Thank you so much for addressing this issue. I have several friends who have been out of work for much longer than they anticipated, and a few of them are having to battle the prejudice of hiring managers who assume they know why these individuals have been out of work rather than asking and listening to the real situation.

    The part that struck me most is the hiring manager who doesn’t want someone who just wants any job and who uses this as a reason to cull those with long terms of unemployment. Sadly, this desire not to just take “any job” is what keeps many newly unemployed individuals from taking what could be their only promising opportunities early on. I’ve seen several individuals decline opportunities because they didn’t want to take a job “just to have a job” only to leave in a short time frame for a more desirable role. Later, after a desirable role didn’t materialize, they found themselves judged for NOT having accepted a less perfect role early on. In other words, hiring managers seem to want people who will take “any job” to sustain employment tenure on their resume as long as that “any job” isn’t their job.

    It’s an unfair cycle that really needs to be reconsidered by hiring managers, particularly in this economy.

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