1. Blog
  2. Resume Help
  3. How to explain employment gaps on your resume
Written by Susan ShorSusan Shor

How to explain employment gaps on your resume

21 min read
How to explain employment gaps on your resume
Explaining gaps in your resume is an essential part of your career story. Let's explore how to approach this issue in a positive way.

Have a gap in your employment history? You’re not alone. The economic future is looking up and in these pandemic times, your unemployment may not raise a red flag. However, it is always better to explain gaps in employment directly and there are many factors to consider. So, to the dreaded interview question: "Why have you been unemployed for so long?"

Hopefully, we will provide some answers to this question by considering the following:

  • Our five-step approach to how to explain gaps in employment
  • The 8 most common employment gaps (with examples)
  • Tips to make gaps in your resume sound better

Is a gap in employment bad? Well, it depends how well you manage to explain it.

Expert tip

How much of an employment gap is acceptable?  A key question here is how long is too long of an employment gap? Can I get a job after a two-year gap? This will depend on personal preference amongst other factors such as length of career and seniority, but generally any gap over six months should be addressed in a resume, however briefly. You can change the format of the dates on the resume to obscure any gaps of up to a year, but in my view that approach only works with careers of 15 years and above.

Statistical insight

A key question here is how long is too long of an employment gap? Can I get a job after a two-year gap? This will depend on personal preference amongst other factors such as length of career and seniority, but generally any gap over six months should be addressed in a resume, however briefly. You can change the format of the dates on the resume to obscure any gaps of up to a year, but in my view that approach only works with careers of 15 years and above.

Five-step approach for how to explain gaps in employment

Whenever you touch on a difficult topic in an interview, resume or cover letter (or any other conversation, for that matter), it always helps to devise a rough structure for your answer to explain any career gap beforehand. 

Expert tip

Careers are increasingly non-linear these days. Resume gaps are therefore more common than you think. Most people will move industries and functions 4-5 times over the course of their working lives and with this change will come periods of exploration, education and entrepreneurship. 

Don't shy away from explaining your gap (after all, you likely have nothing to hide), and the hiring manager will move on quicker than you think. They want to talk about how your on-the-job experience is relevant to their role.

So, how do you prepare for that inevitable question: “Why were you unemployed?” and how do you fix a gap in your resume? Follow these five steps for a cool, collected and impressive answer:

1. Reason why you were unemployed

There is always a reason for an employment gap. You may have actively chosen to take a break from work or the break may have been forced on you, but any explanation for a resume gap starts with a straightforward reason. Ideally it is a reason that is common enough for a hiring manager to be nodding their heads and thinking: "Okay, I get it."

2. What you were doing during this time

Let the hiring manager know how you used your time during this work gap and ideally make part of it relevant to the job that you are applying for. The key to any great job application is to show a career journey that is leading to you getting a job at their company, so try to spin your activity to be as relevant and productive as possible.  Certain if you were able to obtain any relevant gap employment, add that to your resume.

3. The skills that you learned from this period

Your future employment will want people who are keen to learn. You may not have been paid by an employer for this period of your life, but what skills did you pick up and how will they benefit you in your new job?

4. Project confidence in your words - don't be apologetic

While addressing the career gap is important, you should not be apologetic about the episode. Listeners can tell when your tone becomes less confident and your body language shifts. If a feeling of self-doubt creeps into the interview, this risks clouding all the other great career stories to come. Be matter-of-fact in how you tell your employment gap story.

5. Move on as quickly as possible. Be brief.

The key with any awkward career moment is to address it openly, while at the same time moving on from your employment gap as soon as possible. Don't give the hiring manager too much detail to latch onto or they might wish to ask further questions, but make it detailed enough that they can mentally tick the "they answered that one" box in their heads.

Do
  • Talk positively about the experience
  • Be honest if the gap wasn't ideal
  • Be prepared to talk about it if needed
  • Include the gap as part of your career journey
Don't
  • Be apologetic and defensive
  • Try to hide any negative aspects
  • Tell yourself you won't be asked about it
  • Brush over the gap as if it never happened

Remember: Practice makes perfect. If you know the basic outcomes that you desire for the conversation, you can fit your specific arguments around the structure and know that you have covered the key points. These five steps are essential for giving a comprehensive answer when you are addressing an employment gap during an interview (and also to a lesser extent in a cover letter – if your resume gap is significant enough to mention it there).

Careers are increasingly non-linear. Resume gaps are, therefore, more common than you think. Most people will move industries and functions 4-5 times over the course of their working lives and with this change will come periods of exploration, education and entrepreneurship (also known as employment gapse). 

Don't shy away from explaining your gap (after all, you likely have nothing to hide), and the hiring manager will move on quicker than you think. They want to talk about how your on-the-job experience is relevant to their role.

Resume tips: How to write a great CV
Related article
Resume tips: How to write a great CV

Your resume may be the most important page you write in your life. Follow our top 20 resume writing tips to make yours a success.

The 8 Most Common Employment Gaps

There are many different reasons for an employment gap, but 80% of them will likely fall under one of these reasons. These are all entirely "normal" for any career, and while the length of the gap might dictate the depth of explanation (longer gaps will need more explaining), as long as you explain the skills and benefits that you derived from the gap, most hiring managers will be understanding. So, what are good reasons for gaps in employment? In these cases, do resume gaps matter?

Here are eight reasons, with a brief 1-2 liner for your resume work experience section or cover letter:

1. Family issues

You might have been caring for a sick relative or helping a family member deal with a certain problem. You don't need to go into details of the issue as that is not relevant, but mention how it reached a conclusion and show that you were (are) ready to move on to the next step in your career.

Expert tip

Example for how to explain this gap in employment: "Caring for my mother whose dementia rapidly worsened over a period of six months. She happily stabilized and I found suitable care arrangements to allow me to return to work without the worry and stress."

2. Redundancy

Redundancy touches all of us in our careers. While it is important to mention the circumstances of a redundancy, do not go into too much detail if it was because of underperformance. Try to talk about your key achievements in the year directly prior to redundancy and outline how you used the redundancy period to your advantage.

Expert tip

Example: "Made redundant due to a merger of the business and relocation of my role. Having been the top salesperson in the business, it took three months after my gardening leave to find a role of similar magnitude before I started with Lastwell (where I beat my sales targets by 34% in the first year)."

3. Personal sickness

Again, we all have the misfortune to become ill from time to time and there is definitely no need to go into detail about the illness, much as you may wish for a little sympathy from the hiring manager. In many countries it may not even be legal to ask about confidential medical details. Share how you got better and how you spent your time.

Expert tip

Example: "Unable to continue in my previous role due to being medically signed-off on sick leave for a medical condition that took 9 months to resolve. I dedicated this time off to my studies and managed to pass the next level of my industry qualifications."

4. Traveling

Traveling is a tricky topic. There are only two truly explicable times to take an extended travel break from a hiring manager's point of view. Firstly, it is common to take a gap year after college or university. Do employers care about gap years? Well, not really. Secondly, a travel sabbatical after a period of sustained work and success is acceptable. Any other random periods of career gaps for travel may cause the hiring manager to wonder if you might not be committed to working for the longer-term.

Expert tip

Example: "After a period of eight years and three promotions, I decided to take a career sabbatical to travel to Asia and recharge my batteries for nine months. During this time, I wrote a popular industry book that has formed the basis for my social networking strategy ever since."

5. Further education

This is always an acceptable reason for a resume gap, and maybe should not be considered a gap at all, as education is an integral part of someone's career journey. Try to demonstrate how the education made a difference to your future career, but even if it didn't on a superficial level, you never know where certain learnings may come in useful.

Expert tip

Example: "Decided to take a year off to study for a full-time MBA. Being on campus with some nay like-minded people offered many opportunities for personal and professional learning. My MBA project will be directly relevant for my next role in the marketing industry."

6. Failed business

At a time when social media has made potential customers so accessible, while economic conditions have become so challenging for many, it is understandable that many people have experienced a failed attempt at starting their own business. There are great lessons to be learned when things go wrong and, while it might seem heart-breaking at the time, the resilience that you will acquire will pay dividends along the line. If you are going back into employment, you will, however, need to demonstrate that you have put your entrepreneurial dreams behind you.

Expert tip

Example: "Having received a significant redundancy payout, I decided to give myself a year to follow my dream of opening a sweet shop. Unfortunately, the economic downturn affected footfall and the profitability was not satisfactory. I did, however, acquire many skills that will help me in a sales career."

7. Parental leave

This reason for a gap in employment doesn't need any further explanation. Whether your parental leave was for six weeks or three years, you needn't say any more. Looking after very young children is a sacred right. If you stayed at home for a significant amount of years with your children, you will have to demonstrate how you kept the skills for your role fresh, but the main thing on your return to work is the right attitude and a solid childcare plan.twins."

8. Selective job search

Now, this is a controversial one, but for a high-flying professional it can take time to find the right next role. This could last up to a year for a senior director and a good few months for any middle manager, so while you should definitely not put "job search" as a period on your resume, if you have had a stellar career until your career gap, explaining the gap in this way is perfectly reasonable. Making the right next move is so important, after all.

Expert tip

You would definitely not write: "I was being selective in my job search" to fill a resume gap, but if you are asked at an interview and the circumstances of the gap allow for it, this is often a commonly-shared explanation.

Tips to make gaps in your resume sound better

Having explored the general five-step approach for how to explain a resume gap and outlined eight of the most common reasons for employment gaps, here are a few more tips to ponder as you work out how to position the gap on your resume and how to mention it at interview:

1. Show employers you are up-to-date on industry knowledge

You want your potential employer to think you are reliable, committed, and up-to-date on industry knowledge. If you have a large gap in your work history, you want to show your employer how you have kept up-to-date on industry knowledge and trends. Perhaps you attended conferences or professional development seminars, took a class, or conducted extensive research. Whatever the case is, your job application should show how you stayed in the loop. 

If you did not do anything industry-specific, perhaps you did something that has transferable skills. Many soft skills easily transfer as do some hard skills. Maybe you provided consultation services to other industry members or continued writing your own book. If you can show how you kept current, you will be better off.

2. Create an entry for freelance or contract work

If you quit your job to try your hand at the gig economy and decided it wasn’t for you, there’s no shame in that. Be honest. Maybe you just don’t like the uncertainty of contract work, or you didn’t realize how much marketing of yourself was involved. Working in the gig economy can be like a full-time job search every day. Explain to the hiring manager that you learned you prefer full-time employment and that you plan to stick with this new job.

If you lost your job during an economic downturn but you were able to get freelance or contract work, especially if it was in your field, that experience counts even if it didn’t keep you busy enough or wasn’t directly related to your career. Aggregate the work you did get and it will explain what you were doing in the time after you left your last employer. Listing these small jobs as self-employed contract work smooths over the gap.

What are you doing about your current "employment gap" if you are experiencing one right now? You might assume that you won't be looking for a job for long, but your future self will thank you if you get up to something useful such as volunteering, freelance work or maybe bettering your educational qualifications. Showing that you are using your career gap productively will shine a more favorable light on any previous gaps.

Expert tip

What are you doing about your current "employment gap" if you are experiencing one right now? You might assume that you won't be looking for a job for long, but your future self will thank you if you get up to something useful such as volunteering, freelance work or maybe bettering your educational qualifications. Showing that you are using your current gap productively will shine a more favorable light on any previous gaps.

3. Include unpaid work

Not all valuable experience occurs through full-time employment. If you filled your periods of unemployment doing volunteer work , that counts! In fact, many prospective employers believe that a job seeker who cares about the community is an asset to the company. Maybe you got an opportunity you couldn’t refuse or decided you needed a break from your career to focus on an organization that holds meaning for you. 

Sometimes, the road to a career change begins with volunteer work. You may have turned unemployment into an opportunity by doing volunteer work that added a new skill to your toolbox. 

Maybe you spent time building your professional social media presence. Many recruiters look for candidates with social media skills, so do include your social media work if it enhances your professional image. Just be sure you don’t exaggerate your role when you start looking for a new position.

How to list volunteer work on your resume
Related article
How to list volunteer work on your resume

Volunteer work can be a wonderful way to feature a variety of valuable skills, Here's a list of how to add volunteer work to your resume.

4. Eliminate short employment gaps with different formatting

Job seekers know that your resume format plays an important role in whether you get a second look as a candidate. But your format can also minimize the attention hiring managers pay to your employment gap. How do I hide a career gap on my resume?

If your gaps between jobs are relatively short, you may be able to eliminate drawing attention to them by not listing months in your employment history section. Only listing the years you worked may hide these short-term gaps and avoid your need to explain them completely. 

You can also de-emphasize the dates by changing them from a bold font to a regular font so when recruiters are scanning, they are less likely to focus on them. Instead, turn the focus to your job titles and skills by using a layout that draws attention to your accomplishments .

Expert tip

If you have an employment gap early in your career, don’t sweat it. Your resume need only go back 10 years.

5. Don't be afraid to tell the truth

If you took time away from the workforce to care for a family member or recover from an illness, there is no shame in telling the truth. Hiring managers are human beings too, so they might appreciate your transparency when dealing with matters like this. You should avoid emotional description or anything that affects the mood of your resume. Be brief and to the point, then move on. 

If you took time to travel the world and do poetry readings, then don't shy away from disclosing this impressive information. Part of creating a winning resume is showing that you are a well-rounded person with desirable traits. Someone with the ability to bike across the country and read poetry in front of a packed amphitheater clearly has determination, self-confidence, and an impressive work ethic.

Also remember that sabbaticals are a benefit of your work so feel free to put it on your resume with a brief description of what you did, even if it did not include direct professional development.

Key Takeaways

So, is it OK to have a gap in your resume? Absolutely. If your explanation can do the following:

  • Give a reason for it
  • Say what you were doing
  • Share what you learned
  • Maintain a confident tone
  • Keep it as brief as possible

The eight acceptable reasons shared in this article are just a start. Life can throw up all sorts of challenges that means work priorities have to be relegated into second place, but as long as you can talk through what happened, you can be sure that any potential employer would rather explore your actual employment history.

Resume gaps are more normal than you might think. It's all about the journey.

 

Use This Template
Build your resume in 15 minutes
Build your resume in 15 minutes
Use professional field-tested resume templates that follow the exact ‘resume rules’ employers look for.
Create My Resume
Build your resume in 15 minutes
Build your resume in 15 minutes
Use professional field-tested resume templates that follow the exact ‘resume rules’ employers look for.
Create My Resume
Share this article
Keep reading
13 min read
Jobs you could have been doing 150, 100 or 50 years ago
Jobs you could have been doing 150, 100 or 50 years ago
Career19 min read
10 dream jobs – and how to find yours
10 dream jobs – and how to find yours
Career8 min read
How to deal with a toxic work environment (according to science)
How to deal with a toxic work environment
Resume Help15 min read
How to list hard skills on your resume
How to list hard skills on your resume
Browse All
This website uses cookies to improve user experience and perform analytics and marketing. By using our website, you consent to all cookies in accordance with our Cookie Policy and Privacy Policy.
Accept Cookies