6 tips to justify a gap in your résumé during a job interview

Sep 24, 2020

7 mins

6 tips to justify a gap in your résumé during a job interview
Cécile Pichon

Psychologue du travail, coach et consultante RH

Moving house, parental leave, health problems, a career change … There are plenty of good reasons to explain a gap between two positions during your career. However, these subjects are not always easy to discuss with a recruiter. Perhaps the period we’re living through right now might allow us to better address the issue. How can you talk about the slowest periods of your professional life in a positive way at a job interview? Have you ever experienced a moment like this yourself that you are afraid to bring up during a recruitment process? To settle your nerves, we’ve picked up a few tips that will help you to prepare for questions from recruiters. Let’s do this!

1. Make peace with your past

Did you choose to stop working for a personal or familial reason? That’s nothing to be ashamed of. Were you a victim of harassment, or did you experience burnout or a surprise dismissal? Was it the case that you no longer liked your job and felt the need to take stock before changing? Or did you simply leave a job and need time to refocus? We understand. Sometimes, life throws surprises at us, and we need to know how to review our priorities in order to adapt.

While these periods are often a source of worry, start by making peace with your past. We all have good reasons for going through quieter times professionally. These gaps, whether they are out of your control, for example in the case of burnout or redundancy, or chosen, such as a sabbatical, parental leave or a career change, can occur at one time or another in your life, and thus have repercussions on your career. And it doesn’t matter!

Understandably, these gaps may seem difficult to justify at first glance. Being well prepared can allow you to overcome a recruiter’s possible preconceptions during an interview. So ask yourself: what were the reasons or circumstances that led to this gap? Take the time to go over your previous experiences and the events that led to this break in your career, and practice expressing what happened simply.

For example :

  • “After this enriching, intense experience, I needed time to breathe and recover.”
  • “I was lost professionally, I needed to do a skills assessment.”
  • “I wanted to take a break to take care of my children.”
  • “I’d had a project in mind for a long time and I took the opportunity to follow through on it.”

Everyone has their own story, so keep in mind that recruiters have also probably had to deal with life’s ups and downs at one time or another.

2. Take stock of how you spent your free time

Who says a break automatically means professional inactivity? It’s unlikely you were doing nothing that whole time! Think about how you spent your days during this downtime. There are many possibilities depending on the reasons behind the interruption in your career:

  • A personal project,a trip, something you had wanted to do for a long time.
  • An athletic challenge, an artistic endeavor that you finally started.
  • Some training in a field that interests you, not necessarily linked to your original career, such as language, IT, or updating your technical skills.
  • Obtaining a diploma, certificate, or license so you can move forward in your life, for example, a driving license, an online qualification, or university diploma. These activities take time!
  • A charity project, volunteering for a cause close to your heart.
  • Skills assessment or coaching to help you determine the professional direction you wish to take.
  • Research and meetings for a possible entrepreneurial project.
  • Exploring the job market in a new city, in the event of a move, for example.

Take the time to list everything you did to show that you stayed active and used your break in a structured way. This will allow you to answer the question, “What have you been doing since leaving your job?”

3. Create a link between what you did during this break and the position you’re after now

Have you listed all the professional, extraprofessional, and even personal activities you did during your break? Now establish a link between these activities and the position and the type of business you’re targeting. The objective is to show that you’ve been able to make the most of this period and will reap the benefits for the rest of your professional life: new skills, a more specific professional project, stronger motivation, and so on. Above all, it’s a question of showing how active and informed you still are about current events in your field. This reassures the recruiter that you will get back into the swing of things as quickly as possible after your break!

Every professional transition, regardless of its duration, is also an opportunity to take a step back, think introspectively, and get clarity on future choices. A burnout or family troubles can certainly be tough, but it allows you to reassess your priorities. These are all positive arguments to bring up during the interview. For example, “I realized with my health concerns that it was a priority for me to work in a company that does something meaningful” or “This job search time allowed me to learn the basics of programming so I can better understand the ecosystem in which I want to grow professionally”. By creating a link between your experience and the company, or the position you are applying for, you highlight your career path, and that’s what recruiters are most interested in.

4. The interview: preparing your pitch

One thing is certain: if you’re afraid of questions about this gap period, it’s best to prepare your answers in advance to avoid getting rattled. To do this, you can practice writing out your story before the interview, focusing on any transitional periods. Practicing out loud—with or without an audience—can also greatly help you prepare for this meeting.

On the day of the interview, you don’t necessarily have to start by talking about the gap period. It is better to talk about your career history plainly and explain the different transitional periods quickly without emphasizing the break. There will always be time to come back to it if the recruiter asks you questions!

Keep in mind that an interviewer is not necessarily trying to trick you when they ask about these transitional periods—they want to understand your journey to get a better sense of who you are. Marine, a talent acquisition manager, says: “A gap on a résumé is not necessarily problematic. As recruiters, we know that a job search can sometimes take time. What interests me the most is to see how much the person has taken advantage of this break and what their approach has been to this period of unemployment. Have they been active or proactive? Have they been looking for educational or networking opportunities? Do they have other recruitment processes underway? You don’t want candidates applying to you just because, saying that their break is starting to go on for a while and it might look bad on their résumé!”

Against all odds, this lapse of time can prove an effective way to sell your proactivity, and also to talk about your values and what is important to you, thus enhancing your profile. Think of it as an opportunity to make yourself known, not through professional experience but through the twists and turns that have forged the person you are today.

5. Be honest and transparent

Many understandable reasons justify those infamous gaps, so you don’t have to hide or conceal them! This would be more likely to embarrass you and may even work against you.

Océane, who took almost a year off to redefine her professional goals, is convinced that transparency is the best way to build a relationship based on trust with a potential employer. “In fact, I’ve realized that truth is key,” she said. “I believe that recruiters are mainly interested in personality. A person who is clear about who they are and who completely embraces their not-totally-linear career path has a much more attractive profile than someone who may have the perfect résumé but lacks depth.”

If your job search is taking longer than expected, be honest about it: employers are familiar with the reality of the job market and know the difficulties faced by candidates. Don’t go into detail, though, as no one needs a play-by-play account of what you’re up to during this period. An interview is not an interrogation intended to catch you out. The recruiter is mainly looking to get to know you and to find out if you are the right person for the job. Showing that you are super motivated to join the team and get back to work is much more important than dwelling on the whys and wherefores of your professional break!

6. Stay positive

Finally, avoid negatively discussing a difficult event in an interview. The way the recruiter will view this stage of your career depends largely on how you explain it to them. For Marine, it’s essential to be constructive. “I’m always a little afraid of candidates who talk too negatively about their career path and their professional and personal difficulties. It’s a sign of an experience that hasn’t been fully processed. For me, it can be a sign of lack of insight,” she said.

Be careful: it’s very important not to blame anyone, even if the events you experienced were complicated or painful. For Marine, criticizing your former employer in an interview is never a good idea. “It’s like slating your ex when you’re on a date—it doesn’t make you seem attractive,” she said with a laugh.

For Océane, what’s important is showing the recruiter that while you may not have chosen this break, it hasn’t been painful.“I’ve done a lot of network interviews since my return to the market, and generally speaking, I see that recruiters are more interested in a dynamic mindset than in the details of how I spent my break,” she said.

Be sure to show things in a positive light instead: you’ve overcome difficulties, accepted a challenge that allowed you to push your limits, bounced back from an ordeal that helped you to grow, and learned to adapt. There are a thousand ways to show that you’ve been able to take advantage of and benefit from this moment of professional uncertainty. If your job search has been dragging on a bit, there’s also no harm in explaining that you’re taking your time because you’re waiting for the right fit!

As you reflect on your journey, it often becomes clear that there are not that many truly idle moments in your professional life, and that behind every apparent break lies a story. If you review your career path to prepare for job interviews, it can help you to regain control of these transitional periods and work them smoothly into the narrative of your professional path. It’s a good way to show the recruiter that you’ve taken ownership of your trajectory and can turn difficulties into opportunities.

Translated by Kalin Linsberg

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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