How to Explain Gaps in Employment

Amber Shiflett |
additionalText.categories: Career Advice, Finding a job

Sometimes we all need to take a break from working for one reason or another. Maybe we’ve got other things going on in our lives. It happens. Maybe you quit a job and it took awhile to find a new one. After all, sometimes job searches don’t go as fast as we’d like!

Or maybe you were laid off, went back to school, had a baby or took care of a sick family member. Heck, maybe you were simply trying to avoid total job burnout and decided to spend a year doing volunteer work or just backpacking in Europe! Whatever the reason for not working, these times between jobs are generally called “gaps” in employment. 

Okay, so an employment gap is the months or years where you didn’t work. No big deal, right? Well, yes and no because guess what? Employers want to know about these gaps in your work history! Gaps aren’t a bad thing, or at least they don’t have to be. The only bad thing is not explaining them. 

What employers think when they see an employment gap

Put yourself in the shoes of that potential employer. If you’re that employer and you see an applicant with a gap in their employment history, you’d want to know what that person was doing during that time, right? Were they in jail? Did they flee the country? Who knows! They can’t know if you don’t tell them. 

That’s why employers aren’t sure what to think when they see an applicant with a gap. Maybe it’s something negative. Probably not, but no one likes to make assumptions…especially when we’re talking about hiring a new employee. So really all you have to do is explain yourself. Let that potential employer know the reason for the gap. Be honest. Give a short explanation. That’s it!  

A gap isn’t going to automatically disqualify you. But having an unexplained blank period isn’t going to help your chances, either. Employers get lots and lots of applications. When they screen them, they look for reasons to weed out as many as possible, as fast as possible. And they’ll take pretty much any reason, because they just want to get through that huge stack of applications on their desk. Don’t give them a reason to weed you out! 

Long employment gaps versus short gaps

Here’s the deal—the longer you’ve been working, the more likely it is that you’ll have a gap in your employment history. Employers and hiring managers know that. They see it all the time, so the gap itself doesn’t bug them. What bugs them is the not knowing part. If you’ve only got a short gap or if the reason is obvious then you probably don’t need to sweat it.  

Or if you’ve been working full-time (or even part-time) for ten years and the gap is from nine years ago, they’ll probably just ignore it. But the ones they do watch out for are long gaps or recent gaps. They definitely want to know what’s up with those, so don’t keep it a secret. Nobody likes secrets, especially people who are thinking about hiring you to work for them. They need somebody they can trust with merchandise or money. And that’s you, right? So don’t hide anything. There’s no reason to. 

Writing an explanation for an employment gap

When you’re filling out applications or resumes for your job search, if there’s a space to explain the reason for the gap, use it. If they allow a cover letter, great! That doesn’t mean to write a novel about it, though. The bottom line here is try not to wait until the interview to explain an employment gap. Why? Because you might not get that interview if they pick somebody else. 

Basically, don’t give them any doubts at all. Your application shouldn’t have any trace of secrecy, because then that will raise little red flags and your potential employer will automatically wonder about your credibility. Hiring managers want transparency. Okay, so what’s the takeaway message here, job seekers? Fill in the blanks on that application and fill in the gaps in your employment history, wherever you have a space to write it. 

Explaining if you quit, got fired or laid off

Did you quit or get fired? Did you experience a layoff? Were you out of work for a brief period? Well, it happened and it’s not the end of the world. People quit and/or get fired all the time. And believe it or not, companies still hire those people! There’s no reason not to disclose that kind of information, especially if it caused an employment gap. 

Whether you quit or were fired, you should spend some time thinking about how you want to talk about it, though. Don’t wait until the interview. Be ready. Know what you’re going to say. It might help to write out some sample answers, then pick the best one and memorize it. 

Just remember to keep positive. If they want to know “why did you leave your last job,” then it doesn’t do any good to bad mouth your old boss. Nobody wants to hear about it. But they do want to hear what you learned from it and how you’re better from that work experience. So if you want the new job, get ready to talk about your past!

Explaining an employment gap at a job interview

If you don’t have space to write about it (or even if there is), then be ready to talk during the interview if it comes up. Never get defensive about employment gaps, because they’re a fact of life. Just stay comfortable and confident. Paint whatever happened in a positive light. All you’re doing is passing on information that the employer wants to know about. 

And they’ve got a right to have questions about your past at a job interview. You don’t have to go into deep details, but understand their concern and give a clear, honest answer. Even if it was something negative, being honest and upfront about it shows you’re being responsible. Let them hear about it if there was a problem you needed to fix, if there was something you did to improve, if there was a challenge you had to get past. They’ll respect your honesty and integrity. 

And guess what else? Hiring managers love to hire workers who know how to tackle problems. Especially their own problems! 

Just remember, being honest doesn’t mean spilling the beans about every single thing. Be honest but keep your common sense! Don’t get nervous and start rambling off-topic. Give short, clear answers that show you in the best light possible. You’ve got to convince them that you’re the right candidate for the job. And if you’ve got an employment gap, you’ll want to convince them that the gap didn’t have any negative impact on your ability to do the work at your new dream job!  

The bottom line

At the end of the day, all prospective employers, hiring managers or recruiters really want is to have the most information they can get. They need that information so they can figure out who the best person is to hire. And they rely on your job application to tell that story. They look at your dates of employment, they look at your last job, they look at your current job and job title if you’ve got one. They’ll look at your educational background, to see if you have a bachelor’s or master’s degree. And they’ll look for an employment gap explanation, if there is a period of unemployment. Don’t leave them hanging. Fill in the gaps!