Here’s the hard truth: When you’ve been out of the workforce for a while, that gap on your resume can be a red flag to some hiring managers. That’s even though 85 percent of women who have left the workforce eventually return.
“Whether you’ve been unemployed and looking for work, on sabbatical, attending school, or raising a family, searching for new employment opportunities can be daunting,” says Diane Domeyer, executive director of the Creative Group, a staffing firm for professionals in marketing, advertising, design, and public relations.
“The demand for highly skilled talent is strong, but companies are being very judicious in their selection process and hiring only those with the right mix of skills and experience.”
This can lead many women looking to re-enter the workforce feeling “fear, anxiety, concern, trepidation, doubt,” says Gail Berger, Ph.D., assistant professor of instruction at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. “Will they be successful? They likely were successful before the gap but they might be doubting their ability to succeed now.”
However, those in a hiring position say that if you are transparent, genuine, and proactive in interviews, hiring managers and HR teams will zero in on your value-adding skills and experiences acquired during your previous jobs and any gaps between them.
Do: Talk About the Gap
“Hiring managers will notice an employment gap on a resume, so it’s important to acknowledge it right away in a cover letter,” Domeyer says. “Be honest and succinct, and highlight your enthusiasm for re-entering the workforce.”
When discussing resume gaps, focus on its positive aspects. Much like professors are able to jump back into work with a fresh mind and new ideas after a sabbatical, your value in having taken a break from work is “in having an open mind to explore new avenues, hobbies, and interests that might not have been tapped into if working full-time,” Berger says. “Moreover, sometimes stepping away from an issue or problem allows us to have unique insights and aha moments.”
Another potential positive? A renewed focus on work. “Sometimes taking a step away from the work that we are doing allows us to more fully appreciate how much we enjoyed and valued the work that we were doing,” Berger adds.
Don’t: Let Your Gap Psych You Out—It’s More Normal Than You Think It Is
“I don’t think that women should put themselves in a position of needing to defend themselves for the choice that they have made,” Berger says. “There is a fine line between defending oneself and explaining oneself. “
Mikaela Kiner, CEO of Uniquely HR, a consulting firm that focuses on growing startups, agrees and says it’s best to prepare a simple talking point: “’I wanted to be home with small children and now I’m coming back.’ Just saying it openly and being comfortable with it may make your interviewer feel the same.”
She also says that if your employment gap was due to a reason other than having children, make that clarification. “Be honest,” she says. “Otherwise, people will make assumptions.”
Do: Show What You’ve Learned During an Employment Gap
“Pursuing freelance projects and volunteer work demonstrates to potential employers that you’re still dedicated to the profession and can contribute to the organization’s goals,” Domeyer says. “As you list these activities on a resume or discuss them in an interview, emphasize the skills you used and results achieved. For example, perhaps you designed an email for a client that generated $1,500 in sales leads or helped organize a benefit auction that raised $5,000 for your children’s school. Providing concrete examples of how your work produced positive results will help get the attention of employers.”
If you haven’t had the chance to develop skills outside the home during your time away from the office, you can highlight what you learned, say, raising young kids.
“Assuming that the gap was to take time to be at home with young children,” she says, “some of the important skills learned could include learning to be more flexible. Children’s schedules are never certain, and just when you think that you have established a routine something changes. [Or] learning how to cope with ambiguity. Especially with a first child, parents are in an almost continual state of uncertainty and ambiguity because they are encountering new experiences daily.”
Don’t: Forget That It’s De Rigeur to Be a “Family-Friendly Company”
“There are so many organizations that want more women in the workforce and want to be great places for people raising families,” Kiner says. Facebook, Netflix, and TOMS Shoes are all known for their generous and flexible policies for parents.
Kiner adds that job seekers should also feel out the culture of the companies where they are interviewing.
“If you’re talking to an organization that’s being weird that you took a year or so off, it’s probably not a great place to raise young kids,” she says. “You’re going to need to have flexibility when one of your kids is sick or you want to make it to the school play. You want to make sure you’re in an organization that is going to support you in doing those things.”
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