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How do I explain a gap on my resume?

Nick Corcodilos started headhunting in Silicon Valley in 1979 and has answered over 30,000 questions from the Ask The Headhunter community.

In this special Making Sen$e edition of Ask The Headhunter, Nick shares insider advice and contrarian methods about winning and keeping the right job, on one condition: that you, dear Making Sense reader, send Nick your questions about your personal challenges with job hunting, interviewing, networking, resumes, job boards or salary negotiations. No guarantees — just a promise to do his best to offer useful advice.

Question: I left my job of 16 years with two weeks’ notice, a cordial thank you to my boss and a wonderful exit interview. My boss was bitter that I decided to move on, and it was very apparent my last day. What are the rights of a potential employer as far as contacting my former boss? I worry that if they call and ask to speak with him, he would not give me a good recommendation even after 16 years of service. I had assumed that most companies are just allowed to verify employment, but I have seen applications ask to contact your former boss directly. Can you clarify?

The next problem is why I left that job: My mother had a stroke, and I became her full-time caregiver. This was much harder than any job I have ever had. I am adding a simple bullet point on my resume that states this time as “Primary caregiver for ill immediate family member.” Is this how I should account for this time gap?

Nick Corcodilos: I’m sorry to hear about your mom, but I admire you for stepping in to help her. Explaining work gaps is always iffy – so much depends on the attitude of the employer reading that resume.

This is why I advocate avoiding using a resume to introduce yourself to a company. A resume cannot defend you. If it raises a question or concern that you are not there to explain, the resume might trigger a quick, thoughtless rejection. Situations like yours make it risky to rely on a resume as the way to introduce yourself to someone you don’t know.

It’s far smarter to do all you can to wrangle a talk or meeting with the hiring manager (or some other company insider) through a mutual contact — someone who does know you and who can speak up for you to answer an employer’s concerns about the gap.

You may have to work hard to find and cultivate that mutual contact – but it’s really the only way to get a hiring manager’s serious attention about your abilities and qualifications, and to counteract worries about your gap. In other words, you have to hook them on the idea that they need you before they see a (silly) reason to reject you. (See “How to get to the hiring manager.”)

If you must use a resume, I agree that you should probably include a short note about the caregiving. A gap shouldn’t matter, if you can prove you can do the work. But managers and HR get so many resumes that they look first for a reason to reject an applicant. Don’t give them that reason. A personal referral from someone the employer trusts can make all the difference.

It’s improper for an employer to contact your old boss without your permission for a reference. I think most honor this. And an HR department that’s called for a reference should provide nothing more than verification of past employment. But managers and HR have their own back channels — their own trusted network that will talk to them off the record — so you can never tell what they will learn about you.

Again, this is why a trusted personal recommendation of your own is the best way to offset any casual concern an employer might have about a gap — which, in the end, is really irrelevant if you have the qualifications to do the work!

Cultivate those personal contacts to get you in the door and overcome the objections a resume might trigger. For more about this, please see “Get Hired: No resume, no interview, no joke.” I wish you the best.

Dear Readers: Have you ever been hurt by a work gap on your resume? How did you explain it? How would you advise this reader?

Nick Corcodilos invites Making Sense readers to subscribe to his free weekly Ask The Headhunter© Newsletter. His in-depth “how to” PDF books are available on his website: “How to Work With Headhunters…and how to make headhunters work for you,” “Keep Your Salary Under Wraps,” “How Can I Change Careers?” and “Fearless Job Hunting.”

Send your questions to Nick, and join him for discussion every week here on Making Sense. Thanks for participating!

Copyright © 2019 Nick Corcodilos. All rights reserved in all media. Ask the Headhunter® is a registered trademark.

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