'Fessing Up To or Fixing Gaps in Your Employment History

March 1, 2012


A manager once signed off on her employee's lengthy leave of absence which was requested due to serious family illness. A few weeks into the leave of absence the same manager saw the employee's re-tweeted post about how much she loved her new job. Say what? Yes, the employee was "trying out" the new job while still technically employed in her old one. Don't do that. The morale of the story is not that it's a bad idea to be overambitious but it's almost always a bad idea to lie and it's an especially bad idea to lie to get a job. Think about it: Google, Facebook, pipl ... Nowadays, it's almost impossible to cover your tracks -- or the lack of. Which brings us to our main point -- don't lie about where you've been or, more specifically, haven't been. Just because you have some years missing in your work chronology, it doesn't mean that you shouldn't apply for jobs -- fixing gaps in your history isn't as hard as you might think. And you won't have to lie to anyone!

Where Do You 'Fess Up?
Although employers expect some gaps, don't include the explanation in your resumé. The article How to Fix a Spotty Employment History suggests being prepared to answer detailed questions about the missing time, but mainly advises focusing on the reasons you want to work for that particular employer. Turn your employment history into an asset, not a hindrance. According to How To Address Gaps In Employment History, you can say something in your cover letter about gaps in your work history, but keep it brief and only include it if you think it's crucial.

What Should You 'Fess Up?
Right off the bat -- be honest but don't overdo it. You have to keep in mind that although employers are trained not to discriminate based on a particular case (let's say a mother going back to work after staying home with her children), they are trained to spot inconsistent information especially when it comes to dates. But don't despair -- there's a way to work around that. The Best Resumé Format: Functional, Chronological or Combined? Targeting Your Resumé article encourages people to use a functional resumé if they have a spotty employment history. This type of resumé is skill-based and it highlights responsibilities, skills and achievements rather than work history.

One thing to keep in mind is that not everyone looks favourably on functional resumés. It takes more work for the reader to sift through them. One way to go around this problem is to include a lot of context within each job description so that the employer is able to match skills with particular jobs. Should You Consider a Functional Format for Your Resumé? says that many employers -- especially in more conservative places like banks -- don't look favourably on this format because they prefer chronological resumés.

Another solution is to put together a combination (functional and chronological) resumé. Explaining a Gap in Your Employment History suggests a couple of other ways of working around the gaps:

  • Leave out some jobs, especially if there’s a gap early on in your career.
  • Limit your experience and don't go beyond the past 10 years.
  • Include your other experience: unpaid freelance work, volunteering, consulting, casual or contract work.

In Handle Your Work Hiatus in Your Resumé, it says to focus on the positive. Your resumé is a reflection of your professional life so you want to emphasize your selling points. The top third of the first page of your resumé is the most important part, so this is where you want to include your best skills and experience.

Another way to dazzle the employer before they've a chance to focus on what's missing is to ask former employers or colleagues to provide you with a written reference. (You can even use a positive quote from the reference in the experience section of your resumé or in your cover letter.) Corporations are often reluctant to give a reference other than to verify the dates you were employed, so look to your immediate supervisor or ask someone at a management level to provide you with a reference. Also, update your LinkedIn profile and ask colleagues and former bosses to endorse you online -- chances are most of the potential employers will verify your social-media presence.

'Fessing Up in Person: The Job Interview
Often, it's not why you took time off but how you explain it that will make or break the interview. Be confident, keep it short, and practise your answers beforehand. When planning for the interview, go over the questions that may be asked and rehearse your best responses. Go to Charity Village's Ontario: Interviewing Questions Guideline to see what kinds of questions an interviewer has a legal right to ask you and which ones are off limits.

According to Finance Job Lag: Explaining Employment Gaps on Your Resumé and in Interviews, instead of dwelling on the circumstances, concentrate on the skills that you can offer now. Here are some suggestions on how you might want to address the missing time:

  • If you've been fired, be upfront. If you are asked directly, keep your answer brief but tell the truth. Saying "I was let go" may be enough. Your answers should be short -- the information is usually negative so there is no need to go into details. Have a good attitude and don't badmouth your former boss or workplace. Prepare an answer showing how you've learned from the past experience.
  • If you had to take care of your family, see if you can highlight any volunteer work or classes you took during the time off. You can also talk about the skills you've developed when taking care of your family such as time management, planning, etc. Emphasize that you've always planned to get back to work. Keep in mind that the employer only has the right to ask for the information that is relevant to your ability to perform the essential functions of a position.
  • If you took time off to travel, be upfront about it and talk about it. Mention that you have a unique experience that adds to your value as an employee, especially if you learned a new language, acquired deeper cultural awareness or learned how to earn money while abroad. Employers are often willing to hire someone with travel experience.
  • If you're returning to work after retiring, use your old employment history to your advantage. In the Workopolis article on overcoming interview obstacles, the "Too Old" section talks about how you can work around the barriers that your age and extensive experience may create. One way is to target employers who could use your specific services and expertise. You could do this by using the cold calling method. And always stress your desire to commit to the job. Also, check out our own The Over-45 Job Search Guide for some tips on how to find work as an older person.
  • If you've been sick or on disability, you don't need to come up with fancy excuses. Don't apologize, and develop the type of attitude and resumé that shows that you are positive about the future. Talk about what you may offer to a potential employer instead of focusing on the past. (Before you even get to the interview part, you could also talk to your doctor about getting in touch with someone that you could consult about the process of going back to work, like a social worker or employment counsellor. For example, someone living with HIV/AIDS may want to get in touch with the Employment Action program offered by the Aids Committee of Toronto (ACT) to connect with an employment counsellor specifically trained to deal with clients with HIV/AIDS.
  • If you've been out of work due to a mental health issue (including addictions), you are not required to tell the employer about it. According to Mental Health Works, you may have to talk about your illness if it will have an impact on the work you'll be required to perform, but you have no obligation to disclose it under any other circumstances. Unfortunately, employers are still not completely open-minded about mental health issues. So, if possible, use general terms such as a "medical condition," an "illness" or a "disability." Try to learn more about the employer and workplace you are applying to. Some companies have policies designed to help workers with mental health problems. Also, check our article about The Last Workplace Taboos to learn more about mental health issues in the workplace.
  • If you've been incarcerated, you do not have to come forward with this information. However, if you are directly asked about incarceration, it may not be the best idea to point out the employer's lack of familiarity with the Ontario Human Rights Code. Be honest about the time you served in a correctional facility. Emphasize how you've changed and that you are ready to rehabilitate and are willing to start over. If you feel at any point during the job seeking and hiring process that you have been discriminated as a result of having a record of offence, you should contact the Ontario Human Rights Commission.
  • If you don't have Canadian experience, the Ontario Human Rights Code, states that your potential employer can’t ask you about this in a job interview. At the same time, Statistics Canada identifies Canadian experience as one of the four main challenges in finding employment on arriving in the country. That is why gaining some practical experience as a volunteer, an intern or a temporary employee is helpful. Try to get involved in volunteering, join clubs or be part of your child's after-school pastimes. Talk about activities that will show you have an interest in Canadian customs and culture. Also, check out our No Experience? No Credentials? No Problem! article about practice firms and Nick Noorani's advice on how to become a successful immigrant.

Poss.ca is a free online magazine to help Toronto job seekers find work. An initiative of Findhelp Information Services, poss.ca is an Employment Ontario project funded in part by the Government of Canada.

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