What to say during an interview to explain the dreaded gaps in your resume
You know they’re there. The recruiter or hiring manager knows they’re there: gaps in your resume. So how do you address the elephant in the room during a phone screening or interview, balancing the need to be honest with the desire to depict yourself in the most favorable light?
Now the job market in the financial industry is even more competitive than before, so it’s extra important that you are well-prepared for an interview, especially if you're anxious about gaps in employment.
Assuming that the interviewer brings it up (no need for you to do so if they don’t), here are some strategies for how to explain gaps in employment during an interview.
Tell the truth about your gap in employment and talk about it in a direct, matter-of-fact way, according to Alyssa Gelbard, the founder and president of Resume Strategists.
“Do not be dismissive, vague or emotional,” she said. “No matter what you did during the gap, honesty is important, because the potential employer may ask follow-up questions about it, or even request verification.
“You might feel insecure about it, but do not make something up, because you’ll eventually get caught.”
Integrity can make or break your application. “Tell the truth,” said Tina Nicolai, career coach and the founder and CEO of Resume Writers’ Ink. “But, that doesn’t mean you have to give every detail to your situation of the gap. “If you were laid off, simply say, ‘I was part of a company-wide layoff,’” she said. “There is no reason to give any more detail than that.
Set their anxious minds at ease
Employment gaps worry employers for several reasons, according to Caroline Ceniza-Levine, career coach and the founder of SixFigureStart.com. Hiring managers ask themselves: Why is it there? Why did you get fired? Why couldn’t you get hired right away? Is your expertise out-of-date?
So first and foremost, you should address these worries during a phone screening, video conversation or in-person interview.
“Quickly state why the gap is there and move on to the job at hand,” Ceniza-Levine said. “If you took time off to take care of family, just say you left for personal reasons and then move on. Don’t explain the ins and outs of your uncle’s obscure condition."
Go from a 'month, year-month, year' format to year-year
The ideal is to not have gaps on your resume if you can avoid them. If you've done several things during career gaps, such as consulting, volunteering, investing or tending to family, these activities can be grouped together under your name as the employer, and you should have a few bullets discussing the different activities. If you've been volunteering for a nonprofit or a school, that can be listed as an employer with the tile "Volunteer." Volunteerism can also be a separate section on your resume.
It's best to use a year-year format to cover small gaps of a few months, according to Janet Raiffa, investment banking career coach, the former head of campus recruiting at Goldman Sachs and the former associate director in the Career Management Center at Columbia Business School.
Don’t be negative
If your gap is the result of a layoff, reorganization or toxic situation, never speak disparagingly about a boss, colleague or company for which you worked, Gelbard said. Just be straightforward about the situation.
“You can also turn it into a positive and say that you’re looking forward to being more challenged professionally, learning new skills, working for a larger – or smaller – organization,” she said. “Companies want to hire positive people, not those who will bring negativity into the workplace.”
That said, don’t be afraid to admit that you were laid off.
“If the gap is due to a layoff, mention the layoff,” Ceniza-Levine said. “If your whole group or most of it was let go, then it’s not your fault, and employers know that.”
Talk about what you did during the gap
If you did constructive things during your time off, be sure to mention them, Gelbard said. Beneficial things to mention include courses you took or certifications you completed that show your motivation to keep current on industry regulations or best practices and even your desire to learn new skills.
“Also, speak about any volunteer positions you held during that time, especially if they were at professional associations that relate to your field,” Gelbard said. “Even if your volunteer work didn’t relate to the financial industry in any way, your involvement speaks to your character and willingness to contribute to good causes.
“Of course, if you did any consulting work during this period, be sure you speak about it, because then your gap isn’t really a gap at all,” she said. “Not only were you employed and using your experience and knowledge, you were also starting and running a small business and gained a whole new skill set by doing that.”
Work in an explanation during a segue without missing a beat
While in certain instances you shouldn’t bring up a gap unless specifically asked about it, you may find an opportunity to defuse gap-related questions preemptively and subtly.
If you get the chance to open with a broad “Tell me about yourself” or “Walk me through your resume” question, then you can address the gap right there, Ceniza-Levine said.
“As you go through the chronology of your background, mention the gap and move on,” she said. “It may not even be an issue.”
What if you screwed up or weren’t performing up to expectations?
If you were fired or if it was only you who was laid off, you will get probed on this, so don’t get defensive, Ceniza-Levine said. Acknowledge what happened, briefly providing context, then shift the focus back to your accomplishments, experience and qualifications.
“Be prepared to answer concisely but in a neutral voice: ‘The role was different when I joined from how it was described,’ then move on to the job at hand,” she said. “Practice this so you don’t sound resentful or angry. Emotional baggage is a big red flag.”
Talk about why it was important for you to find the perfect job after a less-than-ideal stint, and that you wanted to take time to do your research and consider your options, Raiffa said. If you're looking for a competitive job like investment banking or private equity, even the best candidates are chasing difficult-to-secure jobs, so the interviewer likely knows that getting a new job takes a good amount of time.
If you were impacted by a layoff, be honest about it, and make it clear if it wasn't performance-based.
“In many finance areas it's actually a badge of distinction to show that you've rebounded after one or more layoffs,” Raiffa said. “Even if the layoff was performance-based, it's important to be positive about the experience and show how you benefited from the tenure."
Photo credit: Martin Barraud/GettyImages