We explore which gaps should raise a red flag, how to question candidates about their employment history and why you should be open minded and flexible when looking at a candidate’s history.
Traditionally, recruiters and hiring managers have seen career gaps on a candidate’s resume as a red flag, believing that an individual couldn’t hold down a job or were reckless for leaving a job before they had a new one to go to.
However, times have changed. Rhonda Brighton-Hall, the CEO of mwah – ‘making work absolutely human’ - a consultancy focused on finding better and simpler ways of working, notes that defined breaks between employers can be a sign of a loyal and professional person doing the right thing by both the previous and new employer.
“A career gap may be the result of responsible decision-making,” she says. “A person may have thoughtfully stepped away for personal reasons such as travel, family, education or time to really think about career, development, and the right next step”.
A clear red flag versus an explainable break
“Rare is the job seeker who doesn’t have at least one career gap in his or her work history,” says Nicole Gorton, Director of Robert Half Australia. “The red flags hiring managers should watch out for are long stints of unemployment that are not explained in the candidate’s cover letter,” she says.
Multiple short periods of employment interspersed with numerous short career breaks on a candidate’s resume would also concern Brighton-Hall. “That suggests erratic employment or a lack of commitment to work,” she says. Another red flag would be an unexpected departure from a company, without anyone to act as referee. “That could be a sign something went very wrong in the relationship,” Brighton-Hall says. “That’s a question worth asking.”
The 3 questions to ask about resume gaps
“If there is a gritty spot (in a candidate’s resume), be open to the story,” Brighton-Hall advises.
“We’ve all had a bad boss in the course of our career, plus we know statistically that plenty of people have lost their job unfairly.”
Brighton-Hall suggests asking these three key questions:
Question 1: A general question
‘Talk me through your career to date. I particularly want to hear what you loved about each role, the reason you left, and how you decided what to do next’
Question 2: Drilling down
‘That two years you had off from your career, what do you think were the pros and cons of that period professionally and personally?’
Question 3: Getting grittier
‘Not every job works out brilliantly; how did you feel about the decision (to either take a break or have an enforced one? I’d love to hear the details on this change’
The skills that come from a career break
Breaks due to family reasons (such as parenting or caring responsibilities) can positively influence a candidate’s organisational skills, their ability to cope with multiple demands and the way they prioritise tasks.
Other breaks like travel can bring a global perspective, and a sabbatical to study can generate new ideas and knowledge. “Career breaks often lead to perspective and absolute clarity around what a person wants to do and how they best contribute to a team or organisation,” says Brighton-Hall.
Getting comfortable with career breaks
Ultimately, if taken for the right reason, a career break can add to a candidate’s experience, value and knowledge.
“The time we take to do something different – whether it be caring for a baby or elderly parent, studying coding, teaching at university, travelling the world, taking photographs – is invaluable to reconnecting not just to who we are, but who we want to be,” says Brighton-Hall. “It’s not a career gap, it’s life!”