How to explain a long career gap in your CV

Once upon a time, gaps in CVs were an automatic black mark.

But mindsets and attitudes are changing. In a highly competitive job market characterised by skills gaps, employers are broadening their search criteria. This includes an openness to people coming back from career breaks.

There are many kinds of long career break, some forced, for example, relating to health, personal matters or redundancy, while others are chosen, such as taking time out to raise a family, a sabbatical or, quite simply, to re-evaluate ones’ life and career.

The elephant in the room

‘The barriers can really depend on where you are in your career journey. How you explain a career break on your CV affects all kinds of people, ranging from students, to graduates, to seasoned career professionals,’ says Nimita Shah, director at The Career Psychologist. ‘It’s almost like the elephant in the room and if you make a bigger deal of it or try to disguise it on your CV, it becomes more and more obvious.’

Positively, employers’ attitudes are becoming less about the break and more about what a candidate was doing during the break and how it might contribute to the role they’re applying for. ‘And if it doesn’t contribute it doesn’t have to act as a stigma, particularly for people who take time out to have kids or go travelling, there’s usually particularly clear reasons as to why they did it, which works to the mindset of being in a better place to then take on a role,’ says Shah.

‘We’ve been talking to employers for several years about the merits of employing people who’ve had career breaks,’ says Katerina Gould, co-founder and director of Women Returners. ‘And they’re starting to hear it.’

Gould’s business has partnered with several large corporations, including M&G Investments, on programmes devised to encourage professionals who  have taken voluntary career breaks of 2+ years to re-enter their profession. Gould also highlights programmes called ‘returnships’: paid, short-term contracts, often including coaching support with the possibility of a permanent role at the end.

The fear for people is how employers are going to take the reasons for a career break. ‘The only way to tackle this is to put yourself in the employer’s shoes and think what would be an acceptable explanation for you, think about how you would come across,’ says Shah. ‘Practice with a partner before an interview, so you can more authentically make your case. Putting yourself in their shoes and thinking about what you’d like to hear can help alleviate the anxiety around what you think they’re going to say about it. You need to own the career break and your reasons for it.’

Getting to interview

During the job interview you can really get on the front foot describing your break. But getting to this point means having a CV that neither confuses nor alarms prospective employers.

One school of thought suggests that a CV should contain only career information. ‘If it was a particularly long career break, I’d just put in a break to start a family or raise young children – full stop,’ says Simon Broomer, MD and senior career coach at CareerBalance. ‘Frankly, it’s not something you always have to mention in the CV, as it’s not career related and I think a CV should only contain career information.’

This in particular extends to time off due to physical or mental wellbeing, says Broomer: ‘It’s not something I’d talk about in the CV or cover letter as it’s not career-relevant. If it comes up at interview, that someone is concerned about your physical or mental wellbeing, I’d simply say I’ve been off, but I’ve made a full recovery.’ Furthermore, there is no need to defend or feel guilty about a career break, for illness or leisure, and employers are legally not allowed to discriminate against people with health issues.’

If you feel your break has genuine transferable value, however, then you may want to treat it as a role in itself and include it in your chronology of past jobs. ‘Describe it as a career break and bullet-point any specific work, training, projects or qualifications you’ve done that are relevant to your next role,’ says Gould. ‘It doesn’t matter whether you were paid or not, the fact you’ve done a volunteer role or project still demonstrates your skills.’

As Shah highlights, there’s no finite way of preparing a CV or for a job interview: ‘You need to put your trust in who’s hiring or recruiting you. Some will be great and understand that life happens, while others will have their own biases, so you may get one person who thinks you’re lazy, while another may be able to relate to your experiences.’

Honesty is a must for people who’ve taken career breaks and even a key weapon in their job-hunting armoury. For people who are used to hearing fabricated or standardised responses during interviews, for a hiring manager to hear something along the lines of: ‘“you know what, I did take some time out, I was going through a pretty rough patch, but this is where I am now and I want to make a new start”, there’s something admirable about that,’ says Shah.

Neil Johnson is a freelance business journalist who contributes regularly to trade publications and member organisations, covering employability, recruitment, business trends and industrial analysis.

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