How do I explain a large gap in employment?
June 13, 2018 7:46 AM   Subscribe

I was laid off in March of 2017 and have not been employed since except for a very short-term consulting project. I have intermittently been applying and interviewing, but much of that time has been dealing with mental health issues which were exacerbated by the rejection from several jobs I was well qualified for. I have a phone interview coming up for a job I really want, and I don't know how to explain this gap.

I never thought it would take this long. I received severance pay when I was laid off and, not having had any significant time off in years, I took advantage of it for some R&R (I had also had surgery about a month prior). I was also bitter (still am) about the circumstances of the layoff, which I believe is due to discrimination (but cannot prove, so I didn't pursue legal action).

A few months later, a personal relationship abruptly ended and I was very upset and depressed. I picked myself back up in July, applied for unemployment, and started looking for work. I had dozens of phone interviews and roughly ten in-person interviews, and no offers. I took a month off to travel. After a particularly stinging rejection this spring, in the same week as the death of my cat, I took another month off. Around this time I got some freelance contract work which has since dried up.

I'm increasingly desperate for income so I'm applying for jobs I'm way overqualified for, and even with "dumbing down" my resume I'm unable to get one. I am not physically able to do unskilled jobs like general labor.

I know the usual way to fill unemployment gaps is to volunteer. I have not done this because .. see above about mental health issues. I have told interviewers that I have been teaching myself skills applicable to the positions I want, but no one cares unless I have work experience with that software/code. So I don't know what to say.

I know there were plenty of poor decisions on my part that led me to this place; there is no need for you to belabor that point. I have been on medication for depression and anxiety this entire time. Frequent changes in insurance have made it difficult to find a therapist - especially on Medicaid - but I've recently left messages for several. The knowledge that my chances for employment increase with every month I'm unemployed have greatly increased my anxiety.

Like I said above the fold, I have a phone interview coming up. This is a different position with the same company who rejected me in the spring. It's a place I'd really like to work and a job I'd really like to have, but it's a different department and I'll be talking to a different manager. I don't know how to explain this gap. I am definitely not above lying at this point but I don't want to ask anyone else to lie for me. I have no spouse or kids that I could say I was at home with. I was not depressed or overly anxious while I was employed so I don't anticipate future mental health issues that would affect my employment.
posted by AFABulous to Work & Money (23 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
You seem to be putting this all on you "I know there were plenty of poor decisions on my part that led me to this place; there is no need for you to belabor that point" Which from what I can tell is not at all true.

You got kicked hard, and have had a hard time getting up. Its understandable.

I had the same issue (fired by a bad boss, who just thought I was terrible, despite having 10+ years of great reviews from other bosses). It took me awhile to get back up.

I used the phrase "I was very fortunate that I was able to take some time off to pursue some personal interests"

It happens, its not a big deal. Be kind to yourself.
posted by Ftsqg at 7:53 AM on June 13, 2018 [26 favorites]

I took a month off to travel.

No, you took a year off to travel. Right?
posted by saeculorum at 7:55 AM on June 13, 2018 [40 favorites]

"After I was laid off from my previous position, I was lucky enough to have the financial means to take some time off and consider how I wanted to move forward in my career. Rather than leaping into a position for which I may not have been well-suited for the long-term, I've been proceeding thoughtfully, with an eye towards companies that align with my personal values, and positions where my skill set and experience would be well-utilized. Of course, I kept those skills up-to-par by doing some freelance work and some additional learning. Anyway, Company X and this position are exactly what I'm seeking... I love your company values and the work that you did on project Y and the media coverage was fantastic.. etc."
posted by VioletU at 7:56 AM on June 13, 2018 [62 favorites]

You can always state that you took time to take care of a family member; you do NOT need to specify that said family member was yourself.


interviewer: "I noticed you have a bit of a gap since your last full time employment..."
you: "after my last role ended due to company wide layoffs, I was fortunate enough to both time to take care of a family member, as well as spend some time considering how I might re-enter the workforce. The family situation that required my attention has ended, and I am again ready to fully enter the work force"
interviewer: "oh I'm so sorry to hear that." (generally they assume death in family and offer condolences), if they press:
you: "It still a relatively recent event, and I would prefer to not talk about it, thank you. However, I believe my skill set doing x, y and z, which I was able to further refine via self study makes me well suited for x aspect of the role."
posted by larthegreat at 7:59 AM on June 13, 2018 [19 favorites]

If you don't want to lie, you can chalk it up to "taking time to deal with some medical issues". You are under no obligation to explain what kind of medical issues. "Family issues" is also not a lie. You're your own family.

Here's another factual retelling of your time: "I received severance pay when I was laid off and, not having had any significant time off in years, I took advantage of it for some R&R. I spent some time traveling, taking contract work, and pursuing self-improvement." Keep it extremely vague and very positive. You spent time taking care of yourself, and now you're really excited to get back into the game.
posted by BungaDunga at 7:59 AM on June 13, 2018 [22 favorites]

I got some freelance contract work which has since dried up.

Say this. It's true. They don't need to know it wasn't for the whole time. If you feel uncomfortable misrepresenting it, you can say "I took some time off to travel, then did some freelance contract work, but found I really miss having a regular schedule and working with a team of coworkers, and I'd really like a full time position with benefits."
posted by something something at 8:02 AM on June 13, 2018 [35 favorites]

Oh boy, the tone in your posts AFABulous! You are a rocking person from your posts here. I hear your concern in your post but this is so not a thing on the employer end...your future employer has zero desire to chastise you for your choices.

This is actually really easy, and I have hired many people. I love VioletU's script and other scripts above, especially those that turn the questions into you explaining what attracts you in the job. My own contribution would be:

"After being laid off, I took some time to travel, and did a bit of freelance work. Now I'm ready to find a team where I can contribute and collaborate, and [something specific about this industry/job]."

Please note that employers care much more about acquiring good people (the real goal) than judging human beings (what you seem to be doing to yourself in this post.)
posted by warriorqueen at 8:04 AM on June 13, 2018 [17 favorites]

I’m in favor of cheerful vagueness, and not mentioning either medical or mental health issues if at all possible since people may discriminate, unfortunately.

So, maybe something like “I spent the year traveling, doing some consulting, and learning coding for fun” and be ready with good travel anecdotes.

It’s maybe borderline in a truthful sense, but if there is a way to present the consulting as taking place over a longer timeframe I would do that, also, to help in hand waving away the entire time as just a vague pleasant mix of travel and consulting.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:13 AM on June 13, 2018 [5 favorites]

You're being very hard on yourself. Imagine a friend of yours was in this position, and think of the advice you'd give them.

Would you chastise them? No, you'd give them encouragement and help them pick themselves up after a long tough year.

Good luck - You Can Do This (AND you deserve it - don't forget that!)
posted by hydra77 at 8:16 AM on June 13, 2018 [2 favorites]

"I had a generous severance package from the layoff, and I took some well-deserved time off to take care of some pending medical issues and work on personal projects and learn some new skills. One of the things I learned was Software X by taking an online class at Blah and reading Journal X. I'm really excited about putting that learning to use in your Such And So Division by &c. [change subject to job duties that you can do]"
posted by Rock Steady at 8:20 AM on June 13, 2018

I know there were plenty of poor decisions on my part that led me to this place

Sounds like a lot of bad luck to me. Do not go into this as if you have something to apologize for or justify, because you don't. You're getting lots of good scripts here; I just want to stress that you should act like it's NBD instead of being defensive about it. Because it is NBD.
posted by praemunire at 8:33 AM on June 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

Well first of all, don’t bring it up at all until directly asked - which not everyone will ask OR care. There are some VERY good scripts above about taking time to travel or learn. (And you could start volunteering right now too!)
However I also agree to not talk about your personal health ESPECIALLY as it seems it won’t be an issue on the job. (If you’ve never been disabled or chronically ill then you don’t known how discriminatory people are about health.)

People have MUCH larger gaps on resumes, especially if you’re being picky about he company or the career level. You got this! Deep breath!
posted by Crystalinne at 9:21 AM on June 13, 2018 [3 favorites]

You took the time for skills development, travel, did some freelancing, etc. As an interviewer, as long as the candidate's skills are current, I'm only concerned about long gaps when I hear bitterness or hostility about the last job. That makes me wonder if this person has been stewing in negativity and might bring that to our office, or they might have had the gap because they burned bridges, etc.
posted by chimpsonfilm at 9:47 AM on June 13, 2018 [2 favorites]

"Employment gap" is not a personal failure and you do not have to justify it or apologize for it, to a potential employer or society or Capitalism or even yourself.

Employers who want to use that as any sort of meaningful metric are bad and are looking for reasons to discriminate. They shouldn't even ask, but the employment gap myth is pretty strong and people think they're doing science when they have made-up prejudices about it.

All that matters is HOW you reply, if you must reply. "I wasn't working during that time," you respond in a neutral-cheerful manner.

It's not their business if you weren't working because you became a parent or caretook a family member or were a housepouse or were in jail (in most cases that's not their business anyway) and they can't really ask about those things. Just don't freak out, apologize, grovel, beat yourself up, or otherwise perform a reaction meant to blame yourself before they can blame you, because there are employers who are looking to hire people they can abuse and there are other employers that don't want to hire someone who's going to melt down over a minor difficulty, and you don't want to ring either bell.

"I wasn't working during that time." If you must, add, "I was looking, but I wasn't getting many good matches locally at the time." If you absolutely absolutely must, finish with, "I did some traveling, was able to help with some family stuff that came up, spent some time brushing up on [whatever bullshit skill sounds good here]. I'm ready to be back at work now, though!"
posted by Lyn Never at 9:56 AM on June 13, 2018 [3 favorites]

I agree with others who say you are being too hard on yourself. Finding a job is not easy and it's emotionally taxing. I went through it and it was awful.

My recommendation is to focus the conversation on what you can do for them. Show them that your time has been spent in ways that will benefit their company. Something like, "Over the last two years I gained A, B, C skills and knowledge that can be applied to areas X, Y, Z at Company." It doesn't have to be true. Just make it sound like you are self aware and understand how to use that insight to their benefit.
posted by parakeetdog at 10:12 AM on June 13, 2018

"I took some time off to travel, then did some freelance contract work, but found I really miss having a regular schedule and working with a team of coworkers, and I'd really like a full time position with benefits."
Seconding this. That's what I'd say, also.
posted by sailoreagle at 11:18 AM on June 13, 2018 [3 favorites]

I'd be really cautious about emphasizing health issues even if you ascribe them generically to "family". It's not supposed to invite discrimination but unfortunately I think it absolutely can, even if the interviewers aren't entirely conscious of it.

In my industry and locale (West Coast tech work) it's acceptable to take an extended break from full-time employment after you have been working for several years as long as it's at least nominally by choice and you use the time for some kind of self-improvement or self-actualization. I took about a year and a half off after I voluntarily left a job where it looked like I was going to get RIFed soon anyway. I used that time for travel, learning some new tech skills, and doing freelance work for a friend's startup. I also used that time to completely slack off, finally process some grief and mental health stuff, go through a grueling and heartbreaking split from my longtime partner, move to start over in a different area, and apply for some jobs that I didn't get.

Guess which parts I was really positive and enthusiastic about when I was interviewing? Guess which parts I never mentioned?

There is a lot of positive spin you can put on your situation, so go ahead and do it. You had an opportunity to take some time off for rest, reflection, and travel. You did some freelance work for a while, but those projects have finished up and you're looking for the right opportunity to return to regular work now.

Best of luck with the interview. I know you've had a rough time with this job search and I'm crossing my fingers for you.
posted by 4rtemis at 12:20 PM on June 13, 2018 [7 favorites]

There is a short 5-part podcast called "Change Agent" from the New York Times where they look at a problem in each episode. One episode is about a woman trying to figure out how to explain a long work-absence in her resume as a result of alcoholism. I think you would benefit from listening to it.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 2:43 PM on June 13, 2018 [1 favorite]

I have a phone interview coming up for a job I really want, and I don't know how to explain this gap.

"I was laid off in March of 2017 and have not been employed since except for a consulting project. I have been applying and interviewing, including several jobs I was well qualified for."
Done and done. Any personal issues that don't affect your work are not their business, and it's prudent and not dishonest to omit these things. We interviewed someone with multi-year employment gap recently, and didn't (and wouldn't) ask about it. We were interested in the person, their qualifications and their ability to be fully present for work. The rest was irrelevant.
posted by cnc at 5:17 PM on June 13, 2018 [2 favorites]

The correct answer to "why such a gap?" question is: "I am only pursuing the jobs where I believe there's a strong fit with my skills and experience, and there's a lot of competition for every suitable seat. I had a very interesting consulting gig [describe briefly] but prefer a permanent position." Employers understand that it's a difficult market and a job search for a senior person can easily take more than a year. Also, they think a senior person SHOULD have enough savings and enough discretion not to be forced to take whatever the first job they can find is.

Do not talk about your mental health, or your dead cat, or failed relationship, or desire for travel, or need for time off. These are at best neutral (and realistically, are red flags) even for the most charitable of interviewers, and will outright disqualify you in the mind of the less charitable. Do not initiate a line of discussion about being denied jobs despite your qualifications; it is unprovable and for some people will suggest you have poor self-criticism / insight about performance.

In the unlikely event that an interviewer asks you to volunteer a theory for why you haven't landed a job you thought, a good answer is "I believe I was well qualified, and didn't get any contrary feedback, but I suppose they found someone who was an even better fit for what they needed."

In the somewhat more likely event that you are asked what you've done with the time off, focus on the consulting gig!
posted by MattD at 6:30 PM on June 13, 2018 [3 favorites]

Nthing that you have nothing to beat yourself up about or apologize for. I know we live in a society that blames individuals for everything that happens to them, and a long period of unemployment and other life shittiness can make it easy to be hard on yourself, but from the perspective of this outsider, I don't think you did anything wrong.

You got some great scripts here - I think you should just take the one you're most comfortable with. But also try to work on your own self-talk if you can. I know it's hard if depression is whispering cruel thoughts in your ear, but if you can convince yourself that you're not to blame, it'll be easier to convey that to others. (but also, just fake it till you make it if you have to)

BTW, as a former hiring manager: I might be a little hesitant about a long employment gap, but those hesitations would be dismissed on seeing that you've been freelancing and learning new skills. And if you had the skills I was looking for, I wouldn't care.
posted by lunasol at 9:06 AM on June 14, 2018

What you did:
addressed health issues
paid freelance work
self taught coding

What you maybe also did:
worked on your art / music / writing / creative endevor

I think it's best to frame the whole gap as something you were privledged to have and that it was time you wanted to use in these was to enrich your life (even if that may be stretching the truth). In short, say what you did and be positive about it.
posted by WeekendJen at 10:17 AM on June 14, 2018

I have about a 3 year gap with bits of work in between so yeh 'travelling'. Make sure you mention places you've actually been to, though.

After a few years of employment it will be a mere footnote.
posted by ihaveyourfoot at 6:29 AM on June 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

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