Questions You’re Probably Not Asking on a Career Gap Resume

Many people go through a stage in their career when they take a break. There can be a number of different reasons for this, including traveling, bringing up children, ill health, education, or just pure nonchalance . A career gap should rarely be judged in a negative way, especially if the candidate has lots of relevant skills and experience.

Many managers will briefly ask about a career gap during an interview, but won’t really delve further into it. This can be a mistake, as you can learn a lot about the person from what they achieved during a career gap. It can speak volumes about how motivated they are, how ambitious they will be, and whether or not they will be a good fit for your business. If you are not asking these kinds of questions around career gaps, start doing it.

If the career gap can’t be easily explained, for example, if the candidate was simply out of work, you will need to look a bit further into this. If the gap isn’t very long, such as a few months, then this is understandable. However, if it is a gap of a year or more, you will want to find out more about what they did to find work.

A few great example questions to note on the resume before the interview include:

Have they learned any new skills or gained new qualifications on the career gap?

One of the strongest traits a candidate can show is the ability to persevere with their own personal advancement. This “get up and go” attitude could be just what you need for your organization, so don’t forget to ask. Sometimes it’s the quieter parts in a person’s life that reveal more about who they are than their actual employment.

I once dealt with a client who had a two-year gap on their resume with no indication of what they were doing throughout it. When I probed further I found out that they’d gained numerous coding certificates online. They had spent half their time learning CSS, Javascript, and Python, and failed to mention it. Quite staggering considering the career they wanted to pursue was in computer programming.

So consider some of the more positive experiences candidates may not include on their career gap resume such as learning new software processes for their given industry, a new foreign language, volunteering, or unpaid work experience.

What are their long-term career goals?

According to a BLS study, women spend much more time out of the labor force (25 percent of weeks) than did men (11 percent of weeks) so consider the possible factors behind this before interview time. Women tend to have a greater amount of career gaps. This can be for a variety of reasons, and as a hiring manager there are laws to prevent not hiring a person due to concerns over taking time off due to pregnancy in the future.

That’s not to say you can’t indirectly ask. Instead, focus on a candidate’s potential career goals, their ability to stay motivated, and interest in future overtime. By focusing on the future a lot can be elicited about a candidate’s intentions that can reflect their time on their career gap.

Why did they leave their job before the career gap?

If it was voluntary, find out what their career plans were prior to leaving. However, if it wasn’t voluntary and they turned a firing into something great such as learning new skills or gaining new qualifications, it certainly shows their adaptability and drive.

I once advised a hospitality client who had received very few call backs from an interview. After looking through their resume and speaking with them, I found out they’d left several volunteering experiences off their resume. This included dealing with children; all of this experience had transferable skills for their next desired position working in a holiday camp.

A year is a long time to be out of work, and if a candidate hasn’t done anything positive in this time, it can be an instant red flag. There are lots of jobs out there, and if someone is willing to do anything they can to keep themselves in work, it says a lot about their character and motivation. So be prepared to ask.

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Did they enjoy the gap?

You are not looking to trick candidates in any way, but the interview is the only short time where you get the chance to delve further into what they can offer your business. This is why it is important to cover all bases and to ask more about the career gap. Ask is if they enjoyed it. If they say yes, and they emphasize how much they loved not having a schedule, it’s probably not the kind of attitude you would want to employ.

One hirer I spoke to mentioned they interviewed a candidate who felt a sudden anti-climax to finishing their gap year traveling around Southeast Asia. The candidate learned a lot from their year abroad teaching English as a foreign language, but the HR manager learned straight away from this very question that the candidate was not psychologically ready for the job.

Also consider: if they answer yes and say something like it gave them the opportunity to learn more about themselves, their core skills, and ability to take on new challenges, it is a positive affirmation that they are motivated and hold a pro-active attitude. If they say no, and that they would rather have worked, this is also the kind of reply you are looking for, albeit maybe somebody who is not as well rounded.

How do they feel about returning to employment?

You may also want to ask some questions relating to how they feel about returning to work. If the career gap has lasted a long time, there will be concern over how they will fit back into the workplace.

For instance, if they have been at home and not collaborated regularly with anyone, they will probably take a while to integrate, and may require further training at extra expense. If they have been volunteering, traveling or learning, they are probably ready and eager to get going. That’s not to say that you don’t hire them based on this, but it is worth asking how they feel, as it will give you a better indication of whether or not you have the capability to fully support them.

Follow Your Instinct

Even after all this questioning, a hirer also has to follow their gut instinct. A lot can be whittled out of a candidate without becoming too forthright with regard to questioning of career gaps. One thing that you should bear in mind though is that more and more and more people are experiencing career gaps. The reasons for doing so are growing, so be sure to ask the right questions to read between the lines in order to give you best chance of hiring the correct candidate.


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6 Comments on “Questions You’re Probably Not Asking on a Career Gap Resume

  1. Interesting article. I do not agree with your conclusion about candidates that enjoy their gap in employment. If you were to look at this from the candidate’s point of view, it is only natural that they enjoy the gap under normal circumstances. I would be concerned if the candidate was a workaholic, serial job hopper, or could not hold down a job. There are also certain life events that create a gap in employment, such as travel, illness, disability, starting a family, legal issues (i.e. divorce), caring for a family member, career change, etc. I am seeing more planned employment gaps (generally one year) from Gen X tech candidates because they are burned out and can afford to take time off. The market for Sr. level tech candidates is so hot that they can take a year off and still get a job with little question after their employment gap. Of course, if the candidates is applying for a job that is competitive then they will be scrutinized more closely (which is sad, we all deserve time off – unquestioned).

    1. Good points. I even took a year career gap myself and loved every moment of it. I think sometimes a hiring manager may see a candidate who is a recent graduate who gives this answer that they enjoyed the gap and traveled as the types who may not be in the right mindset. With less experience in the workplace and with less skills this is where the decision can become more difficult.

  2. Also, one more note about this, “According to a BLS study, women spend much more time out of the labor force (25 percent of weeks) than did men (11 percent of weeks) so consider the possible factors behind this before interview time. Women tend to have a greater amount of career gaps. This can be for a variety of reasons, and as a hiring manager there are laws to prevent not hiring a person due to concerns over taking time off due to pregnancy in the future.

    That’s not to say you can’t indirectly ask.”

    Never encourage hiring managers to indirectly ask women about their plans to have children, it’s still illegal and offensive. This has actually happened to me as a candidate, and I turned down an offer of employment because I had a very low opinion of the hiring company. Not to mention it was illegal and sexist.

    1. I’d say that’s a good thing then. If they had hidden that question from you, how indirectly, then you may be working for an employer who was ready to boot you out the door the moment you were pregnant. I think candidates should be trained up to read between the lines of interview questions to weed out these types of employers. But we also need to be realistic, I’ve worked in numerous workplaces where the director has indirectly suggested not to hire somebody because of present childcare or future maternity plans. It’s wrong, but it happens. I would never encourage illegal questioning but questions such as “What are your future career plans?” and “Are you available for overtime at short notice?” are acceptable. Most companies only care about their bottomline, unfortunately.

  3. The purpose of the job interview is to assess whether the person is capable of performing the job being filled. Whether or not any gaps in their career history exist would be minimally relevant, if at all relevant, as long as they are qualified to successfully perform the job they are interviewing for.

    I’d be skeptical about any claims that one can “learn a lot about a person” by asking any specific type of question or delving into any area that isn’t directly related to the job being discussed.

    Its certainly not the best use of interview time to focus on when a person wasn’t working rather than when they were. If the gap, or any series of gaps, took place between 2008 to present, its probably due to the stagnant employment market and persistently high (yet not accurately reported) unemployment figures.

    Some of the most motivated and ambitious people around struggle to get back into a decent job because people involved in the hiring process are making all sorts of assumptions about why they were in between jobs, why they left in the first place or why no one else has hired them by now.

    I see a lot of room for unnecessary and inaccurate interpretations of those factors when people “read between the lines” or “trust their gut” about what may have happened and what the person chooses to disclose about their gaps.

    Keep in mind many people are in survival mode or dealing with personal matters when they don’t have their regular income and/or may not have the luxury of learning new skills, volunteering or other activities listed above. Pressing for details seems intrusive and could give the impression of discriminatory hiring practices if the person feels compelled to explain how they’ve been spending their time and why.

    1. I agree that it is possible that most career gaps from 2008 are related to the economic downturn. That said, I feel that most career gaps can be seen as positive as mentioned in the article. The aim is to try and elucidate what they did instead of what they didn’t. A pro-active attitude can be something non work related like bringing up children while still job searching. Of course, an interviewer has to be careful on how intrusive they are but I also believe the interview is a concise overview of a candidate, and the company, so no stone should be left unturned within the frameworks of employment law. Hiring a person without asking questions about a career gap for fear of making them feel discriminated is a big risk for most hiring managers or recruiters. One point I should have stated in the article is that questioning about a career gap is only a very small part of the judgement process but a part that can definitely reveal a fair bit about the character of a potential candidate. A company culture, whether it’s a 9 to 5 or flexible time, corporate or creative, an interviewer wants to know if the candidate will fit, this doesn’t always reveal itself from the work experience alone and time away from work can sometimes reveal this.

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