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How to Evaluate Resume Employment Gaps

A woman is holding a resume on a table.

​Many recruiters consider significant employment gaps on a job candidate's resume to be a bad sign.

While a consistent work history is associated with reliability and trustworthiness, periods of unemployment carry a negative stigma.

"Those with gaps in their work history run the risk of being seen as lazy or unfocused with their careers, and not as an in-demand asset in the eyes of potential employers," said Peter Yang, the CEO and co-founder of ResumeGo, a resume-writing service in New York City.

But passing on potentially qualified candidates without giving them a chance to explain could be a mistake for recruiters.

"Making assumptions without first asking questions and gathering information could lead to bad hiring decisions," said Laura Mazzullo, owner of East Side Staffing, a New York City-based recruitment firm focused on HR roles. "Do we know for sure that this person is disloyal? Do we know for sure that this person is unable to hold a job for long? No, we don't."

Considering all candidates is a business imperative, said Grant Clough, director of talent acquisition at AARP. "Given that unemployment is down to 3 percent in Washington, D.C., it's necessary for recruiters and hiring managers to be willing to look at people who haven't had the smoothest progression in their work experience."

Stu Coleman, partner and senior managing director at WinterWyman, a Boston-based talent acquisition firm, agreed. The recruiter's job, he said, is to identify and present the best possible candidates. "In any market, I think the practice of assuming there's something wrong with candidates without really clean resumes is dubious, but in this candidate-starved market, you have to talk to everybody," he said.

ResumeGo conducted a field experiment earlier this year to learn more about how employers react to employment gaps and their impact on an applicant's interview chances. The company applied to more than 36,500 job openings across popular job boards using fictitious applicants.

The key findings:

  • Applicants with work gaps had a 45 percent lower chance of receiving job interviews than those without.
  • Interviews significantly decreased for applicants with work gaps of three or more years.
  • The largest reduction in interviews was found for applicants with two-year and three-year work gaps (a decrease from 9.8 percent to 4.6 percent).
  • Applicants who gave a reason for their employment gap received close to 60 percent more interviews than those who did not. "Among applicants who provided a reason for their work gap, those who said they received additional training or education ended up with the highest callback rate," Yang said.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Screening and Evaluating Candidates]

Check Your Bias

The assumption that job seekers with holes in their resumes are unstable and will be hard to retain is one of the most enduring hiring biases.

"That bias definitely exists," Mazzullo said. But it's not necessarily driven by recruiters.

"Historically, hiring managers have felt more comfortable if someone stayed in a job, because it showed loyalty and trust," she said. "If I send resumes that show long tenure at a job, I get a lot of positive feedback from hiring managers. If I send a resume with gaps, I will generally receive lots of questions. We need to get managers to the point where they are at least curious about exploring the gaps and not shutting people with gaps down completely."

Generally, the first thing recruiters think when seeing a gap in employment history is "what the heck were they doing?" Coleman said. "And some candidates, for whatever reason, have trouble keeping employment, but for the majority, there's generally a really good reason, like a medical issue. When you speak with them, you find that out, but you've got to get past the personal bias to even ask the question."

Coleman said he asks recruiters to ask themselves while screening resumes whether they can see the person doing the job based solely on their skills and experience. If so, then get the candidate on the phone and have a conversation, regardless of any employment gaps. While gaps may be red flags and should be questioned, he said, giving candidates a chance to explain will demonstrate if your concerns are justified.

Have a Conversation

Clough said that recruiters need to approach employment gaps on a case-by-case basis. "An employment gap from five years ago is irrelevant," he said. "However, if someone is currently in a multiyear gap, I think it's reasonable to ask about it."  

But recruiters should ask with care, not judgment. "You can't just ask, 'What were you doing for three years?' " Mazzullo said. "When you're asking a candidate to walk through their background, lead them by asking about their reasons for leaving a job and what prompted them to take the next position, and listen for their motivators."

She added that recruiters should listen for whether the decision to leave a job was based on internal motivators, such as seeking career development, or external factors, like a bad employer. Blaming the organization, managers or co-workers could indicate a problematic work ethic, especially if the same excuse is used repeatedly.

Mazzullo advised letting the conversation unfold, gathering the relevant data about work history and then sharing that information in an unbiased way.

"Recruiters have enormous power," she said. "When presenting candidates, a straightforward explanation, such as 'the person was out of work for 18 months caring for an elderly parent' is all that is needed— nothing more, either in defense of the person or against the person. We're often in sales-and-influence mode, when sometimes we should be in gather-and-share mode." 

Asking candidates about employment gaps must also be done carefully to avoid a hiring-discrimination lawsuit. In response to probing questions, candidates might bring up their criminal history, health and family issues, veteran status, mental illness, disabilities or age.

"If someone says, 'I took a year off to have a baby,' what do you do with that information?" Clough asked. "You want to try to avoid gathering information that may insert bias when it's not relevant to the job."


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