Explaining Short Job Stints and Employment Gaps
There are many criteria that recruiters and HR professionals use to eliminate job applicants after screening their résumés. Recently I posted an article here on that topic [“The Brutal Truth on How Résumés Get Eliminated.”] That blog article became one of the most widely read postings on Recruiter Musings. Obviously, I touched a nerve there!
One of the potential problem areas I wrote about is job turnover. If your résumé’s job history shows too many short stints over a limited time period, the person screening it can read it as a negative: you might be a job-hopping flight risk … you seemingly can’t hold down a job … perhaps you don’t get along with others well … there may have been performance issues that got you fired – the imagination creates all kinds of possible scenarios! Likewise, significant unexplained gaps between jobs can be red flags that will get you eliminated. And finally, if you are not currently working and you’ve been out of work for a long time … well, I don’t have to tell you how awkward it is when someone asks you: “So, what have you been doing since you left your last job?” I thought it might be helpful to suggest some strategies that can be used to overcome those issues.
Too Much Job Turnover
There may be perfectly valid reasons for having a lot of jobs within a short period. I would advise briefly listing the reasons for those short job stints right next to the dates on your résumé to avoid this obvious red flag. The idea here is to be pro-active, and answer their questions about why you left each job before those questions are even asked. It’s a simple thing, and yet very few people do it. You don’t need to go into long-winded or detailed explanations. All you need is a brief phrase, in parenthesis, following the dates of each short-lived position. For example: “Laid Off Due To Economic Circumstances” … or “Position Was Eliminated” … or “Company Went Out of Business,” etc. What this does is provide the screener with a perfectly valid explanation for the short stint, and eliminates the possibility that they will imagine something much worse – i.e., that you were fired for cause, poor performance, etc. (Of course, if you actually were fired for cause … well, that’s another story!)
Unexplained Gaps Between Jobs
Unlike a job application, a résumé is not a legal document and there is no requirement that it must contain a complete history of everything you’ve ever done. It should be truthful … but it’s up to you to decide what to include or not include. Here’s a suggestion: the dates listed next to each job do not have to include the months – instead, you can show them as a range of years. That can often avoid the red flag of seeing brief periods of unemployment between jobs. For example:
Likewise, if there are jobs in your work history (especially if they were short-lived) that were unrelated to your main industry or niche … there’s no reason you can’t leave those off the résumé. You only need to feature your most relevant positions – and usually only go back about 10 years. Many people take positions outside of their industry while between jobs as a temporary way of maintaining an income until they find something in their field. Others have jobs earlier in their chronology that are also outside of their current target industry. Listing those “side-trips” can sometimes be distracting to a screener who is only focused on looking for experience in one particular field.
The one caution I’ll add here, is that sooner or later almost every company will have you fill out an official job application form. Unlike your résumé, that application is actually a legal document that you must sign … so don’t leave anything off of that one. Be sure every job, employment date, salary, and educational degree that you list is accurate. It’s better to leave something blank, than to guess or make something up. Background checks will inevitably uncover incorrect information … and inconsistent or false information on an application will look like you’ve intentionally lied. That almost always results in the applicant being eliminated. I’ve seen job offers withdrawn for things like candidates listing the wrong dates of employment or school graduations, exaggerating salary histories, fabricating educational degrees, etc. Just tell the truth!
Currently Not Working
Believe it or not, there actually are companies out there who have made it known that they won’t consider hiring unemployed candidates! I know – it sounds outrageous … and that’s a topic for another blog. [See “'Unemployed Need Not Apply' - Working Around This Scary Message.”] Nevertheless, it’s obviously in any job-seeker’s best interest to not appear to be unemployed. So, if it’s been a long while since you left your last full-time job, how do you handle that? Different people handle this issue different ways on their résumés. Here are three common solutions:
Volunteer Work: Many job-seekers turn to volunteer work as a way of staying busy and feeling useful while unemployed. Besides the obvious personal benefits that come from the act of giving of yourself, sharing your time, helping others and upping your “karma” score, volunteering can often get your “foot in the door” with a company that might potentially hire you in the future. Showing people what you can do, how well you can do it, and demonstrating your exceptional work ethic – even if it’s not in a paid position – can bring you to the attention of professionals who notice such things, and reward them when opportunities open up. If you are volunteering somewhere, then list that volunteer position on your resume as your current position. However, do NOT use the term “volunteer!” Simply list the organization and your title or role, describe your function, relevant skills used, and any accomplishments there just as you would with any of your other jobs. Let the fact that you are not being paid wait for an interview, where you should then disclose it.
Consulting (Contract) Work: Depending on your field, many job-seekers choose to take temporary assignments, contract work, or other “1099” (non-employee) jobs. People who engage is this type of work often refer to themselves as “consultants.” Very often, those contract jobs have the possibility of turning into full-time positions. Again, list those temporary “consulting” positions on your resume … and highlight the relevant skills you used, and any accomplishments achieved at those temporary assignments. If your period of “consulting” was not long-term or consistent, list it as one long job period (from the last full-time job till the present) and under that “Consulting” heading list some individual assignments without specifying dates. Again, leave the exact details of when and for how long you actually worked at each assignment for either an interview or an official job application. The goal here is to look like you’ve been keeping busy and working in your field. [Read: “Contract / Consulting Jobs Explained … Available in Three Different Flavors” for more information on this topic.]
Self-Employment: These days, more and more job-seekers are turning to starting their own businesses. There’s even a media-coined term for this phenomenon: “Entrepreneur by Necessity.” If you are in that category – by all means list it on your resume as your current occupation. Whether or not you’ve actually earned any income from your company or had any actual success in your venture, listing a self-owned company on your resume is much better than having a large gap of current unemployment without any explanation. And, of course, it’s the perfect answer to that question: “So, what have you been doing since you left your last job?”