Many workers applying for jobs today have a gap in their employment history. This isn't an automatic downgrade of your job prospects, particularly since it's so common. Still, you should be ready to address the issue during your interview since it's likely to be one of the first questions your interviewer is going to ask you.
It will be easier if you take a few steps in advance to position yourself for returning to work after a career break.
You may have already addressed the gap in your resume or cover letter. If you have, use what you stated as a starting point for a discussion. If not, take the time to frame a response before you go for an interview. That way, you won't be caught off guard without a response.
Why Interviewers Ask About Employment Gaps
Interviewers will usually be interested in learning about when, why, and how you left your previous positions, along with any resulting periods of time on your resume not covered by paid employment.
If you left employment voluntarily to spend time outside of the workplace, employers will want to know your motivations. They may also want to know more about your situation if you were fired or asked to leave.
Interviewers will also be listening for how you talk about your employment gap—for instance, it would be a red flag if you bad-mouthed the supervisor who laid you off from a former position.
How to Answer Questions About an Employment Gap
Of course, the best way to answer won't be the same for everyone. Your approach to these questions depends on many factors, such as how you spent the time off, your level of success in the jobs you left, and your track record after the gap or gaps, for example.
Here are a few angles to consider when discussing gaps in employment:
Describe What You Did During the Gap
If you can, emphasize anything constructive which you did during your time off, particularly elements that reflect positively on your character or are related to the position you're applying for.
Responses like "I took time off to complete my MBA," "I prepared for and passed the test for my Certified Financial Planner designation," or "I focused on my volunteer work and started a new mentoring program for inner-city youth" are examples of answers that emphasize positive aspects of your time off.
Share any skills or knowledge that you cultivated during your time off.
If you spent the gap volunteering, developing a new skill to increase your relevancy in the workforce, working pro bono, or using your time in some other productive way, be sure to include it in your answer.
Mention Personal Reasons Briefly
Some candidates won't have such a clear-cut story to tell. Maybe you just took time off for personal reasons, such as dealing with a personal or family issue.
If you addressed a personal concern and resolved the issue, then you might want to share that story with your interviewer. For example, you might mention that you took time off to rehabilitate from an injury or help care for an elderly parent. The key will be to describe the issue as a past problem that will no longer interfere with productivity.
Fun Is Fine, But Emphasize Your Work Ethic
If you took time off to do something fun like spending the winter skiing, traveling through Europe, or mastering golf, then it's important to demonstrate that you had a solid work ethic before and after your hiatus.
For example, you should provide examples of how hard you worked on key projects before and after your break. Offering recommendations from supervisors who can attest to long hours worked, high energy, and optimal investment in the job is a good way to back up your answer.
Address a Layoff or Termination
In a case where you were laid off from a job resulting in a period of unemployment, share the reasons why there was a reduction in the workforce and reference any indicators that you were in good standing at the time.
If the gaps in your resume are a product of termination, you need to prove to your employer that the reasons why you were fired no longer affect your overall performance.
If there were reasons unrelated to your current target job, you could mention those.
For example, "I was working as a principal at the time and had difficulty managing the budget effectively. I decided to return to my first love, teaching, where I had previously excelled, and you can see that my teaching reviews have been very positive since that time." You can also spend a bit of time explaining what you learned from the incident and any changes you have made in your attitude or your work ethic.
Focus on Accomplishments
In all instances where you need to account for a gap, you should share as much concrete evidence of your success in the jobs prior to the gap and after you resumed employment.
Itemize your accomplishments by referring to situations where you intervened, specific actions you took, and the results you generated. Emphasize how your company benefited from your role.
If possible, secure recommendations from supervisors to support the explanation you plan to give during the interview.
Examples of the Best Answers
Example Answer #1
I took a break from working in an office after the birth of my daughter. I didn't stop practicing law entirely though—during that time, I practiced pro bono one day a week at a nonprofit organization. Now that my daughter is in preschool, I'm eager to return to the workplace.
Why It Works: Without going into too much personal detail, this candidate explains their reasons for having an employment gap. They also mention how they've continued to keep their skills sharp.
Example Answer #2
If you're in the publishing industry, you likely heard about the layoffs at XYZ company. After being part of those layoffs, I wanted to assess my next steps carefully. I've taken several classes to sharpen my marketing-related skills and am looking to transition, which is what makes me so excited for this position at ABC company.
Why It Works: Without getting emotional, the candidate explains why they have an employment gap due to a layoff, then pivots the response back around to the position at hand.
Example Answer #3
Frankly, my last role wasn't a good fit, and I really struggled with some of the tasks that were a poor fit for my experience. My position was terminated, which was a really humbling experience. Since then, I've reflected on how I handled the situation. What I've taken away is the need to ask for help, along with the importance of continuing training and education. During my time since that role, I've taken several classes and worked with a career coach. I'm looking forward to bringing what I have learned to a new role.
Why It Works: It's not easy to talk about being fired—and particularly without getting defensive. This response pulls it off and shows how the candidate used a difficult event as a learning opportunity.
What Not to Say
- Don't Fib. If you have an employment gap, you can think about expressing your time at companies in terms of years, and not including the month. This may make the gap less obvious. But don't lie about the dates, or lie in responses. Doing so will likely be discovered during a background check and will ultimately be held against you.
- Don't Be Negative. If you were laid off or fired, it's natural to have resentment towards your former employer. But an interview isn't the best time to share it. Don't blame others or complain. Instead, try to keep your tone and words matter-of-fact.
- Don't Go Into Too Much Detail. If you took time off for personal reasons, you can share some details. But no need to tell a long, rambling story. You want to keep the focus on your qualifications for the role, and your desire to work for the company... not your personal business.
Possible Follow-Up Questions
- What did you do with the time when you were unemployed?
- How would your colleagues at your last job describe you?
- What are you looking for in your next job?
- Have an explanation ready. Since questions about employment gaps will definitely come up, have a response prepared.
- Focus on what you did. Describe how you've kept skills sharp or added to them during an employment gap.
- Don't ramble. If you're talking about time away from work due to personal reasons—whether it's caretaking or pursuing something fun—keep it brief.