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.
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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