How to handle a gap in your job history

Special to The Globe and Mail

How to handle a gap in your job history (iStockphoto/iStockphoto)

THE QUESTION

I left my last employment in November, 2010, due to health reasons. I am now healthy and ready to start work, but how do I answer when I’m asked why I haven’t been working for such a long time? I left my job on very good terms. I had a great relationship with my supervisor and the boss, but due to a new company policy they are not allowed to give references to former employees. I do have several excellent reference letters from previous jobs.

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Friends and colleagues are telling me not to let potential employers know that I was ill, as they may not believe me when I say that I am now better. How would you suggest I answer this question?

THE ANSWER

Most people have gaps in their résumé for various reasons, whether due to travel opportunities or layoffs or simply taking time to find a new job. Health reasons, although personal, are no different and not unusual. How to position the leave, however, is key. I don’t think most employers would see a one-year gap as a problem – five years might be – but any job applicant needs to come prepared to explain an absence from the work force.

It is important to answer the question directly, with little room for employers to probe for more information. Health reasons are personal and that is how you will respond to this question, but spin it positively. Say something such as: “The role I had at my previous employer was extremely rewarding and challenging, but I chose to leave the company to deal with a personal matter. This has since been resolved and I am looking forward to getting back into the work force and making a significant contribution.”

This answer could refer to any situation: personal illness, a spouse or family illness, divorce issues. It really does not matter and is of no business to the potential employer. You are ready, willing and able to return to work and that is the focus of this conversation. This answer should satisfy the hiring managers and they will move on to the next question in the interview.

As to references, if your former managers cannot give a written reference, could they provide a personal, oral reference? If not, you need to explain to a potential employer as to why you do not have a reference from your last employer.

Again, position it on the positive side by offering many other excellent references from other employers you have had.

When it comes to questions about awkward issues or matters that are definitely private, do not seem defensive or secretive. Speak confidently and openly about the positive experience you had while you were at your previous job; touch directly, but candidly, on why you left the position, and then bring it back to the positive aspects again. The interviewer is more likely to remember what you opened with and what you ended with.

Eileen Dooley is a certified coach and lead consultant for Cam McRae Consulting in Calgary.

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