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Answer This Job Interview Question: What About that Employment Gap?

By Martin Yate

Most interviews start with a walk through your resume, this gets you used to talking, and the interviewer a chance to create a mental picture of your career history.

If you abbreviate employment dates, it is quite acceptable to list annual dates rather than month and year, be sure to do so consistently.

When references get checked, the factors most frequently verified are dates of employment, starting and leaving salary, and educational attainment. Untruths in any of these areas are grounds for dismissal with cause, and that can dog your footsteps into the future.

Questions about employment continuity often come early in an interview to help the interviewer understand the chronology of your work history. You must be ready to walk through your resume without hesitation. This, “walk through the resume” exercise is usually a preamble to a more in-depth examination of your skills.

However, once in a while you run into an incompetent interviewer and, having whizzed through the resume, you discover to your horror that the interview is over before it really began, and you have had no opportunity to sell your skills.

Consequently, you want to make at least one comment about your experience and what you learned from each job that applies to this job.

Addressing experience that applies to this new job, rather than just reciting what you did, is preferable because relevant experience from past jobs is an indicator of how you will perform in this one.

[MORE: Strategies for Handling Employment Gaps in Your Resume.]


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When You Are Asked About Reasons for Leaving

Your walk through the resume should give you the opportunity to cite relevant experience, and you’ll almost always be asked when you started and why you left.

Rehearse your answers for leaving every job. Your rule of thumb is: keep your answers short and sweet, and then shut up. The following LAMPS acronym identifies acceptable reasons for leaving a company:

L - Location: The commute was unreasonably long.

A - Advancement: You weren’t able to grow professionally in that position, either because there were others ahead of you or there was no opportunity for growth.

M - Money: You were underpaid for your skills and contribution.

P - Pride or prestige: You wanted to be with a better company.

S - Security: The company was not stable.

For example:

"My last company was a family-owned affair. I had gone as far as I was able to go. It just seemed time for me to join a more prestigious company and accept greater challenges."

Under no circumstances should you badmouth a manager -- even if she was a direct descendant of Attila the Hun. Doing so will only raise a red flag in the interviewer’s mind: “Will he be complaining about me like this in a few months?”

This is a “checkbox” question: The interviewer wants to ask the question, check the box, and move on. Talking too much does nothing more than arouse suspicion that you are hiding something. You get into trouble with too much information.

Any answer longer than two sentences is too long. Remember to use a phrase from the LAMPS acronym above. Keep your answer short and simple, and don't go into long explanations. If the interviewer wants more, she will ask.

When Asked About Employment Gaps

When asked about employment dates, don’t make any attempt to hide the gaps. Everyone has to deal with employment gaps so don’t get overly worked up about it, and don’t talk for too long in your answer -- it is seen as “protesting too much,” and a signifier of hiding something.

You should have an acceptable reason for leaving every job you have held.

If you have been caught in mergers and layoffs, simply explain that. A gap of a few months is nothing to worry about. You explain the gap as time spent getting your resume and job hunt up to speed, painting the house and taking an unscheduled, but welcome sabbatical after X years on the job (smile).

With gaps approaching a year and longer, it is important that you were doing something, whether it was temp work, volunteer work, or occasional consulting gigs, along with time spent on your job hunt.

A response that I have heard work is one that any person who has suffered a layoff can relate to:

“I’ve never been without a job that long before. I had no idea it would be this long, It took me months to realize just how much everything to do with job hunting has changed and then another x months to educate myself and get up to speed. That kick-started my job search, and here I am, proof positive of my determination and persistence.”

Always finish your answer with a question that moves the interview back to the needs of the job, and your capabilities to contribute.


About the author...

Successful careers don't happen by accident. Professional resume writing expert Martin Yate CPC is a New York Times best-seller and the author of 17 Knock Em Dead career management books. As Dun & Bradstreet says, "He's about the best in the business." For FREE resume-building advice and to view Martin's resume samples, visit the Knock Em Dead website. Join Martin on Twitter at @KnockEmDead and also on Google+.


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