My first job out of college was with a recruiting firm run by three women who had nearly a hundred combined years of experience in the workforce. They taught me everything I needed to know about how to read resumes, including the warning signs to look for. A gap in employment was, according to them, the kiss of death.
Today, a hot minute and three U.S. presidents later, I truly believe that wisdom is as outdated as my prom dress. It was fine in the moment, but the moment has passed.
Each of us is complex and unique, and our personal stories should reflect that.
The rules of employment history have changed, and the story you craft about your timeline is yours. Whether your employment gap happened because of a layoff, becoming a caregiver, taking a sabbatical, exploring entrepreneurship, or even just a mental health break, let's talk about how you can own that gap in a way that will want a prospective employer wanting more of you!
1. Lead with transparency
As poet Walt Whitman said, “I am large. I contain multitudes.” Each of us is complex and unique, and our personal stories should reflect that. There are no right or wrong plot points as long as each point is truthful.
When capturing your history (employment and otherwise) on your resume, be honest and transparent. There's no need to flag a gap in employment in bold print, but neither should you try to hide it.
Our journeys are complex and diverse. The trend toward inclusion will only grow in 2021. And beyond diversity in terms of race and gender, I believe companies are ready to lean into a diversity of experiences in the workforce. Companies must look beyond the traditional one-directional career path, and search for talent whose life experience reflects that of their customers.
Beyond diversity in terms of race and gender, I believe companies are ready to lean into a diversity of experiences in the workforce.
So don’t be ashamed of revealing your lived experiences, from caregiving to travel to taking time to pursue a passion. Transparency upfront will help you begin the conversation with a prospective employer on the right foot.
2. Reflect on your gains
Maybe you opted out of the workforce for a year to care for a child or parent or to travel the world. Or perhaps you were laid off in an economic downturn. Whatever your reason and whatever the cause, you were still a person living in the world during this time. Your experience may not have been “work experience,” but this is where life experience gets its time in the sun.
When I spent 2007 at home with my newborn daughter, there were days—many days—that left me feeling like my brain had turned to mush. Baby Beluga had become my theme song and I was spending days calculating ounces of milk digested and … processed. (Yes, I mean poops).
This is where life experience gets its time in the sun.
But as I started gearing up for a job search in 2008, I pushed myself to reflect on the gift of that year. Certainly, it was a privilege just to be with my infant daughter. But it had also given me some new skills and perspective.
Time management and prioritization become finely tuned when your baby’s naps are suddenly your only windows of productivity. I had become part of a new demographic—parents—which broadened my perspective not only on the world but on any company’s potential customer base.
Oh, and my ability to experience failure but keep on keeping on? That expanded immensely. I screwed up daily with sleep training and sign language and all the mothering things. But I also persisted because I had a new responsibility to manage.
These were some of my reflections. I challenge you to define your own.
Think expansively about how this time has added in any way to the multitudes you contain. It is now a part of your story to shape and own.
Maybe you were laid off during the pandemic. You’re not alone. And remember, you’re leading with transparency. You don’t have to pretend the layoff was some grand gift. You’re allowed to experience disappointment. But shift quickly into considering what you gained during the weeks or months of not being employed.
What have you spent time doing? Being with family? Caring for a loved one? Supporting a working partner? Have you taken any classes? Picked up a new certification? Learned to cook? Think expansively about how this time has added in any way to the multitudes you contain. It is now a part of your story to shape and own.
3. Craft the narrative
So now, armed with insight and reflection, it’s time to craft the story you will proudly tell any prospective employer. This is your chance to package yourself as the most irresistible product on the job market.
I’ve always loved the commencement address Steve Jobs delivered at Stanford back in 2005, during which he said:
You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward.
So, as you look back at the totality of your experience—work and life—what is the story you want to tell that makes you the most compelling candidate? How will you choose to connect the dots and help your potential employer see the complete picture?
In 2008, I showed up in interviews not as a new mom hoping desperately for anyone to give me a chance, but as a person with a broad perspective to offer. I still had my pre-baby skills and experiences, but now I could apply a keen ability to prioritize, to think critically about what should command my focus, to learn from failure, and to be successful without having control over a situation.
My conversations with hiring leaders painted this picture of me. I made sure to bring in examples of both work and parenting experience. It made me real and whole. And it ultimately won me a great job.
So, what’s the story you’ll tell? Maybe being laid off taught you that things can change on a dime, which has challenged and enhanced your agility. Maybe you used your time to take classes, brush up on skills, and add a certification.
Prepare examples of how these insights and added skills will deliver value for your next employer. How lucky they will be to have you!
4. Fake it till you make it
I stand by the logic of everything I’ve said thus far. But there is so much more than logic at play here. There's ego and emotion and anxiety and lots of other messy human things. I’ve lived through, and overcome, all of that. Some days I’m still overcoming it.
Confidence is something that will grow over time. But don’t wait for it; cultivate it.
Are you wondering how I managed to show up with so much confidence after spending a year away from the corporate world? Then let me tell you my secret: It wasn’t confidence at all! It was all my fear and anxiety hidden behind a smile and a firm handshake. (Remember those?)
Confidence is something that will grow over time. But don’t wait for it; cultivate it. For now, if you’re struggling to access confidence, then just play the part. You’ll be amazed at how quickly the real thing will follow.
And there you have it. Yes, whole, complex, messy you. So practice your most confident smile, prepare your firm handshake, brush up your rÃ©sumÃ©, and get ready to pound the pavement.