How Should Hiring Managers Interpret Resume Gaps?

Resume gaps may seem like a kiss of death on an otherwise promising candidate’s CV, but like any other complicated situation, it really depends on the circumstances. As an employer, you might make any number of negative assumptions when you see a resume gap: maybe the candidate is lazy or indecisive; maybe the candidate was fired from their last position; maybe other companies haven’t hired this candidate for a reason. While these thoughts are natural, they’re ultimately just assumptions that should be investigated, especially if you have a really great candidate in front of you.

It ultimately comes down to this question – does the resume gap give you any reason to believe that this candidate wouldn’t be able to succeed in the particular role at hand? The reasons behind resume gaps may be entirely reasonable, and it’s up to the employer to decide if it’s a red flag or a red herring.

Get a Sense for the Reasons Behind the Resume Gap

Most hiring managers are pretty skilled detectives. They have sharp interviewing skills and know how to use limited information to make educated decisions. But when it comes to resume gaps, assumptions can bring out the worst in even the most experienced HR professionals. That’s why, when in doubt, you should simply ask a candidate what they were doing during when they weren’t working.

Many applicants might have spent a few years raising their children, or they moved across the world while a spouse served in the military. Others may have spent that time traveling abroad, caring for a sick family member, or taking classes to prepare for a career change. (Remember to avoid direct questions about topics like children, marital status, or health issues – the EEOC prohibits questions that might lead to discrimination. The applicant can volunteer this information if they choose.)

Still other applicants may say they were simply unemployed. Dig deeper, if possible. Were they terminated or laid off? Did they quit? Ask how they spent their time while looking for their next job. Some applicants likely did little more than apply for a job every so often, whereas others made the most of their time off by volunteering and learning new things.

There are others who perhaps did not work because they did not need to at the time. Circumstances change, and some applicants will choose to be forthcoming about why they are suddenly looking for work after a long break.

Consider the Length of the Gap and What It Means For Your Team

All too often, resume readers are scanning every curriculum vitae for deal breakers instead of bright spots. Start giving these applicants the benefit of the doubt by asking yourself these questions as you interpret gaps:

  1. Has the applicant shown definite, high-energy interest in the position?
  2. If it weren’t for this resume gap, would I absolutely want to interview this candidate?
  3. If I choose to ignore or toss aside this resume, am I being fair to my company’s mission and culture?
  4. How will this break in work experience affect training and onboarding? Are there certain skills and technological advances this employee might be unfamiliar with? If so, how long will it take to get them up to speed?

These questions can help hiring managers like yourself be more fair when scanning resumes. All too often, we throw away any resume with the slightest imperfection, forgetting candidates are real people and, well, life happens.

Be Open-Minded and Forgiving While Diligent, Too

Next time you encounter a resume that’s missing a year or two or ten, ask yourself whether that resume gap will really prevent this hire from completing their job responsibilities. If the answer is no, look towards the future. Ask the candidate where they see themselves in five and ten years.

There are a lot of ways to get stronger signals of a candidate’s potential as well. Reference checks, for instance, can provide an outside perspective on what a candidate has to offer. If a candidate can’t produce any reference checks, that may be cause for concern. But if a candidate provides a few glowing references from 5 years back, it’s fair to take that as a positive sign.

You can also turn to predictive metrics like pre-employment testing to get a better perspective on a candidate’s potential. Cognitive aptitude and personality tests provide a strong signal for a candidate’s job fit and their ability to succeed on the job. Cognitive aptitude in particular is significantly more predictive of job success than job experience (3 times more predictive, in fact). If the candidate is missing a few key skills or needs to update their skills, pre-employment tests can help to predict their trainability and ability to learn quickly within the role.

By incorporating these factors into the hiring process, you can feel a little more confident in your hiring decisions when it comes to candidates with resume gaps.