How to Explain Gaps in Your Employment – Interview Question (Example Answers Included)

By Mike Simpson

How to explain gaps in employment; it’s something that plagues a lot of job seekers. Many professionals end up taking time away from the workforce. Sometimes, it’s because they had to step away. At times, leaving wasn’t exactly voluntary.

Regardless of the reason, having the right employment gap explanation at the ready is a must. It allows you to navigate an often-uncomfortable conversation with greater ease, all while presenting yourself in the best light possible.

So, if you’re ready to learn the nuances of how to talk about gaps in employment, let’s dig in.

The Different Gaps in Employment

Before we cover how to explain gaps in employment, we need to pause and talk about something important, namely, the different kinds of gaps that you might have in your employment history.

There is a slew of reasons why someone might leave the workforce for a period, and each one needs to be handled differently when you discuss it with the hiring manager.

The hardest one to talk about is a gap after being fired from a job. It’s never easy to share details of a termination with anyone, particularly a hiring manager who’s trying to decide whether they should offer you a job. Why? Because being fired meant something went wrong somewhere.

And if you had trouble finding a job after the termination, it’s an even harder conversation. Not only are you having to talk about being fired, but you’re also having to dig into gap, too. To put it mildly, that isn’t any fun.

Another tricky situation arises if you took time off from working because of a health concern. Trying to figure out how to explain gaps in employment due to a disability, for example, isn’t always easy. Most people want to keep details about their health private, and it can be really hard to determine how much you need to share with a hiring manager.

The same applies to caring for a sick family member. While your reasoning often makes sense, that doesn’t make it easy to talk about. And you’re going to have to talk about it, at least a bit.

However, some other reasons for employment gaps aren’t so hard to tackle, including taking time off to:

    • Relocate to a new city
    • Head back to school
    • Start a business
    • Try a freelance career

With those, understanding why there’s a gap is pretty easy. Most people understand that you can’t move to a new city and magically land the perfect job right away. That’s not usually how things work.

Plus, in some cases, there isn’t even a true gap. For example, if you were in school, you were doing something to boost your career at that time. That effectively negates the gap.

The same goes for freelancing or starting a business. You were spending time doing something professional, which means that the gap isn’t really a gap at all.

Now, there’s one more situation we haven’t covered: being laid off. While this one might seem challenging to address, it typically isn’t too bad. In most cases, a layoff has nothing to do with your professional skills or traits. It’s something that happened because the company had to cut back, and hiring managers usually get that right off.

Think about this; as of October 2020, 3.6 million people were long-term unemployed, meaning they had been out of work for at least 27 weeks. Another 2.6 million have been jobless for 15 to 26 weeks. That’s a lot of people with large gaps, many of whom were laid off due to the coronavirus.

Are hiring managers going to give them a hard time about it? Probably not.

But regardless of the reason for your gap, don’t panic. About 59 percent of Americans were unemployed at some point and ended up with a hole in their employment history. And that was before COVID-19. Today, that number may be much higher.

Why Does the Hiring Manager Ask This Question?

Alright, you may be wondering, “If so many people have gaps in employment, why do hiring managers ask about them? Does a gap even matter?”

Well, there are a few reasons why hiring managers want to know why there’s a hole in your employment history. However, the big one is that they would like to know the story behind the gap.

In the end, a hiring manager’s job is to hire skilled, reliable people. While an employment gap doesn’t mean you are automatically incapable of handling the job and staying long-term, asking about what happened gives them a chance to look for certain red flags.

For example, several gaps that are all due to terminations is going to set off alarm bells. However, a single work history hole caused by caring for a sick parent who is now well usually won’t.

However, that’s not all the hiring manager is trying to find out. They also want to know if you’ll be honest and upfront about what went down.

Remember, hiring managers have a lot of ways to learn more about the course of a person’s career. If a candidate claims that they were the victim of a layoff, but a quick reference call reveals it was a firing, that shows them the job seeker wasn’t telling the truth during the interview. If you were the hiring manager, would you want to hire that person now? We doubt it.

Plus, as we mentioned above, some gaps aren’t even really gaps. When the hiring manager asks for an employment gap explanation, they are giving candidates a chance to point that out, too.

Common Mistakes When Answering This Question

The biggest mistake people tend to make when figuring out how to explain gaps in employment is not trying to explain them at all. You can’t simply ignore the gap, even if you aren’t directly asked to discuss what happened. If you try to avoid it, you’re leaving room for the hiring manager’s imagination to run wild, and that usually won’t work in your favor.

However, overexplaining is a bad move, too. If you start digging into every detail of the situation, you’re putting more emphasis on that period in your life. That means spending less time talking about why you’re an amazing candidate. That’s no good.

Another massive misstep is playing the blame game, especially if you were terminated from the job before the gap. Talking bad about a past employer isn’t going to win you any fans. The hiring manager is going to assume that you’ll be talking about them in that tone one day, even if it’s undeserved, or that you have issues taking responsibility for your actions. Generally, that’s going to work against you.

Finally, lying about what happened is never a good idea. There’s a solid chance the hiring manager will learn the truth eventually. Then, even if you already have the job and you’re doing reasonably well, that could lead to an automatic termination, depending on company policy.

Tips for Answering This Question

If you’re trying to figure out how to explain gaps in employment the right way, here are some tips that can help.

1. Be Honest and (Reasonably) Open

Regardless of why you have a gap in your work history, do be honest and open with the hiring manager about what happened.

However, don’t go overboard when it comes to detail. Generally, you should only need one or two sentences to explain the gist of the situation.

MIKE'S TIP: The only time you’ll want to go beyond two sentences is when a gap isn’t really a gap. For example, if you were going to school during that period, you can maybe add a sentence or two. The same goes if you tried out being a full-time freelancer or launched a business, and the experience was positive and relevant to the role you’re trying to land. In fact, if those situations apply, that may be all you need to say to answer this question.

2. Let Them Know the Situation Is Resolved

After you give a brief overview of what happened, you need to put the hiring manager’s mind at ease and let them know the situation is resolved. For instance, if you are working on how to explain gaps in employment due to a disability, you need to tell the hiring manager that you’re health improved (or that you have the necessary tools to excel), and you’re ready to start working.

If you paused your career to care for a family member, then you can let the hiring manager know that they’ve recovered or that someone else is handling those responsibilities. That should be enough to tie that up.

For gaps after a termination, you may want to discuss any lessons you learned. You want to let the hiring manager know that you are treating the situation as an opportunity to grow and that you won’t repeat any mistakes of the past (if that is relevant).

3. Do a Quick Pivot

Once you’ve discussed the situation, don’t leave it at that. Instead, it’s time for a pivot.

Steer the conversation in a positive direction by discussing your interest in re-entering the workforce, your excitement about the opportunity, and what you bring to the table. This brings the focus back to the job at hand, allowing you to end the answer on a high note.

How to Answer the Interview Question “How to Explain Gaps in Employment”

If you’re trying to figure out how to explain gaps in employment, here are a few examples that you can use as guides:

1. If You Were Fired

EXAMPLE ANSWER:

“Unfortunately, I was let go from my last job. My skill set wasn’t as strong of a match as it initially appeared, and I struggled to meet expectations. However, it gave me deeper insights into my capabilities, allowing me to focus on new opportunities that would be a better fit, such as this one. I believe that my capabilities would be an asset to your team and would enable me to exceed expectations at every step.”

2. If You Were Laid Off

EXAMPLE ANSWER:

“I was laid off during the height of the coronavirus pandemic and, while I launched my job search immediately, the industry was very hard hit. However, I remained diligent and was happy to find this opportunity. I’m looking forward to applying my time-honed skills to help a company like yours thrive.”

3. If You Stepped Away Due to a Disability

EXAMPLE ANSWER:

“I left my last position due to health reasons. Currently, the situation is now fully resolved, and I feel confident that I can successfully return to the workforce. I have remained up-to-date on industry happenings, have worked to keep my skills current, and feel that what I bring to the table would make me an asset to your team.”

Putting It All Together

Ultimately, figuring out how to explain gaps in employment can be tricky. But, with the tips above, you can find the best approach based on your situation. While it may be daunting, honesty is the best policy. Just keep your explanation brief, put their mind at ease, and do a quick pivot. If you do, the gap in your employment history may not be as much of a hindrance as you’d think.

Good luck!

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About The Author

Mike Simpson

Co-Founder and CEO of TheInterviewGuys.com. Mike is a job interview and career expert and the head writer at TheInterviewGuys.com. His advice and insights have been shared and featured by publications such as Forbes, Entrepreneur, CNBC and more as well as educational institutions such as the University of Michigan, Penn State, Northeastern and others. Learn more about The Interview Guys on our About Us page.