Further Questions: Should Candidates Address Gaps in Employment?

Each week (or thereabouts) I ask a question to a group of people who hire library and LIS workers. If you have a question to ask or if you’d like to be part of the group that answers, shoot me an email at hiringlibrariansATgmail.

This week I profiled The Library Returners website, which is a great resource for people returning to work after a break. In keeping with that theme, the question is:

Should applicants address gaps in their employment history? Does it matter how long it is? Does the reason matter (i.e. raising children, tough job market, illness/injury, etc.)? If you think gaps need to be addressed, how should it happen?

Randall Schroeder, Director, Retired: My fear is that employment gaps mean more than they should to some decision makers.

For me, I almost always assume that a candidate’s gap is for a good reason, especially during whatever stage of the pandemic we are at now. I am reminded of what my mentor said a few decades ago at a small, private college library in Illinois, “everybody’s got a story.” Especially librarians. In 30 years, I have only met one librarian who went straight from high school to undergrad to graduate school to the profession. Everybody else, including me, has had a stop or two along the way.

For me, an application need not be a personal confession every time. If I have a question, I’ll ask it during the interview. In many instances, the resume gap may be an indicator of a life experience that will help a candidate’s case in my mind.

Your mileage may vary.

Jess Herzog, Director of Adult Services, Spartanburg County Public Libraries: On our external applications, we ask for reasons behind gaps of more than six months. I think that’s a solid period of time to expect an explanation for (or longer). I think it’s most sensible to address it on a line item within the resume, for example: “July 2017-January 2018, unemployed while recovering from an injury” or something similar. I don’t want or need a lot of detail, but I’ve worked with others in the past who find it very suspicious when there’s a gap in someone’s work history that is left completely unaddressed. It’s smart to be proactive about explaining your work history with the lumps and bumps, and to me that indicates that you own the fact that your work history is imperfect, just like every other work history out there.

A note on one of these breaks from “work”: if you’ve taken a break to raise children or be a caregiver for a family member, I would LOVE seeing that listed as a job on a resume. That’s a job in and of itself, and the amount of work you do and things you learn and manage is absolutely worth highlighting, and there are often significant transferable skills, especially soft skills like strong communication, time management, and creative thinking. Nothing teaches you to think outside the box quite like a kid, that’s for sure, and nothing teaches you empathy like caring for another family member going through health difficulties.

Celia Rabinowitz, Dean of Mason Library, Keene State College: My initial and quick response is to admit that I often notice and wonder about employment gaps. At the same time, I am not really sure I believe that people should have to explain them. I have noticed that candidates will sometimes refer specifically to gaps that result from staying home to raise families (mostly, but not always, from women). There are plenty of reasons why a person may have employment gaps and I am increasingly of the opinion that a candidate should not feel obligated to explain a gap. For some reason, either within the candidate’s control or not, they have chosen or been unable to work.

We read into these kinds of things all the time. An academic librarian seeking a new position in what is their 6th or 7th year at another academic library is someone who hasn’t received tenure, right? Maybe. Or perhaps they realize that they don’t want tenure at their current job and will have a hard time finding another once they have it. Or something else. What about someone who changes jobs every two-three years. Bad choices? Difficulty holding a job? Military spouse?

I think it is more important to ascertain whether the candidate has the skills and other assets needed to do the job or to learn to do the job, particularly in a field that changes as quickly as ours can. Candidates often provide explanations for the gaps which is fine but I would like to move away from guessing, asking, or even making a candidate feel some pressure or obligation to explain.

Jimmie Epling, Director, Darlington County Library System: While an applicant may not need to address a gap in their employment history, the applicant must have a rational explanation for the gap. The reason for the gap might be alluded to in a cover letter or application.

There are many reasons for a gap in employment. It is reasonable to expect that an applicant has had a job where “it just didn’t work out.” It is reasonable for an employer to wonder about a gap and inquire about it in an interview. A question about an employment gap may be framed as a behavior interview question, giving the interview committee some insight into the applicant’s future performance.

When it come to the length of time an applicant has not worked in the field and it matters, it varies from job to job. An IT manager with a 10 year gap in employment may well matter more to an employer than the same gap for a circulation desk employee. Knowledge and skills have a shelf life. The IT manager candidate needs to explain the gap and demonstrate current IT knowledge.

Angelynn King, Head Librarian, Delaware Technical Community College:

I personally would be inclined to give the applicant the benefit of the doubt and assume that a gap in employment was for a good reason that was none of my business. If their work history shows a number of gaps, however, I would prefer that they volunteer an explanation. Otherwise, the committee is likely to assume that past performance is predictive.

Headshot of Jaime Corris Hammond

Jaime Corris Hammond, Director of Library Services, Max R. Traurig Library, Naugatuck Valley Community College: I don’t feel any need to know what applicants did during employment gaps, nor would I ask anyone to explain one. That is in part because I understand that many employment gaps pertain to personal circumstances that are none of my business, and in part because our interview questions are standardized and pre-approved so a question about someone’s particular resume would not be on our list.

If someone wanted to address an employment gap with me, they could always bring it up in one of their answers or at the end, when I ask if there’s anything else they would like to share.

Julie Todaro, Dean, Library Services, Austin Community College: Yes, It is my opinion that it is VERY important for candidates to address gaps and especially in some circumstances (keep reading) in their employment history. There are some more perfect proactive approaches by applicants as well as perfect questions for interviewers.

Why should gaps be addressed?

For the majority of positions we fill it takes a great deal of time. In fact, it takes time to just fill the position but that it is just beginning and is soon followed by the time it takes to orient, train, develop and maintain new employees – even when the candidate is internal or has worked for the institution before. And by stating the obvious “time is money,” the amount of money invested in new employees is astronomical once you add up pre, during and the first few months of hire. And at many institutions, it takes much longer than a few months to have a fully prepared employee – often at least a year. So – getting back to the topic at hand, selecting the right people is one of a manager’s most important roles and as much information as possible is critical to this expensive decision. Most managers; therefore, pour over resumes, cover letters, search social media and web content and compare applicants to the needs of the organization and the position description. And although we have to be fair and careful in asking questions and seeking clarifications, finding opportunities to reconcile timelines, etc. is valuable and can include:

  • seeking information from software networking platforms (Linked In, etc.)
  • accessing explanatory content from online job seeker platforms (Indeed, Monster, company, association and agency employment, etc.)
  • reviewing interview questions for opportunities to ask followup questions (carefully done to retain parity in asking all applicants the same initial questions)

What “gap” circumstances make it even more important for gaps to be addressed?

While one gap is probably not of major import, multiple gaps between employment, longer gaps than usual for typical job seekers unemployed and trying to find work, patterns of concern (gaps occurring when positions repeatedly end at the end of probations) as well as gaps that don’t match the employment dates/timelines offered on official applications. And the reality is what the interviewer is being told might not be learning anything such as – the answer might be vague or generalized (family illness, a bad economy, nothing was a good fit, didn’t meet my needs, there was no match for my education or training, etc.) or avoided by the candidate (I’m sorry, I don’t feel comfortable discussing that.) 

Where and when and what might applicants say and when should they say it?

  • The gap might be addressed in the cover letter rather than on the application form in general (where there probably isn’t space.)
  • The gap might be addressed in the cover letter rather than on the application form with specific information.
  • The cover letter could say “if I am selected as a finalist for this position, I would be more than happy to answer questions about xxxx.” (Much as applicants often do if references say “do not contact.”)
  • An applicant could state “I have a gap after the position where I had the most reference experience, due to the need to recover from an accident.” (It’s personal so keep it brief and interviewers should NOT ask for any specific follow ups.)
  • Applicants should focus on accomplishments achieved during the gap. (Although it took me almost a year to find a position that was the best fit, I took that time to learn x software, or take x courses online or fine tune my time management and organization skills.)
  • Applicants should – if the gap was for fun – which is perfectly okay – identify their fun time but emphasize their work ethic and return to work and benefit and impact of the “gap” period.
  • Applicants should consider bringing in extraneous but closely involved people such as “My partner had another 8 months in school so I spent this time working on my x certification.”

What might interviewers say and when should they say it?

  • “As a follow up to your summary of the x position, could you address the employment years from x to x (and include the unaccounted for time period.)”
  • Interviews could have candidates instructed by mail, support staff contact with “please be prepared to offer the committee a 15 presentation,” or “the committee will be – for a 30 minute period – your teen book group, please be prepared to lead a discussion on a popular teen title.” or “During questions and answers on required job experience, candidates may be asked to provide rationale for moving among types of libraries, gaps in employment or frequent job changes as well as identify the positions and roles and responsibilities that best prepared you for the position for which you are interviewing.”

What should be avoided in the “gap” issue?

During interviews – as managers know – all questions should be tailored to the position at hand, should be compared against the organization’s HR recommended questions and should be compared against legal and illegal question lists. To avoid tangents or the absence of parity in asking candidates the same questions, gap questions should be raised as follow up questions to answers from the standard questions or as follow up to statements made by candidates. In addition, HIPAA laws should be followed to avoid asking inappropriate questions on health or treatments, candidates should avoid complaining about organizations or past supervisors, or environments that may have been involved in creating “gap” situations. 

Finally, it is unrealistic – especially looking back at the last two years and certainly to negative economic or employment time periods – to assume that the most successful candidates should have NO evidence of gap time in employment history. 

We’d love to hear your thoughts here in the comments, on Twitter @HiringLib, or on a threatening letter where the words have been cut out of newspapers. If you have a question to ask people who hire library workers, or if you’d like to be part of the group that answers them, shoot me an email at hiringlibrariansATgmail.


1 Comment

Filed under Further Questions

One response to “Further Questions: Should Candidates Address Gaps in Employment?

  1. Pingback: Return to Further Questions Questions | Hiring Librarians

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.