Do Employment Gaps Matter During a Global Pandemic? (part 1 of 2)
Pt. 1: How to Address a COVID-19 Employment Gap in Your Resume
By Brian Sullivan
If you’re reading this blog post, chances are you’ve been given pointers and best practices about resume writing and interviewing from someone at some point. Tips on eye-contact, professional attire, limiting a resume to one page… all of these unwritten rules that were passed down to us in something resembling an oral tradition. Included in that tradition, all of us have universally been encouraged to avoid are gaps in our employment history at all costs.
Employers like to hire candidates whose careers progress in a predictable and sensible way, completing some type of formal training or education in a particular area, directly flowing into an entry-level position related to that course of study, and fluidly progressing into similar roles with gradually increasing responsibility. To them, it’s less of a career path and more of a career brook, with a gentle, uninterrupted current passing seamlessly by obstacles towards an end destination. Any “dry patches” are often areas of concern, as they raise questions about potential performance issues, unreliability, fickleness, job-hopping, or other unattractive characteristics for a potential employee to possess. For that reason, whatever you can do, have no gaps; if they’re unavoidable, then just make sure they are short and infrequent.
But what happens when the entire world is engulfed in a global pandemic, impacting the economies of almost every nation, and forcing millions of workers into unemployment? There is no one at this point in Spring of 2021 that isn’t aware of COVID-19 and the devastation it has wreaked on almost the entire planet in countless ways including (but not limited to) public health, mental health, civil rights, politics, mass transit, resource shortages, and the economy. The pandemic has obviously contributed to many things in the last year or so in very negative ways truly at a scale like we’ve not seen in decades. Because of its large footprint, one silver lining is that you will be hard-pressed to find someone that doesn’t recognize the reality this crisis and the safety measures and restrictions in response to it have created for literally millions of workers. There will be more on this in next week’s blog post but, for now, rest assured that if COVID-19 has put a glaring gap in your previously blemish-free career trajectory, it very likely (almost certainly) will not be interpreted by hiring managers with the same distaste as we’ve all been conditioned to believe about employment gaps in times outside of a pandemic.
If you are one of the millions of people just in the United States alone whose employment was impacted by COVID-19, you are not alone, and there is some comfort in knowing that truth. From there though, it’s natural to ask “now what?” Let’s work on answering that question! For the next two weeks, we will cover how to handle an employment gap in your resume, in an interview, and what you can do to limit its impact in the meantime.
How to Address an Employment Gap in Writing
When we were children, we likely all did things from time to time we weren’t supposed to do. We may have accidentally broken a lamp or vase in the living room because we decided to disobey the rule that prohibited running in the house. We then heard a shout from the other room “What was that loud crash?”, and we quickly start weighing our options. Do we run out the front door and hide in the neighbor’s hedgerow until nightfall? Do we pretend like nothing happened when the adult enters the room? Do we concoct an elaborate story of a bird flying through the window and knocking right into the fragile object? When we look back on a memory like this, we can see in hindsight that the best route would have been honesty about what happened: I was running in the house, I accidentally bumped the table, and the piece fell. However, the reason we feel this way now is not that we’re older and wiser, but because there has been more space between that day and the present.
To prove my assertion, a recent poll was conducted on LinkedIn that uncovered “84% [of unemployed adults surveyed who lost their jobs due to COVID-related factors] believe there is a stigma associated with being out of work and roughly two-thirds (67%) believe that stigma is affecting their ability to find a new job.” Almost half of those individuals (46%) have lied about being out of work; the data doesn’t specify whether those lies were told to friends or to prospective employers, but it goes to show that we haven’t learned anything from running in the house all those years ago. Shame is complicated. We were ashamed when we broke a rule that led to a broken piece of glass or ceramic in the living room, and we are ashamed when we broke the rule about having no gaps in our employment, even if it was due to a global pandemic and through no fault of our own. That’s the situation many Americans are still faced with today, and it makes many of us still want to hide in a bush or blame a bird like we did as kids.
So, if we shouldn’t lie about the lay-off, shouldn’t run away, and shouldn’t pretend like it didn’t happen, then what should we do? In my professional opinion, the best time and place to really get into this is the interview (which we will cover in greater detail next week) but, since the resume submission typically happens first, there are ways we can address it there too.
Professional summaries are the dressed-up, more put-together older siblings of the objective statements of old. While they aren’t necessarily a fit for every resume, they can add context in a short narrative format that grabs the reader’s attention from the start. If you’ve been laid off because of the pandemic, take a crack at writing one. What you include in there is up to you. Some candidates might choose to share the loss of their position due to COVID-related factors and, for some, that works! With that approach, intentionally be concise and factual about it, and then transition into your strengths, skills, and enthusiasm about the next stage in your career. Other applicants might not expressly mention their unemployment, but will still take the opportunity to showcase their strengths and achievements, and that can work too!
Candidates who are applying to positions predominantly outside of their primary industry should strongly consider using a professional summary as a way to leverage existing experience as transferable skills in a new environment. If you worked in an industry like hospitality, entertainment, or live events, challenges in finding those openings may persist for some time still, but you might still be perfectly capable for positions in other industries. Using a professional summary gives you the ability to convey to an employer that your less-conventional journey to the role they’re seeking to fill might actually make you a uniquely qualified candidate for it. Again, it is totally up to you if you want to spell out your COVID-related downsizing in your professional summary, but crafting a story that helps make sense of this career shift can only benefit your candidacy.
If you decide not to adopt the professional summary approach, no worries! You could choose to mention your layoff as the last bullet-point of your most-recent position, which could be something as simple as position was eliminated as a result of COVID-19 pandemic, or if you were working on something that was never completed due to what I’m calling “pandemic interruptions”, you could say something like Implemented new invoicing process, which was estimated to improve accounts receivable efficiency by 20% prior to COVID-19 layoff. You could also include reasons why each position on your resume ended next to the applicable dates. This is a good approach in terms of formatting consistency, but I would also warn against it if some positions ended in unceremonious ways, if you catch my drift.
Maybe you don’t like professional statements, and you don’t want to add extra bullets about how your job came to an end… and you don’t have to. At the very least, you have to update the dates of your employment. Indicating that you’re still currently at a job when you aren’t is dishonest, and while the truth might never come to light, if it does, it will almost certainly cost you that job, and potentially any future job with that employer if they felt you purposely misrepresented yourself. The best approach is to put an end date for the position.
The cover letter can also be a good place to address your recent employer’s downsizing. This can give you more space to go into details about what happened, and cover letters have more creative flexibility than resumes traditionally do. The same advice applies here as it does in a professional summary though: 1) do not dwell on the negative, 2) find ways to quickly transition back to the positive, and 3) if you’re pivoting in your career, this is a great way to add structure and context to that narrative.
While all of these ideas have good aspects, I want to be clear that I do not encourage anyone to use all of them. Definitely make sure your employment dates reflect the time you worked with your past employers, and feel free to borrow one or two of the other options you liked. Incorporating all of them though will either come across as desperate, overcompensating, bitter, or unable to move beyond this loss, none of which are great for your job prospects.
I hope this advice gives you some possibilities to consider when it comes to if, when, and how to address your COVID-related employment gaps on your resume and cover letters. In next week’s post, we will wrap up this topic by exploring how to address this issue in an interview, as well as activities, networking opportunities, and skill-building avenues for you to pursue to shrink the impact of that gap. Remember to keep calm, be positive, and tell the truth. Don’t dwell on the layoff, but don’t hide it either. If you’d like additional support in updating your resume, or in giving your job search a boost, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Looking forward to hearing from you soon!