How to Get Hired After an Employment Gap

by Staff - Original publish date: July 23, 2012

Hi Heather, 

I read your advice regarding "death in the workplace." My mother went through a long bout with cancer that she lost. Before she was diagnosed, I started a new job and, needless to say, when I learned of her cancer, it affected me on the job. Because I'm an outside salesman I have to be out there constantly, but the honest truth is I wasn't performing at my best. My boss assured me he understood and one of his repeated comments was "Steve, spend as much time with her as you can. If you don't, you'll regret it." I didn't really take him up on it too much but felt somewhat at ease believing I did have an understanding boss. My mother passed on just before Thanksgiving and there's usually not much selling around Christmas. I was fired on January 2. Then, about August of the next year, I got into a motorcycle accident that left me laid until just before Christmas and still unable to drive until almost March of the next year. 

You're probably saying to yourself, "Get to the point." Now, Heather, I'm not wanting any pity or sympathy on any of this and I'm sure I wouldn't get too much because you don't even know me. What I am asking you is this. After, almost three years, how do I get back into the sales force? I have no current contacts because I've been out of touch for so long. I was fired from my most recent job. I have this huge void on my resume now. I want to get back to work in the worst way but I'm stumped on how to handle my resume with the time gap and not having professional references. 

Can you help me? 

A: Hi Steve. Congratulations on surviving this difficult and depleting series of events. You’ve landed on your feet. It is now a matter of choosing next steps.

Obviously a traditional resume will only spotlight the work history gap. My first suggestion would be to read up on Functional Format resumes (there are some useful articles here on the website). This format will allow you to feature your abilities over those deficiencies in your work history. Typically, this resume will begin with a Qualifications Summary or Objective to be followed by a listing of Career or Experience Highlights. Your actual employment history lands at the bottom of the page just above your education and skills. Search for examples on the web for ideas on how to best highlight your own skill set. 

Another tip: Utilize more general dates for your work history (i.e. 2009 - 2011) and use fonts to your advantage, bold-facing the company name perhaps while leaving your years of employment in normal smaller type.

Your cover letter will be critical, Steve. Be honest, but above all, be positive. No sour grapes. Be that positive person you would enjoy working with. Address the gap caused by these life tragedies in a matter-of-fact "oh yeah, and then I climbed Mt. Everest" sort of way. Potential employers will not be impressed by your survival skills beyond how they might be of benefit to their company. And speaking from personal experience, most people will not even understand the depth of your challenges without firsthand exposure. So, I would advise you to focus on your positive employment accomplishments, acknowledge the gap (in very general terms) as an interruption and then, perhaps, note your increased motivation, resiliency and people skills as a result of the experiences. 

Your lack of current contacts is concerning, but again, this is something you can address. Push yourself to attend some local networking events. Volunteer at organizations where you can refresh and grow your communication and organizational skills (these will also look nice on the resume). People like to hire people they know. It's less of a risk. So, the more contacts you make, the sooner you will be in a position to begin interviews. Set a per week goal of networking/volunteering events and coffee or lunch meetings and stay faithful to it.

You've described an emotionally grueling set of circumstances, Steve. Rather than dwell on what has been lost, however, try to focus on how you have grown as a result of the challenges. I lost both parents and a grandparent in sixteen months about twelve years ago. A divorce soon followed. That "pile-on" changed my life, but it also changed me. Look at yourself. What have you learned? How have you grown? Are you still an "outside sales" guy or will you be drawn in a new direction? Hopefully, you will see that while you may have less for the resume, you actually have more to offer as a result of what you have been through. 

Keep me posted.