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2024 Virtual Return to Work Conference, May 14-16

How to Approach and Explain Your Career Gap

Many relaunchers feel uncomfortable and maybe even a bit ashamed of their career break, which could be related to the all-or-nothing fixation we have on careers in the U.S. Learn how to reframe and rethink your career break and how to explain it to others.

By Arjan Eenkema van Dijk

Arjan Eenkema van Dijk, MBA, is a certified Executive Coach, speaker and facilitator and an expert in leadership development, personal branding, communication, career transition, and positive intelligence. As Founder and President of InspireShift, LLC., Arjan works both nationally and internationally with executives, leaders, business owners and individuals to define and attain their leadership and career objectives.

Monica, one of my new clients, wants to relaunch her career in the legal field, after a five-year hiatus during which she focused on raising her children. She is nervous about this gap in employment and how prospective employers will perceive her time away from the workforce.

“How do I talk about this?” she asked in our meeting.

Her anxiety over this issue was palpable, and I immediately felt an underlying tone of desperation. Monica, like many other relaunchers, seems uncomfortable and maybe even a bit ashamed of her career break, which could be related to the all-or-nothing fixation we have on careers in the U.S. Relaunchers worry that the work gap is a major obstacle in the quest to land an ideal new job. Often, when you take a career gap, even if you are convinced that it was the right decision at the time, you can feel professionally diminished, and you worry that others see you in the same way. But here’s the thing: It’s not necessarily the gap that’s in the way of you landing a position -- it’s your mindset about this topic that can cause you to fumble. If you are self-conscious about the hiatus, it will show in how you present yourself, which could lead to the real reason for you not landing the position you desire.

I see many relaunchers unconsciously overemphasize the gap and use the interruption in their career as the entry point to speak about themselves. After all, it is the most recent item on their resumé. They often linger on the topic and use a defensive tone. It is as if the professional career they had prior to the break doesn’t seem to count. Monica, who was a partner in a law firm, brings up her volunteering at the PTSA in conversation before she speaks about the fact that she made partner in record time, an accomplishment which sets her immediately apart among her peers. Please do not fall into this trap: It is the hiatus that should be anecdotal, not your career accomplishments prior to your gap.

As an Executive and a Career Coach, I focus with many of my clients on increasing their “positive intelligence” which Shirzad Chamine, professor at Stanford University, identifies as the percentage of time our brain is serving us versus sabotaging us. One of my life mantras is: “What you focus on gets bigger.” I find it shocking how very accomplished professionals including doctors, lawyers, managing directors, sales leaders and marketeers, reduce themselves and their stature in their field to the career break, seeming to forget they have had an incredibly successful career that accounts for 98% of their professional value. If you recognize and highlight your accomplishments while valuing the time off, and you present yourself as the right candidate for the position, you can project your career history in a positive light. As a result, the employer will attribute less importance to your career interruption.

Your resume shows your career in chronological order, and your career break may therefore be prominently visible, but in an interview you want to present yourself in a more holistic way. Start by highlighting who you are - remember you are telling a story about yourself with the goal of getting the job in question. You want to communicate that you are the right candidate for the position. Highlight your accomplishments, skills, strengths, and motivation. Show your enthusiasm for the position, your keen interest for the company, and be prepared to discuss how the company’s values align with yours. Emphasize your willingness to exceed expectations. Make sure to own your time off, and present it as a conscious decision you made for a clear reason. This will project confidence and portray you as a strong decision maker, two characteristics important to career success and leadership.

So, now that your career gap is no longer the focal point of the conversation, let’s put things in perspective: Even though iRelaunch and its Chair and Co-founder Carol Fishman Cohen have created great impact in destigmatizing career breaks, work interruptions can still be perceived negatively by employers, and some maintain an unconscious bias against them. There are some legitimate concerns. In a rapidly changing world, employers wonder if you have stayed up to date with your field, your industry, and the latest technology. They are also keen to see that you have further developed yourself during this period, even if your reason for taking time away was to attend to family matters. Lastly, some of the employers’ fear stems from their worry about your readiness to return to work, and they may be afraid that you will drop out. Thus, your attitude about your gap and how you discuss it is critical and can make the difference between you landing a position or not.

When you are asked about the gap, you want to proactively address these fears. First, be honest about what you did and why. Whether you took a break to take care of kids or your parents, embark on a major move, or travel, just explain the facts and then immediately move on to the reasons why you are very excited to return to work. For some people, the gap provided clarity, or the circumstances why they took the gap have changed; these explanations should be part of your discourse. Speak briefly about relevant experiences during your break - whether you engaged in consulting, project work, took on community leadership positions or enrolled in classes. Prior to your interview, identify how some of these acquired skills will apply in the new job and practice discussing that. Being straight-forward and authentic about your decision to take a break and your choice to return to work will demonstrate your credibility and integrity, qualities that are highly valued in the professional world.

Lastly, in order to master the interview that will likely include the sensitive topic of a career break, you must prepare very well - really, over-prepare. It’s easy to sound vulnerable when talking about something that makes you uneasy. You can rehearse interviewing with a friend, a former colleague or hire a coach to help you develop your talking points and practice your delivery.

Readiness, your positive perspective on your career gap, and your knowing you can do the job in question will help you exude confidence which is critical in any job search, especially a relaunch. Research has shown that success correlates just as closely with confidence as it does with competence. It’s been demonstrated that if you show up confidently, you are perceived as more competent than those who don’t display self-assurance. In turn, this will increase your chances for landing the position. This is the mindset you want to have regarding your break - don’t defend it, embrace it. And certainly, don’t let it define your professional identity.

Don't relaunch alone!

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