Neil Johnson, ACCA Careers editor

Once upon a time – before Covid-19, before online, remote and flexible working, when mental wellbeing, diversity and inclusion were not as firmly on the radar, when ‘jobs for life’ were still a thing – explaining a gap in a CV to a potential employer was dreaded.

It was as if you’d done something wrong and had to explain why to an authority figure who held your future in their hands. We were taught that employers were suspicious of such gaps, viewing them as a sign of lack of focus, disloyalty, unseriousness or failure.

'You can’t conceal gaps but you can put in a short line summarising what you were doing’

But times have changed, and today a gap in the CV is not necessarily a major concern. The balance has shifted since the pandemic and, with a tight labour market globally, employers are finding they are having to sell themselves to candidates, not vice versa.

Besides, career gaps simply happen. Reasons can be personal or professional, voluntary or unwanted, and are numerous, ranging from maternity and paternity leave, raising a family or caring for elderly relatives to illness, travelling, sabbaticals, career switches or studying.

But whatever the reason, they can still lead to questions during the recruitment process. The general advice from employers and recruiters appears to be to not hide gaps; rather, address them directly.

Be upfront

‘There’s no point trying to hide gaps,’ says John Lees, careers expert and author of How to Get a Job You Love. ‘It’s worth remembering that CV readers respond negatively to distraction,' he says. 'This includes peppering your application with adjectives and clichés, but can also be any point where your document lacks clarity or transparency.

Many organisations routinely interrogate a CV to spot gaps in your work history. You can’t conceal them, but you can put in a short line summarising what you were doing,’ Lees continues.

This is something Tim Toterhi, chief HR officer and coach at Plotline Leadership, calls a high-level ‘why’. ‘Attack gaps straight on with no fluff,’ he says. ’The world has changed. Employers are less interested in a day-by-day account of a candidate's whereabouts; they want to know what skills the person can bring to the job.’

Michelle Hague, HR manager at Solar Panels Network, agrees that you should explain gaps in your employment history with a brief sentence about why you took time out and what you learned. ‘This will show that you're honest and transparent, and will help to put any potential concerns about your employment history to rest,’ she says.

If you have gained any specific skills, capabilities or qualities during a gap, list them briefly as well, though expect to go into more detail if invited for an interview.

‘Keep it factual and avoid bringing too much emotion into the conversation’

Keep it simple

You’ve made it to interview and you expect to be pressed on any gaps in your CV. How deep should you go in your explanation? Can you be too eager to please or too casual?

‘Just don't over-egg it,’ says Victoria McLean, founder and CEO of career consultancy City CV. ‘Explain your career gap simply, clearly and focus more on what your career gap taught you that you could offer future employers. And don't worry: career gaps are more common now than they've ever been; they don't have the stigma attached.’

Lees recommends having a short, upbeat explanation for each period prepared. For example:

  • If you took time out to study or to gain work experience in another sector, demonstrate that this is something you planned and what you got out of the experience.
  • If you left employment for family reasons, be clear about this as a choice and the fact that you are now fully committed to work.
  • If you had a gap because you were looking for work, talk about how you kept your skills up to date, how you extended your contacts and how the experience is giving you a new focus in terms of the role you’re looking for next.

Louise Kennedy, owner of Consultancy Oculus HR, recommends sharing why you want to come back to work and what the benefits are to the business. ‘My top tip would be to keep it factual and avoid bringing too much emotion into the conversation,' she says.

Be matter of fact, recommends Toterhi, addressing a gap as part of your career story. ‘If Covid-19 has taught us anything, it's that people have responsibilities outside the office. So share the gap without hesitation or shame and then shift the conversation to focus on your skillset. After all, consistent employment doesn't equate to effectiveness.

‘If someone stepped away from the workforce to care for an ageing parent, that shows integrity. If it was to start a business, that demonstrates courage. You can share the “why” if you like, but there is absolutely no need to. The conversation should focus on skills.’

‘If someone stepped away from the workforce to care for an ageing parent, that shows integrity’

Be positive

Nor should gaps spent job searching have you nervous. ‘The economy has gone through such turmoil in the last two-to-three years that many people have found themselves redundant or between jobs,’ says Lees. ‘The important thing is not to dwell on any negative aspects of the experience, but to focus on clarity – for example, [you could say that] “having a chance to look at a range of opportunities helped me be really clear about what I was looking for next”.

‘Similarly, don’t feel nervous about time spent learning or working on short-term contracts. These, again, are all positive, career-enhancing decisions.’

More information

Visit the ACCA Careers website for news and advice on your next career move