Have you had an extended break from work that shows an obvious gap in your CV?
It’s common for recruiters to question these breaks. But that doesn’t mean they’ll eliminate you from their shortlist. You’ll just need an explanation of why the break happened.
In this guide, we’ll share how you can explain an employment gap in various parts of your job search—including your CV, cover letter, and job interview.
The goal? To help you land your dream job.
What counts as an employment gap?
By definition, an employment gap is any time you’ve spent out of employment (hence why you might see them called “career gaps”).
There are various reasons why you might have a gap in your CV that needs explaining:
Sabbaticals are extended periods of leave you have away from your normal role. They need to be approved by your employer, and you can do whatever you choose with your time off—such as volunteer work, travel the world, or recover from burnout.
But the premise is that you can take a long-term break and return to work.
We think you should include any reasonable length sabbatical on your resume. You were off work during that time (yet still employed) and it will no doubt have an interesting angle for discussion. It forms part of your journey.
Caring for someone else
Sometimes people take time away from work to care for sick relatives.
There are an estimated 8.8 million carers in the UK, so it’s not an unusual reason to take a career break whilst friends or family members are sick. But it still leaves a gap in your CV that you’ll need to explain.
Maternity, paternity, and shared parental leave
With the introduction of shared parental leave, there’s more opportunity than before for parents to take time away from work to care for their children.
However, there’s still a big difference in figures between mothers and fathers of dependent children in the workplace, with just 75% of mothers in employment compared to 93% of men. This means it’s more likely for women returning to work after the birth or adoption of a child to have a substantial career break on their CV.
Periods of unemployment
Recent research puts the employment rate for the UK at around 75%, meaning a quarter of people are currently out of work. This doesn’t mean all of those people choose to not have a job, though. You might be choosing to be away from work, or because of situations you can’t control (like caring for a sick relative).
In the current climate, it’s understandable that people are without work due to furlough, redundancy, or an inability to return to the workplace. COVID-19 had a huge impact on unemployment; many people will have gaps in their employment history for this year.
You can leave the world of full-time work to return to study, gain a new qualification, or retrain in a new industry.
It’s not uncommon to see career breaks ranging from six months (for a short course) to several years (for an undergraduate) due to taking time out to study. But it’s smart to explain this on your CV for any future employers who spot the employment gap.
We’ve all heard about people taking gap years to travel before they start university, but there’s no reason you can’t explore the world later in life through a career break.
Some companies allow people to work remotely or to transfer to a local office. Others offer sabbatical leave that you can use to travel the world whilst having a job to come back to. But in most cases, extended long-term travel leads to a gap in your CV.
When (and where) to mention your career break
It’s almost always best to mention a career break on your CV. But it’s not always necessary.
You might not need to explain an employment gap that happened a long time ago (5-10+ years) and you have plenty of relevant experience since then.
Similarly, you might not need to reference career breaks if they were very short. An employment gap of a month or two while you were actively applying for new roles is understandable, and most hiring managers understand this when looking through CVs.
But if the break was long and recent, you’ll likely need to explain the gap in the following places.
On your CV
For most recruiters and hiring managers, your CV is the first place they’ll go to find out more about you. Most CVs feature an employment history timeline: that’s the place to slot in your career break.
A simple line or two works best, given the limited space (CVs should be no longer than 2 sides of A4.) That way, your potential employer knows about the gap from the outset.
You can always expand on this within your cover letter if they ask for one.
Within your cover letter
Speaking of cover letters, it’s worth sharing more details about your career break. There’s more space here to talk about your experience, show some personality, how it’s improved your skills, and other positives from your time out of work.
For example, you can customise the following template to explain a career gap in your cover letter:
“During 2018 and 2019, I took a sabbatical to travel the world. I spent nine months traveling around South East Asia—a once in a lifetime opportunity to experience different cultures and meet new people.
I spent time with people from all over the world, hearing about their different perspectives and lifestyles. It's certainly made me a more rounded and confident person.”
On your personal website
If you’re a freelancer or creative professional, you might want to mention your career break on your website (which acts as a digital resume).
If you travelled, studied, or volunteered, create a space on your website to detail this. Use the opportunity to talk about everything you learned while you were away—especially if the break taught you any new skills that would be useful for future employers.
It could help strengthen a connection with a recruiter, or signal that your values align with a dream employer. They’re both things that could get you ahead of other job seekers.
In a job interview
Once a recruiter knows about your employment gaps, there’s a strong chance they’ll ask about them in a job interview.
Hiring managers know that sabbaticals can benefit people in many ways. You learn new skills and attributes, and gain valuable experience which can spill over into your job.
(Plus, if you spent your sabbatical doing something fun, that’s a great ice breaker in your job interview. Who wouldn’t want to talk about all the fun you had on a trip of a lifetime, or the fact you wrote a book? Either is super impressive!)
This is the perfect place to reassure your prospective employer and explain the employment gap.
How to explain a career break on your CV
Ready to craft a smart explanation for your career break and land a new job? Here are six great ways to explain an employment gap on your CV.
1. Be open and honest
A word of warning: don’t be tempted to cover up a career break by extending employment dates or lying. There’s a chance you could lose out on your job once people find out. It’s not worth the risk.
People appreciate (and respect) honesty—and after all, there’s nothing wrong with a career break! In fact, companies are starting to recognise their value and now offer them as a retention tactic.
Always be upfront and honest about any gaps in your employment. Remember: honesty is the best policy. You don’t want to start things off with your new employer on the wrong foot.
2. Share what you’re comfortable with
You should be honest about your career break, but don’t share more than you’re comfortable with.
It’s fine to talk about caring for a relative and not go into the intimate details; the same goes for any health concerns of your own. Employers just want to understand why you took a break.
According to Bruce Hurwitz, the President and CEO of Hurwitz Strategic Staffing, the key is to keep it simple:
“If they are interested in the details, they will ask. All that is necessary is to write:
- “Laid off due to COVID-19”
- “Contract/Project ended”
- “Resigned due to family issue, no longer relevant”.
The one thing not to write is “Fired”. In any event, a gap can be filled by listing work-related activities (especially courses the applicant may be taking) and volunteer activities.”
If you do have an employment gap because of a health issue, don’t forget to ask for reasonable adjustments during your job hunting process.
3. Showcase great references from previous employers
Any reasonable employer knows that you can’t predict the future.
As Gary Bury, CEO of Timetastic, says:
“No one should consider any career break of theirs as a negative that needs justification. Just concisely and honestly explain why it happened, and switch to the positivity that came from it—even if the break was unwanted, there’s always something positive to draw on.”
One great way to help with this is by asking previous employers to write a testimonial about your work for them—including the career break, and vouching for why there’s a gap in your employment, where possible.
Let’s put that into practice and say you have an employment gap because a previous employer made you redundant, and you struggled to find other jobs. The employer who made you redundant would make the perfect reference if they wrote something simple like:
“Mary was a great hire, very punctual, and we’d have continued to employ her at our company if the circumstances allowed.”
The best part? You can use these references elsewhere to help recruiters find you. LinkedIn endorsements, for example, are publicly shown on your profile.
4. Be positive
If your career break is due to unemployment, it’s easy to feel disheartened.
However, you can impress recruiters with your self awareness and dedication to your career, and worry less about the gap on your CV.
Truth is: a career break isn’t even high on the list when it comes to reasons why your CV might be discarded. Research shows that recruiters are more focused on bad grammar (77%) and an unprofessional email address (34%). Checking those two boxes means you’re already above other job seekers!
5. Mention transferable skills
Most of us have spent our career breaks actively working on soft skills through activities like caring, studying, looking for work, or volunteering.
These are valuable and should be mentioned on your CV. (More than half of leaders say soft skills are more important than technical skills.)
So, when explaining employment gaps on your CV, think about transferable skills that companies need right now that you have. That might include:
Regardless of which new skills you’ve learnt, remember that there’s always a positive spin you can put on employment gaps. Show them off anytime the gap is questioned.
6. Try a skills-focused CV instead
If you want to shift the focus away from your career break, one smart piece of career advice is to switch a traditional CV format to a skills-focused one.
This puts your skills front and centre, rather than have your employment gaps obviously pointed out for prospective employers to question.
This type of creative CV formatting is only acceptable for certain industries. If you’re a teacher or lecturer, for example, you do need to demonstrate teaching experience with your employment history.
Skills-focused CVs work particularly well for creative and digital occupations. If you have software experience, for example, that might be more valuable to an employer than your work history.
Don’t let employment gaps stop you from creating your CV
It’s easy to feel like you’re the only person with unexplained gaps in your CV.
However, there’s a huge chance you’re not the only one. People take career breaks for many reasons—and with the year we’ve had, unemployment because of COVID means more people will have career gaps than ever.
The most important part isn’t the break itself; it’s the explanation of why you did it and the positives that came from it.
Use these tips to instil trust and show your personality to your future employers when explaining career breaks. There’s no reason why you can’t land your dream job and reach your career goals—even if you took some time off in the past.