In the January 7, 2020 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter a reader takes time to be Mom’s caregiver and worries about a resume gap and references.

Question

caregiverI left my job of 16 years with two weeks’ notice and a cordial thank you to my boss. My boss was bitter that I decided to move on and it was very apparent my last day. I worry that if an employer calls and asks to speak with him he would not give me a good recommendation even after 16 years of service. I had assumed that most companies are just allowed to verify employment. What if they contact my former boss directly?

The next problem is why I left that job: My mother had a stroke and I became her full-time caregiver. This was much harder than any job I’ve ever had. I am adding a simple bullet point on my resume listing this time as “Primary caregiver for ill immediate family member.” Is this how I should account for this time gap?

Nick’s Reply

The very best job applicant can be sunk when employers rely on information that the applicant has no opportunity to explain. If your old boss gives a negative reference and you have no chance to refute it, you’re done. If an employer is troubled by a gap on your resume because you were a caregiver and you’re not there to explain it, you lose. You’ll never know what happened in either case.

The problem here isn’t your old boss or your resume — or that you took time off to be Mom’s caregiver. The problem is that you’re allowing someone (an unexpected reference) or something (your resume) to represent you. Why not be represented to your advantage by someone the employer trusts?

Caregiver resume gap

Explaining work gaps is always iffy – so much depends on the attitude of the employer reading that resume. This is why I advocate not using a resume to introduce yourself to a company. A resume cannot defend you.

A resume that raises questions you are not present to answer can easily hurt you. A gap on your resume might trigger a quick, thoughtless rejection. Situations like yours make it risky to rely on a resume as the way to introduce yourself to someone you don’t know who does not know you.

Reference risk

You need to head off concerns by helping the hiring manager learn about you from a source more reliable than a resume. You need someone to paint you as a desirable job candidate before any questions are raised.

Try to wrangle a personal introduction to the hiring manager through a mutual contact — someone who does know you and who can speak up for you to answer an employer’s concerns about the caregiver gap, and who can parry a negative reference that’s not under your control. Check these ideas from other readers about how to network your way to a great introduction.

Send an advance party

You may have to work hard to find and cultivate that mutual contact – but it’s really the only way to get a hiring manager’s serious attention and to counteract worries about your gap. Send an advance party. In other words, you need someone to tell the hiring manager you’re worth hiring before they find a (silly) reason to reject you. (See How to get to the hiring manager.)

If you must use a resume, I agree that you should probably include a short note about the caregiving. But managers and HR get so many resumes that they look first for a reason to reject an applicant. Don’t give them that reason. A preemptive personal referral or introduction from someone the employer trusts can make all the difference.

The truth about references

It’s improper for an employer to contact your old boss without your permission for a reference. I think most companies honor this. An HR department that’s called for a reference should provide nothing more than verification of past employment. But managers and HR have their own back channels – their own trusted network that will talk to them off the record. So you can never tell what they will learn about you.

For all these reasons, a trusted personal recommendation is the best way to offset any concerns an employer might have about a resume gap or about one poor reference. Don’t wait for problems to arise. Cultivate personal contacts to get you in the door and to preempt objections a resume might trigger. For more about this, please see Get Hired: No resume, no interview, no joke. I admire you for stepping in to help your mom. I wish you both the best.

Have you ever been hurt by a work gap on your resume? Or by a bitter old boss? How did you explain it? How would you advise this reader?

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26 Comments
  1. Great question, and as usual, Nick is spot on.

    I have two brothers, and we shared the duties of caring for our elderly parents for two years. I cannot image one person handling it all. You may be surprised that what you did isn’t as unique a situation as you may first believe. Once you have the opportunity to speak face to face, it’s very likely that person has been thru something similar or will have to address it. The gap in employment is a blessing and going thru what you did can actually make you a better employee. For instance, I found that being responsible for the medical care and prescriptions required a heightened sensitivity to attention to detail. Working with medical professionals at hospitals, physician offices, and the nursing home required communication skills that exceeded anything you’d find in the working world. This experience was a lesson in finding creative solutions, being patient, withholding judgement, giving grace, and organizing priorities.

    I’d encourage you to shed the attitude of an employment gap as a problem to address and treat it as a blessing you gave to another as well as an unexpected benefit you received. What you did to be a good caregiver will translate much better to a hiring manager than what you did for a previous employer. Nothing I did at work was as challenging and yet rewarding as seeing them thru, and that’s a posture they can understand in an interview.

    • @Brandon: Good point about the person on the other side of the interview desk. Keep in mind that there’s a chance they’ve recently been in the same situation you experienced — whether they were a caregiver or just unemployed. Don’t be defensive.

  2. I agree with you, Brandon (both on Nick’s take on these situations and on the unexpected job gap reward). I had been out of work in my IT field for 3 years (partly for taking care of my disabled son and partly for being ill). I took a job at a nearby grocery store because I wasn’t allowed drive for months. I worked in areas involving serving customers directly, so I gained skill in patience, handling customers’ unpredictable orders and dealing with people overall. I never would’ve had this experience as a programmer/analyst. I will try Nick’s approach and I think it will help all in similar situations.

  3. Why treat it as a gap? Treat it as a full time job and describe your duties as if you were an employee. Reach out to your former boss because his attitude may have changed.

    • @Jonathan: Thanks for suggesting reaching out to the old boss to find out what he’s really thinking. I should have suggested that!

  4. Gapology.
    You, Nick, again nailed it.
    I have personal experience with “advance parties”.
    Worth their weight in gold.
    No walk in the park, but worth doing IF, IF, IF the individual does not “go it” alone.
    I have experienced clients who don’t seem to get the idea of investing in their most precious asset, THEMSELF.
    Interview several and hire a pro, by pro I mean a seasoned profession who has personally been responsible in the past to meeting a payroll as a key indices of understanding how a business or a not-for-profit works.
    Thanks for cogently sharing your advice.

  5. Nick,

    You’re right, but you’re also wrong. A resume doesn’t have to show any gaps if you change from a linear approach to logical approach. Granted, ATS will turn it into gibberish, but it has a better chance of being read positively by a hiring manager.

    But most of us have no way of knowing or reaching the real hiring manager. Networking doesn’t do it, either, at least in the technology business, the required contacts are just not there. Or if you have them, they may have moved on by the time you’re ready to use them. We can debate the issues of (social) networking and resumes, but you have to play with the hand you’ve been dealt, and act quickly.

    Good references upon which you can rely are essential. But even that has limits if the employer turns out to be a screwball. I had one asking me for my current boss and his full contact info (along with all my former supervisors w/full contact info). That pitch didn’t last long.

    And about employers and former coworkers who freely give out nasty information about you, don’t overlook the possibility of prosecuting. Whole body of law and legal practice covers this, no need to expand that topic in this discussion.

    Have a positive attitude and BELIEVE you are right for the job, and the company, and give it your best shot.

    • @Steve: “A resume doesn’t have to show any gaps if you change from a linear approach to logical approach.”

      Point taken. What I think you’re referring to is a “functional” resume rather than a chronological one. No matter what some clever resume writer tells you, in my experience such a resume is a red flag to employers. They’ll either reject it out of hand, or request a chronology. I think functional resumes are a waste of time. As you note about ATSes, the entire employment industry is geared for chronological information — and that includes HR and hiring managers.

      My bigger concerns are your statements about “no way of knowing or reaching the real hiring manager” and “Networking doesn’t do it…the required contacts are just not there.”

      Those are cavalier assertions. I don’t think either is true. Finding the manager is a lot of work. The same goes for the required contacts. It’s fine if you don’t want to do the homework to find the contacts you need — but that doesn’t mean there’s “no way.”

      I pretty much agree with your other points, except about prosecuting bad references. That’s an incredibly long shot and very expensive. Few job seekers would even attempt it, and I don’t know a successful one.

  6. Thank you for writing on this issue. This is the first meaningful advice I’ve heard on the subject. I have a big resume gap from being a caregiver to my elderly mother and some nephews. Despite earning a master’s during that time, I still haven’t found work. What I find particularly annoying about this situation is that the general advice for someone who has higher education and is making a career transition is to take something less responsible. The theory is that by taking such positions, you can prove to an organization that you’re willing to work up the ladder. The reality is that I get interviewed and then rejected for being “overqualified.” Then, I have to listen with a straight face and a calm demeanor to some well-meaning but clueless person tell me I should be applying for the more important positions that reject my resume out of hand. It is wearing. I’m curious to know what your advice would be to someone in crisis-level “need a job yesterday” territory. Cheers.

    • Jane, consider what Pratt & Whitney Space Propulsion did (past tense) between 1996 and 2006. Not sure what they are doing now. Pratt established a robust relationship with several “placement” firms covering a number of disciplines so they were never caught short in case of a sudden termination or departure. They contracted “temporary to permanent” “hiring” that “exposed” Pratt to a bevy of qualified individuals who “on paper” looked good. They were placed in the vacancy on a TEMP basis so the two “parties” could determine whether what was on paper (at the time) translated into PERM employment. If not the agency did the “firing” and immediately another individual was brought on board until the fit was right. To your point: Prospect with such below the radar agencies or agents, with retained (not contingency) name brand search firms AND, oddly enough, a category I discovered as the confidential career trainer for Pratt for 10 contiguous years, SEARCH RESEARCH FIRMS who are the first to know when a juicy opening occurs. SRFS are contracted with by world wide contingency search firms to vet, study, investigate prospective high level candidates so no applicant can embarrass the headhunter company. Forgive the longish reply. I am told Pascal once said, “It takes longer to write shorter”. sQs January 9 2020

      • The temporary “try before you buy” approach you appear to be advocating for with temporary-permanent employment is a win for the employer, but most often a lose for the employee. I’ve done this once (after a lengthy, aggressive, and fruitless job search during this last recession). In my case, after 60 days, I was offered permanent full-time employment, and a very basic benefits package (but no merit raise despite a stellar performance evaluation, and was literally “scoffed and laughed at by my manager when I professionally asked for one”). I also personally know individuals who’ve done this. The “firing” you speak of results in the employee being disqualified from UI, because the placement firm/temp agency’s (or whatever they refer to themselves as now)defense is “the employee must wait until we place them in another assignment”. The rub here is that the employee most often has a lengthy wait (if even ever placed into another assignment, or must take whatever assignment they are given. It’s a scam, IMO, and predatory on employees.

    • Thanks, Jane. I wish there were more coverage and discussion about the challenges caregivers face when trying to go back to work! If you encounter any, please share. I’ll do likewise.

  7. Employment gaps are career suicide, and I’ve seen first hand where employers are becoming more adept at cutting through even the best attempts at masking them (as well as masking one’s age). Anything to disqualify candidates. Even the most noble and humanitarian actions (employment gaps being a care giver for a sick/dying loved one) holds no weight with many douchey employers today.

    • Antonio, I am going to disagree strongly with you on your comment. People that have employment gaps (excluding lazy people) are not committing “suicide”. We/they are being “murdered” by employers. Big difference.

      • That’s your prerogative to disagree all you want. In today’s workplace, if you’ve been unemployed more than 1-2 months, and especially if you’re an older worker, you might as well shake your death rattle. Been there, done that.

      • Wow, so true! I have been unemployed for over a year. Employers claim they want people that ‘challenge’ themselves. I did that, decided to learn more and so I quit my job thinking I could get a job with no problem. So wrong!

        I believe I’m such a great employee that I don’t think I should look for a job on my employers dime/time. Bad move. I have been thinking about starting my own business (already did all the research of costs for registration and insurance, etc.). I asked myself can I do it? Let me see – I am always positive, I am responsible, pro-active, analytical, resourceful, I really put lots of effort for an employer so why wouldn’t I put the same effort for my own business? I think I found the answer. No luck needed hahaha :)

    • Has anyone ever heard an employer explain why an employment gap merits rejection of a candidate?

      • I have, behind closed doors, and more than once. The premise and assumption is that a candidate with employments gaps is “damaged goods”. No benefit of the doubt.

        • I’ve seen comments regarding similarities between the dating and the job market.

          Can you imagine similar reasoning when considering dating someone?

          E.g.

          I wouldn’t consider dating Jane, even though she insists that she hasn’t been dating anyone the last few years due to been fully occupied taking care of her terminally ill parents. Surely if Jane was truly a woman worth marrying she would have snapped up already.

          • That works for me, big time.
            Wish I had thought of it.
            Thank you.

  8. Nick, I have not.
    As a life member of SHRM and the Human Resources Association of Palm Beach County chapter, the matter of “employment gaps” never reached “cocktail party” of monthly dinner table discussion.

    However, as a 20 year HRPBC volunteer helping displaced HR directors and managers (temporarily jobless or in transition) the issue was addressed from a personal standpoint.

    Bottom line we a) Limited employment history to approximately 10 years, b) We never approached a resume as if it were an company or organization job application form, and c) We therefore avoided portraying months, just years.

    As a result, more often than not a 6 to 11 month employment gap was not a factor.

    If the gap was longer, we sometimes prepared a one page profile or biographical sketch with emphasis upon statements of results/accomplishments and at least three specific quotes from former customers of direct reports portraying no names, only unambiguous titles even the most junior screener could understand.

    Like age, letting employment gaps snare the source/candidate, is the menace.

    Resumes, soon to vanish, like the cover letter, are cold calls in writing.

    As Hugh McLeod, back of business card artist, and profane writer says, “If you want to stand out in the crowd, avoid the crowd.”

    The crowd covets resumes as the holy grail. In fact many better paying jobs are gained with no resume, nil, zilch, none. Study the case of the passive or stealth applicant.
    That person seeks to be pursued by employers instead of pursuing the employer.

    Amazingly, if a candidate is sought after, brought in for an interview, and a “gap issue” arises, it is more likely to be dealt with in seconds, not minutes, with eye to eye to contact, candor, and early golden referrers, not references.

    Note: We are not talking here about the very real and very challenging individuals who experience huge gaps because of incarceration. Fortunately there are specialists available now who are hugely successful in getting these people a start with full employment and a new life.

    • @Stephen: Thanks for the thoughtful response to my question.

      “Like age, letting employment gaps snare the source/candidate, is the menace.”

      “If you want to stand out in the crowd, avoid the crowd.”

      “Study the case of the passive or stealth applicant. That person seeks to be pursued by employers instead of pursuing the employer.”

      “Amazingly, if a candidate is sought after, brought in for an interview, and a “gap issue” arises, it is more likely to be dealt with in seconds, not minutes, with eye to eye to contact, candor, and early golden referrers, not references.”

      I’ve reprinted these golden bits from your post because I’d like everyone to read them twice. This is hard-boiled wisdom from the trenches. Thanks for posting it!

  9. Nick, Your willingness to “publicly” praise my contribution to the “cause” with excerpts from my ramblings is appreciated, especially coming from you. Thank you! sQs Jan 12 2020

  10. The Linkedin resume builder will not let you build a resume that has gaps in it They are guilty of the problem. I do not use those services by linkedin

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