In the November 22, 2011 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a successful executive who took time off then worked as a consultant says headhunters won’t touch him. What’s up?

I was an executive with a financial services software company for 20 years. I joined when it was a start-up. After the company was sold, I took a package and left, as did the co-owners and, eventually, all of the senior management. I have a five year gap in my resume after which I had a couple of consulting engagements, one of which lasted a year, the other approximately six months. I speak with recruiters frequently, but invariably the gaps prevent me from getting an interview. The recruiters will not even present me to the client. I would truly appreciate any advice.

Here’s the short version of my advice: (For the entire column, you need to subscribe to the free newsletter. Don’t miss another edition!)

My Advice

Most recruiters suffer from a buzz words syndrome. If the buzz words aren’t on your resume, then you’re not a candidate.

Happy Thanksgiving!Those recruiters obtain lists of “candidate criteria” from their clients, and they pattern-match those criteria to someone’s resume. My guess is that among those criteria are “stable work history” or “must be currently employed.”

You had a long, successful career building a company from the ground up. That’s trumped by “currently unemployed” only in the mind of a foolish recruiter.

If you had been as narrow-minded as those recruiters about whom you hired while building your start-up, the business would likely have failed. I’m willing to bet you hired people who spent time consulting or running their own businesses. You relied on your ability to recognize what people could do; you didn’t judge them on buzz words or on what they had done in the past. You probably hired people that others wouldn’t touch.

What I’m telling you is, those recruiters are helping you weed out companies you should not work for. I know this sounds like sour grapes, but think about it. We all have a selection process in mind that supports the way we live and work. We pick people and we make choices that reflect who we are and how we operate.

Now, think about what that means. You’re being rejected by recruiters and companies that are looking for “the perfect fit” to their narrow criteria. But when did you ever encounter “perfect circumstances” and “perfect solutions” to the business problems you faced at your start-up?

Kiss those recruiters goodbye, because they’re working for narrow-minded employers that you probably won’t be happy working for. Instead, track down insiders who work with the kinds of companies where you’d shine. Start talking to lawyers, bankers, investors, realtors, landlords, accountants, consultants and other folks who do business with dynamic, growing companies that want talent — not perfect fits to static job descriptions. (You and I both know there’s no such thing in either case.)

Those recruiters don’t work for the companies that will hire you. You will find your next employer through external consultants (like those I listed) who work with companies like the one you helped grow. The company that hires you next won’t be looking at the gap you’re facing — it’ll be looking at how effectively you can leap over that gap to help grow its business.

How did you leap over an employment gap? Did you ever hire someone with a gap? What the heck does a gap really say about a person, anyway?

Happy Thanksgiving!

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  1. I have found recruiters, like the one mentioned by the executive, to be narrowminded when it comes to matching jobs and people. I think Nick makes a good point in that the recruiters are doing some of your leg work by weeding out those companies you would not want to work for anyway.

    I would try to make connections with those you worked with when consulting. Those folks may be able to introduce you to someone who is looking for talent, instead of a list of criteria to match.

  2. Get a business license for a sole proprietor or LLC home-based business consulting in your line of expertise, make yourself the president/fuhrer/generalisimo, bam – no gap.

    I’m a security contractor, so if a contract ends early, everyone generally needs to wait until October to get on board another contract. We all have gaps, some up to 6 months. The industry realizes this, but still asks about it. I started a home-based LLC that doesn’t compete with any actual employer I might have, and it’s been a breeze.

  3. I never got why some employers are so offended by employment gaps and draw so many wrong inferences from them— such as no one else would hire the person, laziness, etc. As for myself, my employment gaps were my idea. I was busy with my family and / or traveling and trekking internationally. When I work, I take it seriously and apply myself. I am there because I want to be there and the job is fulfilling. I agree with Nick’s main point that recruiters who are so narrowly and mindlessly focused on making exact matches with stagnant criteria are not worth working for. Intelligent employers and business partners capitalize on my energy, enthusiasm, and understanding of other cultures. It is important to note that I never left a company arbitrarily to pursue my hobbies. I left for other reasons and then planned travels before pursuing other career opportunities. I also worked for myself for a portion of my career and had real flexibility over work / life balance. There are no shortcuts in getting to know people. It is too bad that employers try to evaluate potential employees as if we are all in the same “box.” They will undoubtedly misunderstand how potential hires can help them with their company’s goals, if they take their focus off their own goals, and place it on candidate’s employment gaps.

  4. Job hunting by trying to reach out to recruiters and HR minions is similar to playing in a casino: You hear just enough “success stories” to make the gaming seem credible. But in reality, the odds of hitting jackackpot are long. And they don’t increase the more you play. At least that’s what my own involuntary “gap” experience taught me.

    My former company was a bit ahead of its time when it layed me and most of my co-workers off in early 2008. I had a 16-month involuntary “gap” of freelancing. This made me a true pariah to the so-called “recruiters” who were calling and spamming me just a year before.

    If I had not stumbled on this site, I may still be wasting my days sending resumes. Instead, I found a small aggressive company that cared about what I could actually DO for them. They created a position for me when we figured out together how I could actually combine the work that was burdening three separate departments.

    The road to this job began on the beach at the Outer Banks, where I happened to meet an employee of the company who was staying next door.

    This may have seemed like a long shot. But I’ve come to believe that it was a much better bet for me than trying to explain my “gap” to recruiters.

  5. Also, don’t forget: being adversely affected by a facility closing on multiple occasions makes one a “job hopper” and, therefore, unemployable.

  6. I am most days amazed at “title inflation”, especially in the HR ranks. We call them recruiters, yet they bear no resemblance to the baseball recruiter who has been sitting in the stands many a frosty spring evening watching a promising prospect play some little league ball. Rather, they sit in their office hoping that a “purple squirrel” will com bounding out of the bushes and be able to show a resume that has all the arcane, outdated or fantasy experience some employer who knows nothing about his business or technology requires. (Ten+ years Windows 7 SP2 experience, anyone?)

    There are days that I think companies use such inadequate recruiters is that they are truly afraid that a candidate who (a) knows the business (b) knows how he can truly help the business and (c) is available would wind up as CXO and clean house.

  7. @L.T.: Hah – that’s a great insight. Title inflation among recruiters!

    Job Description: Sit on duff, watch resumes roll by on computer display. Occupational hazard: Risk of taking root like a tree.

  8. Nick, I respect your work bu I think you either missed on something in your column or just took for granted that your regular readers would know this (but forgot your new followers).

    In order for this strategy to work, a job hunter needs to do what you have advised them to do for years–research what it is you can do for the firm that will help them make more money or save money in order to present a case for why you should be hired.

    Otherwise, all a job hunter is doing is “meeting spam” that wastes everyone’s time and accomplishes nothing useful.

    Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.

  9. Nick, good advice, as usual. I think that I needed the reminder that companies and recruiters (be those recruiters actual recruiters or HR lackeys calling themselves recruiters in order to make themselves more important and to justify their jobs) who are so willing to shunt my letter and résumé to the delete file because I’m not a perfect for all 50 criteria or because I’ve been unemployed (despite the unemployment rate being on the news constantly for the past couple of years) are actually doing me a favor. They’re taking themselves out of contention for me to consider them as a prospective employer. You’re right–I don’t want to work for someone who is so narrow in his view. I want to be able to learn and grow (and move up) in my next job, not stagnate, nor be pigeon-holed because some HR lackey can only see the criteria, not what I am able to do with training, mentoring, and time. I’m an intelligent, energetic, ambitous person who has a strong work ethic. But employers will never know if they’re so chicken$hit scared to think outside the box. I can do a lot for them, but they’ll never see that if they’re unwilling to take a chance on a non-purple squirrel.

    Happy Thanksgiving

  10. An apropos topic. Good points on how recruiters and hiring managers deal with gaps. A lot of shots at recruiters, but don’t forget behind them are the hiring manager/clients. The manager runs scared from perceived risks of hiring unemployed people (those gaps), and recruiters who don’t know how to spot and sell the talent, also avoiding risks.
    I’d like to get back to the person and how as Nick advised ways to surmount the gap in his particular case.
    This person has a unique value-add. He helped start a successful start-up. Not many have taken a shot at a start-up let alone one that succeeded. That’s his card to play. As to gaps that’s not a toughy. JP’s point is well taken formalize what he’s already done, consulting. Yes there’s a saying that every unemployed executive is a consultant, but in this case, this is a person who left with his flag flying high from a start-up, real or not he did well enough to handle 5 years with some part time income. There’s not enough info to know if it applies in this case,but it’s not unusual to find departees from successful start-ups who don’t need to work, or have treated themselves to a well earned leave of absence from the merry-go-round. Those I know or have met return to the game because they’re bored, or they want that start-up charge again.
    His problem isn’t so much the gap as the fact that he’ll be dealing with people who can’t relate. They snuggled inside a company plying some vocation hoping to rise in time. They didn’t have the nerve to do what he did. He did and he can lay claim to a special experience. Chase that direction. Try for another start up. As Nick advise, network with people who fuel start-ups, lawyers, bankers, accountants etc. And try to cut around them directly to venture capitalists (VCs). Also nose around academia, and local governments, chambers of commerce for start up incubators. You’ll be surprised at where you find incubators in the form of university/government collabortives. Your talent & experience will be appreciated there.
    You can also consider employment with local governments, chambers, academia to help create start ups.
    There’s another route as well which needs networking. Above I was talking about external start-ups. You will find internal start-ups inside major corporations, new business units set up to start a new line of business, or a new product line, to manage acquisitions etc. I know this for a fact because I invested a good chunk of my life into 4 of them. They aren’t without risk, and due to that, you don’t find current managers/professionals anxious to jump aboard. Your start up experience would be appreciated.
    Third, research for companies that openly seek people who’ve been with start-ups. Years ago Microsoft sought out and appreciated people who had that experience…even if the start ups failed. You had business wisdom
    So in sum, a way to deal with this particular gap, is don’t dodge it, flaunt it.