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.
I 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?
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.
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?