Mllions of employees lost their jobs due to the coronavirus pandemic. Many other workers left their jobs voluntarily for a variety of reasons, such as a lack of child care, the need to be a family caregiver, or concerns about health and safety.
Career and hiring experts are advising these job seekers not to panic about the employment gaps in their work history as they re-enter the workforce this year. Instead, they should be upfront about the break on their resumes and redirect the focus in cover letters and interviews to how they adapted to circumstances beyond their control.
"Before the pandemic, it's true that recruiters and hiring managers questioned a gap in someone's resume and wanted to know the details behind that gap," said Jake Zabkowicz, vice president and general manager for RPO at Los Angeles-based management consulting firm Korn Ferry. "But now, there is an understanding that this pandemic was unprecedented and affected everybody. … [T]here is more empathy for job seekers, especially from certain industries, like hospitality and travel."
Most employers understand that 2020 was a challenging year. "I don't think there is a person on the planet who doesn't understand that the pandemic has impacted jobs and career trajectories," said Janice McVey, managing partner at Dean Group, a Toronto-based recruiting firm. "Even though these gaps don't need explanation given the current climate, I would still opt for addressing employment gaps as soon as possible and be open and honest if asked by a recruiter about the gap. If we've learned anything during this pandemic, it's that honesty and vulnerability are highly valued traits."
Employment gaps don't have to have a negative connotation, said Laura Mazzullo, the owner of East Side Staffing, a New York City-based recruitment firm focused on placing HR professionals. "Yes, provide clarity and context so someone understands what was happening for you during that time—but don't judge yourself for it," she said. "We need less shaming in the job-search process and more ownership of career journeys. If your position was eliminated due to COVID-19, say so. The more you feel ashamed or embarrassed about this part of your story, the more unnecessary stress you're adding to your job search."
Change the Narrative
Experts advise that job seekers who've lost employment focus on what they've done for personal development since then, or how they persevered and how those traits can be beneficial in a future role.
Reskilling, networking, freelancing and volunteering efforts are all activities that can be crafted into a narrative that showcases professional skills and attributes.
"Let employers know you've kept engaged with the community," Mazzullo said. "Staying 'in the know' is important, whether employed or not. Many have things to share about social media engagement, blogs, online learning, new HR networking groups, podcasts, coaching or opportunities to stretch professional development."
Zabkowicz said job seekers should "take a step back and think about what you did at your company in response to the pandemic. What were your challenges during the pandemic? How did you overcome them? Show how adaptable you've been. Show how you maintained level-headedness under pressure. Show how you helped the company pivot. Be specific."
Advice for Employers
Empathy is the key word for recruiters and hiring managers reviewing resumes this year.
"It's up to hiring managers to self-reflect and identify why they still have biases about employment gaps," Mazzullo said. "I'm coaching hiring managers to do this self-reflection so they don't project that onto candidates who are undeserving of this judgment. Why aren't we allowing room for real-life moments like grieving loved ones, taking care of sick family members, losing a job or going through a pandemic? We talk so much about work/life integration, but then we assume people never have life creeping in?"
A sense of understanding should be employed during interviews as well. "It's important to remember that there is a lot of emotion around being suddenly laid off the way a lot of people were," Zabkowicz said. "Remember to be empathetic and give them some leeway in interviews if they appear to be uncomfortable. Some people haven't interviewed for a new job in many years and weren't expecting to be job searching now. Don't judge them for that. Instead, look at their resume and their accomplishments."