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Career Coaching by Former Fortune 500 Recruiters

Reader Question: How Do You Talk About A Personal Leave of Absence?

This question came after a webinar I led called: “How The Hiring Process Really Works.”

It was mind blowing to learn that my resume will probably not make it through the resume screening stage due to my current year-long (and counting) resume gap due to having a child (Note: in the webinar I mentioned that gaps of any kind, not specifically family-leave, raise red flags in a resume screen). In the meantime, how do you recommend mothers address a resume gap for time taken off to have a child and/or raise a family? In the beginning of my job search, I was very open to explaining that the gap was due to having a child, but I sensed some hesitation from several prospective employers once I revealed that tidbit of information. Lately my strategy has been to ignore the gap and only volunteer my motherhood status if asked. Should I explain the gap in my resume? What about in a cover letter?

Yes, you should explain the gap in your resume. No, don’t highlight the gap in your cover letter. And definitely NO, don’t attribute the gap to your kid(s).

First of all, for readers who haven’t heard me talk about gaps, I am a big believer from my 10+ years in recruiting that gaps are big dealbreakers in a resume screen. They are not dealbreakers for your search overall. It is actually not that difficult with the proper positioning to turn a gap to an inconsequential factor or even to your advantage. But that is only when you have a chance to position your gap – i.e., talk about it – and leading with your resume means you don’t have that chance to talk about it.

So, focus on networking and getting access to people so you can tell your story in a way that explains the gap in your resume. Mention the year (or more) as time you took for personal reasons. Then quickly move on to highlight what you did during the gap that is relevant to the employer at hand. If you studied something, talk about that. If you completed project work (whether volunteer or pro bono consulting or internships), talk about that.

You don’t want to dwell on the why of personal reasons because it’s not relevant, and you want to focus on what’s relevant. You also don’t know how the interviewer will react. You don’t know how they feel about working parents (or any other personal time off). Maybe they think you took too little time. Maybe they will start thinking about their own choices and wax nostalgic about their own family leave or get pangs of regret for not doing what you did. Maybe they will feel resentful that you made a choice they wanted to. Maybe they don’t care and will wonder if you always talk about personal things during a business meeting.

As you can see, there are many things that might occur if you bring personal issues into the discussion but they are all distractions. The best thing you can do is move on. This is the same reason why you don’t highlight the gap in your cover letter. The cover letter is to sell the good stuff, not the potential distractions. In the cover letter, you should mention the studies, project work, or whatever you did during the gap, so it’s clear there really is no gap, but don’t put any reasons there. Let them call you in based on what you did, not what you didn’t do.

The capital NO for not discussing kids is because it’s a distraction (as per above), but also because it is a hot button issue for some people. As a recruiter, I always wondered about candidates who freely brought up kids in the interview. Are they not aware that I am not supposed to discuss that in the hiring process – who doesn’t know that by now? Are they aware and trying to make me uncomfortable – what type of person would do that? Are they just unaware of the distinction between personal and business – what will they be like with clients if that’s the case? You can see that no good can come out of volunteering this topic. It is not about hiding anything. It is about having boundaries for yourself and for the prospective employer.

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