How to Talk About the Gap In Your Career During An Interview

career gap

There was a time when most employees stayed with a single company for decades, even their entire careers. Those days are gone.

People born between 1957 and 1964 will change jobs an average of more than 11 times over their careers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Younger workers will likely change even more frequently. Most of the time people go from one job to the next, but during a decades-long career, they may leave the workforce to raise children, launch a business, care for a sick relative, or write a book. They might get laid off or fired.

At some point, most people are going to have a gap in their career history. Unfortunately, many are also defensive about it.

If you have taken time out of the workforce for any reason, if you view it as a negative, you may hurt your chance of getting a new gig. In a previous post, I offered advice on writing a resume and cover letter if you have a gap in your career. Once you do get an interview, here are some tips to make it a success.

  • Make a Great First Impression. Psychologists talk about confirmation bias, the idea that once people have an opinion about something, they will look for information that confirms it and overlook information that contradicts it. All job hunters benefit from making a strong, positive first impression, but doing so is even more crucial for those with a gap in their recent work history. Be sure to appear positive, relaxed, and confident from the get-go. “You have a huge opportunity at the beginning, before anyone even knows about your gap, to appear confident,” says Renita Kalhorn, a career coach.
  • Watch Your Body Language. A straight, relaxed posture says confidence to your interviewer. It also makes you feel more confident. Studies show that just maintaining a confident stance for two minutes can change your hormone levels—so be sure you aren’t slumping in the elevator or waiting room. Let your body help you get into a positive mindset before your interview—and hold it throughout.
  • Just say it. How do you talk about the six months you spent caring for a sick spouse or the year you tried to launch a business? First, leave the emotions at home. And during your interview, make simple, direct statements. If you made a choice to step out of the work force for any reason, just state that fact: I determined I wanted time off to take care of my elderly mother. I had a chance to start a company with a partner, and it didn’t work out. Avoid rambling. There is no need to go into details—they don’t matter, and you want to move on as quickly as possible.

Keeping it short is even more important if you have been fired or laid off, as it is more likely that lingering defensiveness or anger seep into your tone. Kalhorn suggests saying, “I got laid off three months ago and have been diligently looking for a new position,” or “I was let go because my manager felt I wasn’t the right fit for the job.” “I was let go because my department lost three positions.” Done.

If your interviewer digs for more, keep your answers friendly, but short. It is fine to say you wished it had turned out differently if that is the case, but don’t express any negative emotions. If you have a positive that you can add, such as if you were fired because you didn’t have a specific skill and have taken some courses to develop it, mention it.

But in most cases, you want to say as little as possible and return the conversation to what the interviewer really wants to know: what you can do for them.

About the Author

Susan Price has been writing about careers, entrepreneurs and personal finance for more than a decade. She’s been an editor at BusinessWeek, Money, and, among others.