There are few hard-and-fast rules about career development, and many of the ‘rules’ we’re used to are becoming less and less relevant. As the recruitment landscape changes, holding on to old expectations can be a mistake.

Career gaps are becoming much more common. Recent research suggests that approximately 1 in 3 workers has taken a break of six months or more. Despite this, over half of those surveyed were uncomfortable telling prospective new employers.

Traditionally, employers have been wary of career gaps. They have long been seen as a sign that an employee might not be sufficiently committed or may have lost some of their skills. Unfortunately, these assumptions may be costing us some outstanding new hires.

Let’s look at why applicants might have gaps in their work history and how those gaps might actually be a sign of a healthy, enthusiastic, and capable team member.

The most common reasons for candidate career gaps

Before we talk about the possible benefits of career gaps, it’s worth considering why someone might have spent time outside the workforce.

The most common reason workers take time out from their careers is for childcare or parental leave. This overwhelmingly impacts women and is often exacerbated by the high cost of full-time childcare.

Many workers will also spend some of their working years outside the labour market following a redundancy. This situation is entirely outside the employee’s control and can rarely be adequately planned for or avoided.

Employees may need to spend time out of work to deal with severe physical or mental health conditions. Returning to the workforce after a long-term illness can be challenging, but it can often feel like an essential part of recovery.

Children aren’t the only family members who might need additional help. Workers might need to take time away to look after vulnerable family members like elderly parents. Again, this burden often falls disproportionately on women.

Of course, not all career gaps are based on needs. 

Some staff will decide to take a few years away from work for full-time study. This might be to improve skills relevant to their current career or to pivot to an entirely new sector.

Similarly, some team members might decide to spend a few years travelling. Seeing the world is exciting, and it makes sense to have these adventures before retirement age.

Some workers will also have gaps in their work history if they have relocated to a new area, possibly following a spouse who needed to move for their career. This can apply to anyone, but it is especially common for partners of serving military members.

Why candidates are reluctant to reveal career gaps

As we’ve mentioned, most employees don’t feel comfortable explaining their career gaps. They’re not wrong. Many employers negatively view candidates who have spent significant time out of work.

This discomfort has real consequences. Great talent might not apply for jobs they would excel at or they may find the entire application process more stressful than it needs to be. This can mean that they won’t perform well at interviews, reinforcing the employer’s negative perceptions.

So, what do (some) employers assume a career gap tells them about a candidate? Here are some common misconceptions:

  • A career gap could imply that an applicant is lazy and has little motivation to work
  • There is a concern that skills may fade or be lost during time spent outside the workforce
  • Someone with a long career gap might be difficult to work with or not a team player
  • Employers worry about whether they can rely on a candidate who has been able to spend long periods without working
  • Employers may also be suspicious that people with career gaps may not have the degree of loyalty they are looking for in a new team member

Thankfully, these unfounded and often inaccurate perceptions are changing. Candidates know that their time away from work has positively impacted them and what they can offer to a new employer.

Candidate career gaps: why time away from working isn’t always a bad thing

A career gap typically gives candidates a chance to develop new skills. They return to work feeling refreshed and passionate, determined to prove themselves. Eager, passionate, and determined team members are an asset to any company. So, it’s time to shake-up our thinking about career gaps to make sure we don’t miss out.

Reframing career gaps

When we think about how people spend their career breaks, it’s easy to see the advantages for their employers. 

  • People who have spent time caring for children are typically highly adaptable, effective problem-solvers and are excited about working with a team of peers
  • Women are far more likely to take care-based career breaks than men. Making it easy for mothers and carers to apply for your positions can help you improve diversity within your teams, providing opportunities for innovation, profit, and social justice
  • Contrary to the perception of laziness or disloyalty, team members who are made redundant are often incredibly loyal. Think of it like this — they didn’t jump ship from their previous employer at the first sign of trouble but stuck it out until the end
  • Employees who have taken time out of their careers to support their mental or physical health may be more aware of their self-care needs. Far from being a risk factor, these employees may be better able to manage their stress and less likely to suffer from burnout
  • Workers who have taken time to study have learned new skills. Higher education also requires students to be self-motivated and have excellent time-management skills. As employers, these are all essential soft skills to look for

How to approach candidate career gaps going forward

How do we make sure that we’re evaluating candidates fairly when they’ve had time away from work?

Remove unconscious bias from the application process.

However much we might intellectually understand that career gaps can be a good thing, we’re not immune to unconscious bias. The expectation that we should all work full-time from the end of education to retirement is deeply ingrained and hard to overcome.

Luckily, we can sidestep some of this bias to make faster progress. If you recognise that a career gap doesn’t tell you anything about a potential new hire, why not remove that information entirely?

Removing employment start and end dates from your application process eliminates the potential for unconscious bias. Instead, try asking about the length of employment and consider being explicit about not needing start or end dates, especially if candidates submit their own CVs. This tells candidates with career gaps that you are genuinely open-minded about their situations.

Be curious, not judgemental

During interviews, don’t let a career gap become the elephant in the room. Ask open, non-leading questions designed to empower candidates to explain their situation on their terms.

The trick here is to be interested but not intrusive. Often candidates will want you to understand why they made their decision and what they have learned as a result. For others, their career gap will be personal and not relevant to your interview.

Try asking questions like, ‘I see there was a gap between two positions on your CV. What can you tell me about that?’ or ‘I’d like to hear about anything you think might be relevant from your career gap, including skills you learned or qualities you developed.’ 

If a career gap was for something personal, like caring for a loved one or having children, it’s often better to move on unless the candidate actively wants to highlight the skills they have developed as a result.

It’s also important to remember that disability, caring for a disabled family member, and maternity are protected under equality law. In those cases, asking too many questions about a career break isn’t just uncomfortable — it might also be illegal.

Look for candidates who have considered the impact of their career break on their future employment, who have made a clear effort to keep their skills current, and who are keen to get back to work.

Rethink career gaps with crooton

Seeking out candidates with a career break might be a non-standard approach to recruitment, but at crooton, we specialise in unique and effective strategies, including using automation and technology like our employer fencing offering.

Get in touch with our team today to see how we can offer a new perspective on your approach to recruitment.