Gaps in employment — do they matter?

Gaps in employment — do they matter?

The current competitiveness of the job market means that companies can't usually afford to miss out on quality employees. There are several things you can do to improve your hiring practices, and learning how to evaluate candidates with employment gaps is an effective one. By understanding the importance of gaps in employment in candidate assessment and knowing how to address them, you can identify potential employees you would have otherwise overlooked.

Do gaps in employment really matter?

As with many other complex questions, the answer depends on various factors. Although it's not fair to overlook a candidate because they have employment gaps, dismissing this factor can be counterproductive. In many cases, the number one factor to consider is the candidate's reason for taking time off from work. While there are an infinite number of potential reasons, we can divide them into two rough categories:

Employment gaps for objective reasons

Life is complicated, and sometimes situations happen that give you no other choice but to drop everything and focus on a new priority. As an employer, recognizing these circumstances among your team members can improve their motivation and loyalty. Doing so with job candidates can help you avoid missing out on good employees. Some legitimate reasons for employment gaps include the following:

  • Health issues: Taking time off to treat a physical or mental health challenge isn't something that should make you reject a potential employee. If they can confirm that they've resolved their issues, you can even consider it a plus that they were responsible enough to take care of themselves.
  • Caring for a sick family member or infant: Family is important for many people, and it's also the reason why some work extra hard. Taking time off to care for a dependent family member or a newborn baby shows responsibility, which is something that you should value in a candidate.
  • Pursuing further education or training: If a candidate takes time off for education or training, this should be a plus for them unless the education isn't relevant to the role they've applied for.
  • Starting a new business or freelancing: An entrepreneurial spirit is a trait that you should look for in job candidates. It's important to explore the reasons why they decided to return to being an employee, though.
  • Pursuing volunteering or internship roles: Volunteering or internship opportunities can be great ways for individuals to gain real-life work experience. If the position helped them gain experience in a field that's relevant to the job you're hiring for, then this can be a positive factor.
  • Being laid off and looking for employment: Sometimes employees get laid off due to no fault of their own, such as in situations where a company decides to downsize. While this isn't necessarily a red flag, you should look into the exact reasons and be wary of candidates with repeated employment gaps, as it can indicate an unwillingness to commit to a position. 

"There are several things you can do to improve your hiring practices, and learning how to evaluate candidates with employment gaps is an effective one."

Employment gaps for subjective reasons

Unlike objective reasons, deciding whether a candidate has an employment gap due to subjective reasons is less straightforward. An appropriate course of action is usually to try and find out as much as you can about the situation while avoiding any highly personal questions that you can't legally ask, such as details regarding the candidate's age, disability, gender, pregnancy, family situation, and other sensitive personal topics. Some typical subjective reasons why job candidates may have taken time off work include the following:

  • Traveling: Taking time off to explore the world isn't necessarily a red flag unless you spot a pattern of behavior. In other words, if they took a year off to pursue a life-long dream, then it shouldn't make any difference, but if you think they're likely to drop everything again in six months and leave the country, maybe you should think twice about hiring them.
  • Taking a sabbatical: If the candidate took an extended leave of absence for any of the objective reasons listed above, you shouldn't let this affect their chances of getting the role. If they took the time off for no valid reason, you should be wary about their capacity to work hard for a sustained period.
  • Job hopping: This is a practice that involves professionals intentionally and frequently changing jobs. Although job hopping is becoming more common, an employee who frequently changes jobs isn't likely to add value to your organization.

Tips on how to handle and assess employment gaps

Consider following these tips to determine whether a candidate's employment gap occurred for valid reasons and if it should affect their chances of getting the role:

Avoid jumping to conclusions

This is easier said than done, as we all have our inherent biases. Regardless of what you personally think about their reasons for not working, remember that your goal isn't to judge the candidate but to determine their suitability for a specific role. Assess the candidate with the role in mind and try to put everything into this context. This can help you avoid making any assumptions.

Assess the candidate's entire history

Instead of focusing on the candidate's employment gaps, try to consider their overall qualifications and experience. Listen to them with curiosity when they talk about their skills and work experiences, and try to visualize how they can use those qualifications to benefit your business. If their skills and achievements make them the ideal candidate for the job, then their employment gaps shouldn't make any significant difference in your decision.

Look out for obvious red flags

While you should do your best to avoid making a decision based solely on the candidate's employment gaps, there are some situations where they can reveal major potential issues. One of them is the candidate saying they didn't work because they didn't need to or didn't want to. This can indicate a severe lack of motivation, and you would be right in concluding that they may get bored in a few months and quit the job.

Ask the right questions

When assessing the context behind the candidate's employment gap, asking appropriate questions can help you determine whether this factor should count in your hiring decision. Keep your questions simple, direct, and open-ended to give the candidate the chance to explain the situation from their point of view. The main goals of your questions should be:

  • To find out why the candidate didn't work for a certain period
  • To determine why and under which conditions they rejoined the workforce
  • To determine if they have the motivation and work ethic to build a successful, long-term relationship with your company

You can follow up by asking them how they used their time off to improve professionally. Even situations such as taking time off to travel and see the world can help improve a candidate's skills, as they may be learning a new language or researching how other cultures do things that may be relevant to their profession. Asking these questions is a non-confrontational way of getting the candidate to open up about their experiences during their time off.

As many recruiters and small business owners can tell you, hiring isn't an exact science. While there are certain guidelines you can follow when deciding whether a candidate would be a good fit for your organization, you're the one who truly knows what their qualifications should be. 

Learn more about effective employment practices:

Find out why workers prioritize stability and how to give to them.

Employee burnout is everywhere. Learn how you can prevent it for your employees.

Discover the ways you can build your candidate pipeline with a resume database.

Previous Article
Pre-employment tests: What are they, and how do they work?
Pre-employment tests: What are they, and how do they work?

Find out how your company can benefit from using pre-employment tests to understand more about what a candi...

Next Article
How to become an effective LGBTQIA+ ally at work
How to become an effective LGBTQIA+ ally at work

Take a stand against LGBTQIA+ discrimination. Learn how to make a meaningful impact by becoming an effectiv...

Get inside the minds of 2,800 job seekers and what they want

Download Now