You have a promising, skilled candidate you’d like to interview, but there’s a catch — they’ve been out of the workforce for several years.
How can you fairly evaluate candidates with employment history gaps?
What should you look for, and what should you look out for?
How can you stay on the right side of employment law when you ask the candidate about the gap?
Let’s break it down.
Be open-minded and consistent
Approach candidates with employment history gaps a bit differently from those who’ve been continuously employed or with the same organization for a long time.
But it’s important to refrain from making assumptions about candidates with resume gaps, because doing so can prevent you from identifying talent your organization needs.
Candidates may have a gap on their resume because of:
- Family caregiving responsibilities (child care or elder care)
- Health issues
- Going back to school to add skills or train for a career change
- Relocating, such as a trailing spouse who moves for a partner’s job in a new city
These gaps don’t necessarily mean that a candidate can’t do the job, so don’t pass on a resume just because there’s a gap.
Instead, focus on identifying the experience and skills that candidate could bring to your organization.
Evaluate all your candidates on skills and experience
Assess these candidates the same way you would someone who’s currently employed.
If it’s a technology role, keep in mind that technology changes quickly – often drastically. For that type of position, you’ll want to make sure that their skills are current.
For other roles, when applicants have a gap in employment, focus on overall skills and relevant experience.
Candidates who aren’t currently working may list former employers, volunteer coordinators or college faculty as references. Check these references the same way you do for currently employed candidates, and follow reference-check best practices.
For example, ask their references open-ended questions that can give you insight into the candidate’s:
- Work ethic
- Professional skills
- Work, volunteer or academic experience
Keep your pre-employment testing consistent for all candidates, regardless of employment history, to ensure fairness in your hiring process.
Discussing a candidate’s employment history gaps
As we mentioned earlier, it’s important to be consistent in the way you evaluate your candidates, regardless of their work history.
During interviews, focus on behavior-based questions that can show you whether the candidate has the right characteristics for the position. For example, you can ask about a challenging situation the candidate faced at work, at school or in a volunteer role; how they handled it; and what the outcome was.
In addition to your standard interview questions, you can and should ask about the gap on the candidate’s resume. You need to phrase those questions carefully, keeping in mind the legal and ethical constraints around certain topics.
1. How to ask why there’s a gap
Keep your question simple and open-ended.
“I see you have a gap in employment here. What can you tell me about that?”
As they answer your question, listen for:
- The reason the candidate took the break
- The reason they’re returning to the workforce
- Indications of their level of motivation and reliability
For example, a candidate who took time off to go back to school may be motivated to get back into the workforce and put their new skills to use.
2. When to ask follow-up questions and when to move on.
Once you hear the candidate’s reason for their employment history gaps, you must use good judgment about whether to ask follow-up questions about it.
In general, if the gap was because of a return to school, you can ask:
- Why did they go back?
- Were they looking to strengthen their professional skills or pivot to a new career?
- What new skills did they learn as part of their education?
On the other hand, if a candidate’s resume gap was for personal reasons – a new baby, a sick family member or their own health issues – the safest and most appropriate step is to take that information and move the conversation forward to the next topic.
3. What not to ask during the interview
It’s important to steer clear of questions that delve into personal reasons for employment history gaps. Such questions may be illegal, unethical or damaging to your employer brand and reputation.
In particular, you want to make sure that any discussion of resume gaps doesn’t stray into areas covered by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits questions relating to a candidate’s:
- Family status
- Other personal characteristics
Even asking indirectly about these taboo topics can expose your organization to legal liability. (Depending on the state or city where you’re interviewing, there may also be local restrictions on asking about certain topics, such as salary history.)
Instead, focus on asking questions that help you decide whether to move the candidate forward based on their skills and experience.
4. Red flags to listen for during the interview
As you ask your questions, listen for possible red flags.
For example, what if the candidate explains the gap on their resume by saying they didn’t need to work or didn’t want to work? That might raise questions about why they want to return to work now.
If the candidate’s work history shows a pattern of leaving jobs soon after onboarding or multiple bouts of unemployment, it’s important to understand why.
Workers don’t have any control over being laid off, for example, but if someone repeatedly chooses to leave positions after a brief stint of work, that may indicate a pattern that they’ll repeat at your organization.
By approaching candidates with employment history gaps like any other candidates, and understanding the reasons for those gaps, you can tap into a pool of talent with the skills, experience and motivation to be an asset to your organization.
Want more tips on recruiting and asking effective interview questions? Download our complimentary magazine: The Insperity guide to building a better team: How to attract, recruit and hire top talent.