How to Explain Unemployment on Your Resume

« Back to: Step 7: Your Work Experience

You'd be surprised how many job seekers have gaps in employment. If you're one of them, you need to know how to explain unemployment on your resume. Why? Because you want the employer or recruiter who's reading your resume to feel okay about those gaps. Hey, maybe he'll even be interested in learning more about them (in an interview)!

Also see: Resume Examples That Solve the Employment Gap Problem

What's Wrong With a Gap in Employment?

You might ask, "What's the big deal? Don’t I deserve a break once in a while?” Of course you do, just like the many responsible workers who take time off from their careers to travel, recover from injuries, take care of ill parents, and all sorts of other legitimate projects.

Employers understand. Most have taken time off themselves. But they want (and need) to know what you were doing during your time off. They'd especially like to learn that while you were unemployed you did something that supports your job objective (for example, going back to school for a related degree). If you didn't do something relevant to your work, be sure to tell them you were involved in something that shows strength of character (for example, volunteer work).

If an employer sees an unexplained hole on your resume he may think, “This person's hiding something” or “This looks like someone who could have a problem” (such as laziness, substance abuse, or prison time). In order to gain the employer’s trust, you need to explain gaps in your history.

How to Explain Unemployment

Here are a few things you should know about how to explain unemployment on your resume:

1. List only years — not months — when writing dates for your work history.
Using just years achieves two things:

  • It makes it easier for the reader to quickly ballpark the length of time you stayed at each job.
  • It conceals gaps that happened within a span of two calendar years.

Let me show you an example to demo that last point. Notice the gap here:

11/09 - 4/12, Night Manager, Taco Bell, Woodmont, NY
3/07 - 2/09, Day Manager, Denny’s Restaurant, Milpitas, CA

If you use only years and eliminate the months, there is no apparent gap:

2009-2012, Night Manager, Taco Bell, Woodmont, NY
2007-2009, Day Manager, Denny’s Restaurant, Milpitas, CA

2. Explain the gap if you have a period of unemployment that spans two calendar years or more.
Consider everything you were doing during that time (such as travel, volunteer work, internships, training, family projects) and if possible, present them so they're relevant to your job objective.

For example, a person who cared for an ill parent for two years and is now looking for a position as a pharmaceutical sales rep might write:

2010-2012, Primary Home Care Provider for terminally ill relative

Someone applying for a position as a travel agent might list his vacation destinations:

2010-2011, Travel: Central and South America

A mother re-entering the workforce who wants to be a teacher’s aide might write:

2010-2012, Parent and Classroom Volunteer, Brio High School

3. If the gap in your work history is not relevant to your job objective, explain it honestly and with dignity.

Warning: Don't refer to illness, unemployment (even if it is clearly due to a recession), and rehabilitation because they suggest that you might be a high-risk job seeker. Instead, write about something you were doing during that time, even if it’s not related to your job objective.

Here are some suggested “job titles” for such gaps:

Full-time Student
Independent Study
Full-time Parent
Family Management (or Home Management)
Family Financial Management (or Estate Management)
Adventure Travel (or Travels to …)
Personal Travel

4. Call this section Work History or History if you include unpaid "job titles" in your work history.
You don't want to use a heading like Professional Experience or Employment History because “professional” and “employment” both imply that you were paid for the work you did.

More on Unemployment on Your Resume

See what other articles I've written on how to deal with unemployment on a resume: Unemployment on Resume

Also see the Comments section of Ask Me Your Resume Writing Questions where I've helped many job seekers find answers to their unemployed-on-resume problems.

90 Resume Samples
Susan Ireland's Ready-Made Resume Builder
Professional Resume Writers

« Back to: Step 7: Your Work Experience