It’s not as uncommon as it once was to have an employment gap on a resume. Even so, the stigma that once came with those gaps is still a concern for many job seekers. We received a question about this issue recently and shared it with Leslie John, Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. Here’s the question and her answer.
Q: After working at the same company for many years, I was laid off. Although I was devastated, I decided to view this as an opportunity to take a year off and go on a trip around the world, something I’d always wanted to do. Many wonderful adventures later, I’m applying for jobs. When I’m asked for the name of my employer during this time, I simply leave the question blank because I’m worried about making this gap in employment a bigger deal than it already is. Is my intuition right?
To disclose or not disclose: What to do with an employment gap on a resume
A: Your reluctance to draw attention to your employment gap on a resume is perfectly understandable. In everyday life, horror stories abound of people who have been denied admission to colleges or rejected for jobs because of their voluntary disclosures of information about themselves (many of which are made in the “heat of the moment” on social-networking sites).
But research I conducted with my Harvard Business School colleagues Kate Barasz and Michael Norton suggests that your intuition is wrong. We found that when faced with the choice between drawing attention to a sensitive fact—for example, an awkward employment gap—and hiding it, people often choose the latter, a strategy of omission that rouses suspicion.
In our series of experiments, we have found that withholding information on a given attribute (such as the name of your employer during the last year on a job application) causes people to view us negatively—even more negatively than if we were to disclose that we possessed the worst possible value on that attribute (in your case, that you were unemployed). For example, a candidate who opts out of providing a relevant exam grade on a job application will be judged even more harshly than someone who discloses an F, the lowest possible grade.
Why does this happen? When someone fails to reveal key information, we tend to make inferences about that person’s character—namely, that she is the type of person who hides information and therefore is not to be trusted. In such instances, withholding information can lead to a “double whammy”: The “hider” is assumed to possess the worst possible value on the given attribute and pays an (un)trustworthiness penalty. When faced with decisions about whether to disclose an embarrassing or sensitive piece of information, we need to be aware not only of the risk of disclosure, but of what hiding reveals.
Our findings shed light on the debate surrounding a Supreme Court ruling (Salinas v. Texas, 2013). Genovevo Salinas, accused of murder, had been cooperating in a police interview but suddenly refused to answer when the line of inquiry shifted to the murder weapon. Salinas’s unresponsiveness was subsequently presented as evidence in his 2007 trial for murder, in which he was convicted. Salinas later appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that his Fifth Amendment rights had been violated. The court upheld the conviction, ruling that Salinas’s refusal to answer the officers’ questions was admissible evidence. Salinas may well be guilty of murder, but our research calls this ruling into question by demonstrating that people are prone to drawing unwarrantedly negative conclusions from the absence of disclosure.
Getting back to your situation, I advise you to acknowledge your employment gap on a resume. If you can, include a cover letter in which you explain how you turned your bad luck into a good experience. By doing so, you will head off prospective employers from assuming the very worst about a nonresponse—and encourage them to view your travel as an asset that would bring valuable breadth and perspective to the role.
How do you handle an employment gap on a resume?