Over at Captain Awkward’s advice column, there’s a question about how to deal with a recent name change when potential employees may call references that know you by a former name. The advice moves a little into how to deal with “resume gaps” in general:
Prospective employers will ask difficult questions about gaps in employment, changes of field, etc., but often they are doing it because they want to see how you react to the question before they decide if it is an actual issue. They want to make sure that you didn’t lie on your resume. They want to see if you have a coherent reason for whatever it is. And they want to see if you react with grace under pressure, or if you turn into a defensive weirdo… [P]lenty of people take time out of the workforce to care for kids, go to school, look after aging relatives, etc. and then are in the position of trying to get back into the workforce. If an employer is going to hold your years as a caregiver or student against you in making a hiring decision, that is their bad. Do not apologize! Do not talk about how your skills are “rusty”! If they say “I notice it’s been a few years since you’ve been working in this field, what’s up with that?” say “Yes, I was lucky enough to be able to take some time off to care for my mom at the end of her life,” or “Given the cost of day care, it made sense for one of us to stay home with the kids for a while” or “Yes, it was strange to be a grad student-by-day, bartender-by-night, but my customers were great and I learned a lot from having such a public-oriented position” and then ask a question about the position at hand.
It’s possible to disagree for pragmatic reasons with the advice to disclose here (see for example annalee’s comment on that post), but I wanted to move away from the question of what individual jobseekers should do — to be clear: I don’t fault Captain Awkward discussing that, it’s an advice column! — to the general question of why this comes up. Why do resume gaps matter, exactly? Why is a job candidate who has several unexplained years on their resume a worse candidate for a job?
Here’s my hunch about why it matters: because it’s a proxy for discriminating against (former or currently) ill or disabled people and carers, pretty much. And people with a history of institutionalisation, and others. So at an individual level you can disclose on the principle that while it sucks that there are powerful bigoted people out there, it’s better to find out that they’re bigoted against you before you’re working for them. Or you can not disclose on the principle that while it sucks that there are powerful bigoted people out there, you might be able to stay mostly under their radar when you are working for them. Not the most excellent choice in the world!
This seems in some ways hackable to me. This isn’t a new insight, but part of the problem with hiring is the need to choose one person (or N people), and, typically, having more than N applicants. You need some tools to eliminate people, so people come up with petty absolutes about resumes that are in the wrong font, or are one page long, or aren’t one page long, or that cover letters that use “I am writing to apply for” rather than “I am applying for” or whatever you like. And of course it’s easy to fall into bigotry too. The ideal worker bee is young and male and “flexible” and so on. If society has squashed someone down by keeping them out of the workforce, you don’t want your organization to have to pay the price for the squashing, so let’s require an age-21-to-present-time employment history too. Some people have that, after all.
There’s a real problem with resume gaps, which is that they might be actually relevant time that the person doesn’t want to talk about with you (for example, the employer they defrauded), but I think it’s at least worth questioning the idea of pushing down on everyone who has ever been out of the workforce in order to find them, and there’s definitely also a desire to ferret out “flakes” (people who you want to discriminate against) among some employers.
One possibility then is that by consciously letting go of the idea that your hiring skills guarantee getting the single best hire, or the belief that your resume filtering skills and interviewing skills are helping you past a certain point, and choosing randomly from the best M applicants as selected by your hopefully-consciously-avoiding-bigotry hiring process. And by letting go of your belief that you need total control in order to select The One, perhaps you can let go of at least some received wisdom about seeing “red flags” in any sign that someone may have done something with their weekdays other than work, and that they may not want to talk to you about that.
What received truths of hiring do you think are bogus or discriminatory?