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HR, It’s time to normalize career gaps. Here’s how.

For a long time, the standard advice for job hunting was “hide your gaps.” Whether you took time off for personal or family reasons, lost a job, or just didn’t have a specific kind of experience, the goal was to make it look like you’ve been seamlessly in the game (and on top of your game) all the way through. But reality has always been a bit different–life throws curveballs at all of us at some point, and sometimes it will inevitably impact our work life. And sometimes we prioritize other life factors over career development. It’s time that we stop pretending that the only worthwhile work experience is a relentless, unbroken line from school to retirement.

With the pandemic year, more people than ever are going to have gaps in their resumes due to layoffs, health concerns, or caring for children or family members. People are being “forced” out of the workforce at alarming rates–but at some point, they’ll need to be back in it. Stigmatizing gaps is counterproductive, and may just marginalize people more when they could be great assets to your company.

Still, silently having your recruiters ignore gaps on resumes isn’t the solution. Companies can be proactive in finding ways to find and help people who’ve taken breaks or been out of the workforce.

Focus on skills in your recruitment

Start with your job descriptions. Are they focused on having X years of experience, or “current” experience? In order to reach talent that might have the skills and background, but not the currency, you should target the job skills and requirements. Quality, not quantity, should be the priority here.

Otherwise, someone who had years of experience as, say, a marketing manager creating successful campaigns before leaving her job three years ago to take care of her kids, might not apply for a job that specifies current experience in the role. It’s not about lowering standards, but about making sure your language is inclusive of people who know they can do the job, and have the skills but be scared off by the idea that only current experience counts.

Even something as small as “or equivalent experience” can help bridge a resume gap for someone who may not have been working in the role, but has relevant non-work experience in the meantime.

In interviews, you can also expand the playing field a bit by going beyond the resume and giving the interviewee an open-ended opportunity to provide specific and relevant examples of skills or past experience, even if their work experience isn’t super-current.

Make your application experience more inclusive

Drop-down menus on a website may seem like a minor thing, but if you’ve ever had to select from a range of options that don’t really apply to you it can be off-putting or even alienating. If you recruit online and direct users to choose from a set of specific job titles, consider making those menus more inclusive of people who have been doing alternative work–for example, parents.

Recently, LinkedIn added “stay at home parent” and other caretaker options to their list of profile jobs. Just seeing this kind of option in an official capacity can help normalize unpaid work for people who’ve been outside the traditional workforce. In turn, applicants can feel more validated (instead of ashamed) when they’re trying to get back into a different work mode. It shows that your company is open to considering people who have gaps or less traditional work roles.

Consider adding “returnship” programs to your hiring repertoire

People who have gaps in their resumes may feel insecure about returning to a standard office environment after time away. Having a “returnship” or “return-to-work” program–which offers mentorship, skill-building and training opportunities, and support–can help older workers re-entering the workforce, parents who’ve taken time off for family care, or people who’ve faced long periods of unemployment. It’s kind of a middle ground between an internship (which is typically unpaid and geared toward entry-level employees) and jumping back into a full-time job after time away.

The key to returnship programs is making sure you’re clear about offering them. Job seekers may confuse them with internships, and feel like they’re too old or too experienced to apply. By making this kind of program a clear part of your recruitment (and promoting them in your standard recruitment channels), your company may find talent pools that were just not part of your passive recruitment before.

Resume gaps are often a fact of life. The more companies prioritize applicant quality over experience quantity and continuity, the greater the upside. And tools to help ease the transition for people who’ve been “outside the lines,” so to speak, will help ensure that you’re creating a productive work relationship for all involved.

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