I noticed that a number of people find my blog because they are searching for information on dealing with a gap in their resume due to time out of the workforce to care for family. They land on this post, "How to Explain Gap in Resume: Caring for Family or...Coma?," which tells the story of one mother who was advised that she'd be better off telling a prospective employer that she'd been "in a coma" than saying she'd been caring for family and "doing nothing."
I knew that wasn't good advice. While I give some tips in my original post, I decided it was time to go to the experts for more advice for my readers. So I reached out to my friend Carol Fishman Cohen at iRelaunch. iRelaunch offers a range of resources and services for women reentering the workforce. All of which are informed by Carol and her co-founder Vivian's constant interaction with employers and recruiters, plus their own experience as hiring managers and recruiters.
Carol packed our conversation with advice worth its weight in gold, for mothers and for anyone with a gap in their resume.
Kristin: Carol, multiple studies show that mothers in particular face automatic bias that has a direct impact on pay and promotions. Being a woman and having a gap in your resume often triggers that bias. So what's the most important resume advice for someone who has a gap in her resume?
Carol: First, don't leave any time unaccounted for. Whether you did something during your career break that was relevant to your career or not, don't leave any question in people's minds about how you spent time. If you haven't done anything relevant to the career you want to reenter, that might mean including in the "Personal" section at the end of your resume, "2005-2011 Career break to care for children."
If during your career break you did have an educational experience, or volunteer experience or consulting projects that are relevant to what you want to return to, you will want to include those.
Kristin: What if the person only did occasional consulting work?
Carol: Occasional consulting work is legitimate resume material. I might list "Carol Cohen Consulting" and bullet points of three projects I had during that time, even if the work was only here and there. You can include this and other unpaid experiences under a category labeled "Experience" rather than "Work Experience" and combine all of those experiences under one category. We advise against using the term "volunteer," and some people like the term "pro bono" especially in the legal field, where it is common.
Kristin: How do you advise structuring the resume?
Carol: We are big proponents of a chronological resume. We speak with recruiters all the time who hate the functional resume -- it forces them to spend time to fit together your work history. You don't want to create work for them or they might decide it's not worth it.
There is also the relatively new concept of a hybrid resume which lists functional highlights at the top that are particularly relevant. That's fine to include as long as it's followed by a chronology of your work history.
Kristin: What do people need to know about how this advice translates to using LinkedIn?
Carol: We highly recommend translating your resume to LinkedIn. We talk with recruiters who say they won't interview someone who doesn't have a LinkedIn profile. When recruiters use LinkedIn to search for people, which they are doing more and more, the profiles that are 100 percent complete come to the top. If yours is only 85 percent complete, they'll have to scroll to get to it.
But in order to reach 100 percent complete, you have to go out and get three recommendations. And people ask "How do I do that if I haven't been working?" If you've been doing strategic volunteering, then you can get the executive director or other staff of the community organization to write a recommendation for you. Or you might want to ask someone for a pure character reference. And it is legitimate to go back in time and ask people to write a recommendation, even though the work took place in the past.
Kristin: This is such valuable insight, Carol! Now how about the interview? How should a person approach interviews after a career break?
Carol: Ideally, the first contact a hiring manager has with you is through a personal contact, which is followed by your resume. This shows how important it is to get out of the house and interact with people. You need someone to vouch for you personally and you never know where you'll meet those people.
In an interview situation like that, the interviewer already knows you took a career break. When the topic of the career break comes up, do not apologize. Briefly acknowledge the career break and then immediately move on to why you are the best person for the job. For example, "I took five years to care for my children, and I can't wait to get back to work. The reason I'm so interested in this job is because of the experience I've had recently."
Also, when you are talking about past experiences, talk about them as if they happened yesterday! Don't preface comments with "Back in 1992... " Say, "When I was working at Xerox we had this difficult sales situation and here's what we did."
Now, if the hiring manager remains fixated on your career break, then you should suggest a short-term, non-binding, paid arrangement -- an internship, contract, special project or consulting assignment with no obligation to hire you. You say, "I can see you are concerned, so let's do something short-term. You can get a sample of my work. We can both evaluate the working arrangement and then make a decision." Your message is, you have some perceived risk, and I'll take the risk out of the picture.
Kristin: What is the biggest mistake relaunchers make?
Carol: Relaunchers tend to downplay their experiences. I hear it again and again, and it even extends to general storytelling in networking and social situations. In every situation, you always want your story practiced so you can tell it in a way that's not downplaying it and gives detail without going on too long. That's one of our top ten tips: practice telling your story. Start with nonjudgmental family and friends. When you are comfortable, move on to circles you know less well. This is all interview rehearsal.
Kristin: And now for some inspiration, can you share a favorite relauncher success story?
Carol: There are so many! One accountant, a CPA with four children, had been out 17 years. Her husband died suddenly. Three days before our first conference in Chicago, she got in touch with us and said, "I need to get back to work soon and I need benefits. Is it hopeless? Will the conference help?" We said absolutely you should come! She came, and six months later she returned to her original employer, McDonald's. In the accounting department at McDonald's there were people who had been there 20 years who still remembered her! Sometimes it's baby steps and sometimes it's a big leap. There are more stories on our site, just click on success stories.
Kristin: What a great story! Okay, can you highlight a few more of the great iRelaunch resources and services?
Carol: It's free to become a member of iRelaunch on our website and there are lots of free resources there, including our resume guide. You can also learn more about our book, Back on the Career Track, and about other services we offer for a fee. We hold regular return to work conferences, for example. We are coming to New York City in October and Washington D.C. in November. We host Relaunch Circles which are small groups of four to eight participants who meet virtually with a coach to work together on a customized curriculum focusing on career assessment or job search tactics. We have a circle starting June 6th and one starting June 9th. We also offer online technical updating classes, with Excel and PowerPoint classes coming up in June.
Kristin: Thanks so much Carol, I knew you were exactly the right person to share advice that is a lot better than that "tell them you were in a coma" tip!