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Career Advice

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Marc Cenedella

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Resume

How to Explain Employment Gaps, Sabbaticals and Negatives on Your Resume

Here’s how to avoid putting a negative spin on your work glitches and how to stop hiring managers from wondering what you really did with your time.

By Lisa Vaas
Resume

You're a sales manager. Your sales have dropped 5 percent over the past 18 months. That's obviously a negative fact that will come up in an interview. How do you handle it on your resume or in an interview? 

How about this: Instead of losing 5 percent in sales, you maintained 95 percent of sales in a difficult market.

That's only one example of how job seekers should tackle head-on the negatives on their resumes. Nobody wants to hire a loser. Fortunately, there are plenty of legitimate ways to spin negatives into positives.

"There's no escaping the fact that an HR resume reviewer or an interviewer will first wonder if you were the problem that produced a negative situation," said Sandra E. Lamb, career and lifestyle expert and author of "How to Write It."

"It's having that glass-half-full mentality when you go to writing your resume" that will spell the difference between whether you manage to get an interview, she said.

To keep job seekers from falling into the trap of seeing the glass as half-empty, we talked to hiring professionals about some of the negative things hiring managers find on resumes and how job seekers could turn them into positives. Most of them involve how you spent your time between jobs.

Employment gaps

One of the most common negatives professionals must overcome is gaps in employment, particularly as the lingering recession leaves so many unemployed or semi-employed.

Lamb said that there are two steps in handling resume gaps. First, include any volunteer work or work done for the community. Such things are "obviously great experience," she said, and also entail the same skill sets you used in business.

Second, avoid a strictly chronological resume and instead switch to a hybrid that emphasizes your skills/job functions at the top.

"If you've got serious gaps [in your work history], you obviously want to use something in the functional area," Lamb said.

In a hybrid resume format, the top passage - the functional part - lists your skills and accomplishments. The next section places those accomplishments into context in a chronological section of job descriptions.

Sabbaticals

Were you really "on a sabbatical," as your resume says, or are you using that term to cover up negative aspects of your work history? Even if you were on sabbatical, you might want to find another way to account for your time, said Greg Bennett, global practice director with The Mergis Group, a recruiting firm. Bennett has seen the word used as a cover many times.

"It still scares me," he said. 

When Bennett asked one man about a sabbatical listed on his resume, the job seeker explained that "he'd worked really hard over the last three years (the first job he'd gotten since college) and that he took a year off to ‛recharge,'" Bennett said. "When I asked if that was going to be his pattern his answer was, honestly, ‛Pretty much!'"

Other instances he's seen candidates use the term "sabbatical" include one where an applicant finally admitted that it was actually gaps between jobs from which she'd been fired. "It takes a while to get another job after getting fired," Bennett quoted her as saying. Another multiyear sabbatical turned out to be a prison term after a stickup.

"He hemmed and hawed and finally said that he was in prison for a stickup but got out early on good behavior and that the anger-management classes in prison had really helped," he said.

Is that successful spinning of negative material? No, it's just plain old lying. The term sabbatical should never have been used to cover up employment gaps. If you've been out of work, see the section above that addresses work-history gaps.

Lisa Vaas covers resume writing techniques and the technology behind the job search for TheLadders.

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