Out of Work? How Long Before It Hurts Your Career?

How long can you be out of work before recruiters cringe at the gap on your resume?


How long can you be out of work before recruiters cringe at the gap on your resume? I talk with people every day about their resumes and job-hunting strategies. Many are understandably concerned about their employment prospects because that gap has widened from three months to six months and even upwards of 11 months.

As the economy continues to tank, many job seekers will see that downtime grow. Considering the huge numbers of workers affected by this recession, however, hiring managers will be less inclined to trash resumes of otherwise stellar performers solely because they have been jobless for several months.

There’s research to support my optimistic statement. In a survey released recently by Robert Half Management Resources, 150 senior executives from the nation’s largest 1,000 companies were asked, “How long, in months, can a top manager remain unemployed before it hurts his or her career?”

The mean response was nine months.

According to Paul McDonald, executive director of Robert Half, “Most hiring managers recognize the economy has sidelined many outstanding people.” He added that his firm is now acting accordingly by using the economic downturn as an opportunity to bring on experienced players who would have been unavailable a year ago.

The message to top managers, according to McDonald, is to stay relevant and marketable by participating in activities such as volunteer or project work or by taking classes. You may be unemployed, but you don’t have to wither away during unemployment.

In my weekly resume-writing teleseminars, I advise my listeners to think about how they might best describe this gap on their resumes. While hiring managers may afford you more leeway because of the poor economy, you still want to present yourself as the most viable candidate possible. As a result, I advise using this gap as an opportunity to enhance your value by providing additional information that explains your situation in a more positive light.

Ask yourself, “How can I show that I’ve improved my value during this gap?”

Sure, you’re spending that time networking and searching for a job, but what other activities can you promote that could keep you “relevant and marketable,” as McDonald suggests? Perhaps you did a small stint as a volunteer leading a group, worked on and completed a project without pay, or you took a class to improve skills or earn a skills certificate. Maybe you took some time off to care for an ill family member or you worked to overcome a crisis. Whatever you may be able to say here can help to ameliorate that gap and win favor.

Consider that time gap as a possible objection. Answering that objection with a brief sentence might help lead to a phone screen.

If your unemployment gap is growing, here are a few additional pointers from McDonald:

1. Be flexible. You may not find a job that is an exact match for the one you held before. Explore ways to apply your expertise in new areas and highlight your transferable skills.

2. Consider relocating. Be open to opportunities in other cities or states, particularly if your skills are highly specialized or few job openings exist locally.

3. Stay positive. Finding a management position can take longer simply because there are fewer positions available at any given time. Try not to become discouraged, or it will undermine your confidence.


Even though the period between your last job and the present seems to be growing insurmountably, realize that being unemployed isn’t a permanent condition. Many factors affect your employment status. Some you can’t control, like the marketplace. Other factors, like your attitude and activities while you’re unemployed, can all work in your favor — if you let them.