Why is someone’s entire adult life relevant to their job application?

This article originally appeared on Geek Feminism.

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?

38 Replies to “Why is someone’s entire adult life relevant to their job application?”

  1. Annalee, in her comment over there, said “people aren’t usually discriminated against for having paused their career to get a degree” — but sometimes they are. At least in CS (and I suspect in other fields), people with Ph.Ds who don’t want academic jobs and don’t necessarily want research jobs in industry either can find it hard to get the jobs they want. They’re dumped into the “overqualified” bin because potential employers assume they’ll be bored just writing code — even though that’s not necessarily true, and employers usually assume this without asking. There’s also bias against people with Ph.Ds in some corners of the software industry (pointy-headed academics who can’t get anything done, etc.) I encountered some of this even as a person with just a master’s degree.

    That leads to the temptation to leave a graduate degree off a resume altogether, but that results in a gap that must be explained. So I’d add to that list of bogus “received truths” the idea that without asking, you can tell if somebody is going to be bored at a job and leave (just by looking at their resume). People change their minds all the time about what they like — doing a Ph.D can be a great way to find out that actually, you’d rather just build stuff that works. There’s a perception that people with Ph.Ds, or even with uncompleted Ph.Ds, consider themselves too good to do anything but research — but it seems to me that many people leave grad school (with or without a terminal degree) having resolved to spend the rest of their life doing anything *but* research.

    1. Having been explicitly told I wasn’t getting hired from a job I really wanted because I was overqualified, I am *always* pushing back on hiring committees against co-workers who insist it’s not worth calling the overqualified candidate. Why can’t we give them a chance to convince us why they want our job when they could have what we perceive as a better? It’s a choice I made; others might as well.

    2. It’s also the “owning a business” bin that attracts a bias. The same projects and skills are treated differently if you mention that you, also, were this company owner. It’s like there should be always a boss above you required to validate your skills and experience. It’s not your creativity, versatility and wearing multiple hats that are valued. This problem is not uncommon even for owners who brought their startups to a successful acquisition, but had gaps afterwards.

    3. Good call, Tim. I was assuming that the letter writer was seeking employment for which their graduate degree would be seen as an advantage. But you’re right that that’s not always the case.

      1. Yeah, in my experience, a major reason why that wouldn’t be the case is that there just aren’t *enough* jobs-for-people-with-Ph.Ds out there. (Lack of patience for the stress and low pay of academia is another, of course.)

        1. I live someplace where there are lots of Ph.Ds not working in academia, which is where my ignorance on the subject comes from. Many higher-level positions with my town’s biggest employer require an advanced degree of some sort.

          But anyway, yeah, mea culpa for talking about something I don’t actually know a lot about.

  2. One thing I’m quite open about online is that I have a history (and present) of mental health problems. In fact the original purpose of my blog was to discuss the difficulty of getting off government aid and back into education to get some qualifications. So I have this big gap in my work history and several unusable references, because I had a nervous breakdown on the job and then went into denial and kept working, switching jobs whenever things started getting messy and then spending years on sickness. By sheer luck I managed to get a job last year that didn’t even have an interview process due to major natural disaster prompting a massive need for data entry etc at a charity and I’ve started at school again, so my CV looks better now – but there’s still that gap. To some extent I can flub it by saying “For several years I worked customer service and food preparation jobs” and just letting people infer that those jobs filled the entire time. Otherwise, I can hope that my online contacts get me a job where they’re aware of my history and don’t care, or even see it as a bonus since I’m going to be in the policy field and have extensive first hand experience with the front-line impact of welfare policy!

  3. I’ve been on the hiring end of that question, and when I see fairly unexplained gaps, I like to ask it to eliminate two possibilities (which I’ve seen in action):
    1. They had a job during that time, but don’t want me to contact anyone from their old job because they did something they’re trying to hide (fraud, poor performance, etc.). Note: I’ve also seen cases where the applicant was in a toxic environment and fears that the terrible ex-boss will blackball the applicant, so I try not to jump to conclusions, but will want to look into it.
    2. They’re trying to change careers and are applying for this job since they think they can get it, but only as a back up and intend to leave it as soon as they can. (note, this is fine for contract work, but for some positions, I’m looking for someone who want to be emotionally invested in the organization).

    I don’t mind answers that indicate the applicant needed to stay out of work for health or family reasons or because they simply had difficulty finding work in the field.

    I’m also not really concerned unless the gap is a recent one, but I’ve had some surprising things come out by asking this (like the guy who really wanted to be a baker and freely admitted in the interview he planned to take the IT position but try to start his baking business on the side and leave IT as soon as it took off).

    This is not to say that some people don’t ask this questions for the reasons you detailed in the post, but I wanted to add some of the other reasons potential employers may be interested in it.

    1. I don’t mind answers that indicate the applicant needed to stay out of work for health or family reasons or because they simply had difficulty finding work in the field.

      The trouble is though that they do not know this when you’re asking the question (I guess unless you explicitly tell them that it’s OK and even then it’s maybe hard to tell) and therefore have to make the “is this person going to write me off for being ill/a mother/etc, shit what do I say, am I about to shoot my career in the foot?” judgement call. It’s tough.

    2. I have never understood some employer’s desire for their employees to have a “emotionally investment” in their job/organization. First, employees by definition have a limited amount of power in an organization (compared to owner’s and bosses). I have worked with people who were “emotionally invested” in a project and when a decision was made that they disagreed with they ended up being a huge drain, constantly bring the decision up again and again, never letting us move forward, because they were “emotionally invested” and knew that it was a mistake. Second, it seems really manipulative, the whole “We are a family” thing when they need you to give up something but, “We are a business.” when they can’t afford to pay you and keep paying the higher ups their salary. Third, if an employee is good at what they do, easy to work with, and responsible then why demand any of their emotional investment?

      When I first graduated and when to work, I was very emotionally invested in my project. When it got cancelled I was really upset. Since then I keep work at arms length (not people, not causes, but WORK). It helps me be a better employee, I think, because I am more resilient to failure and decisions that come down the line.

      I am not trying to jump down your throat or anything, I am sure you are a good, fair person and I understand that if you hire someone and train them you want them to stay for awhile because it is a hassle to hire and train someone new. However, if you hire and train someone and then the money you were planning to use to pay them disappears would you keep them on just because you made a commitment to them? Most companies/organization wouldn’t; it would jeopardize their business to do so. So why ask a person to make a decision that would negatively impact their life (take a job that would lead to a better career) because they interviewed with you first?

      One more story then I’ll quit. My freshman year of college in my intro to aerospace engineering class the professor told a story that was obviously directed towards some of the students. It was about a young man who loved airplanes. He read about them and memorized them, and made models but he sucked at math and could grasp any of the mechanics behind flight. He was not meant to be an aerospace engineer. I think that 9 times out of ten if I have to choose between passion and ability I will choose ability (the tenth time is for a performing artist).

      1. Yes, I remember when an employer, after diluting all the employee stock options to literal worthlessness, and after three years of pay freeze and a round of layoffs, laid into us for not having an emotional investment in the company. They fired us like it was going out of style, but we were expected to be invested and work ALL THE HOURS.

        1. I had a friend who was working day and night, putting his heart and soul into a project and being paid terrible (they hired him as a contractor so they wouldn’t have to pay benefits and he could not get health insurance on his own because of a pre-existing condition). He could have easily gotten a better job but when he talked about leaving our project manager told him that the project would die without him. That is emotional blackmail, It is like the shoot-the-bunny method from south park and it is not right.

        2. Elizabeth G. — Indeed. At my first job (at a 7-person company) my boss (who was also the president of the company) constantly told us implicitly or explicitly that the company was going to fail if we didn’t do [whatever] right. Because the company had only one customer, it might well have been true that the health of the business was fragile, but that was *his* responsibility as the business owner and not ours as employees. Being new to the biz, I didn’t know any of this and I thought that kind of behavior was normal.

      2. Actually, employers (i.e. business OWNERS) rarely care about somebody’s resume gaps, emotional investment, being a family… If you spend your own money, you only care how you exchange it for a value/work this person can produce, as simple as that. If I get an awesome work from a hairdresser, I can’t care less if they keep a bakery as a second job. It’s usually corporate management (i.e. employees as well) that wants to prove their worth to the bosses follow the protocol of [whatever written in management books and passed by bosses]. Really, common sense to have management not to be emotionally involved, as well.

        1. to fl_ : Buy a crystal ball? As I told one employer, “toss a coin, you can’t know a person based on an interview”, while they were “assuming” something (not true) about me. He was an owner, so I was hired. Later, he admitted he was wrong saying things about me.

          Really, how do you predict something not predictable? You made a bad choice and hired a wrong person, stop using their services. People do it all the time, switch doctors, dentists, real estate agents. One company owner almost didn’t do interviewing, but gave a 2 week trial period (one person didn’t work out and was let go). He pretty much saved money and time having people already working instead of interviewing. For other companies, it might be a short contract project or such. With companies not providing training these days and requiring plug-and-play skills, cost of training can’t be an excuse.

        2. So, how I hired software contractors for a small project. I asked for work samples and comprehensively reviewed them. I’m a software developer myself so I can understand the complexity and quality. Out of 4 contractors, one had very good samples. Another 2 provided something low quality, even looking good on a resume. And I felt that another one was asking way above market price for no reason. The first one was hired and did a good job. He wasn’t even “interviewed” in the traditional sense, only got a few questions. Less did I care about how his resume was written, what emotions he had about this project, or any awesomeness. I only needed what I specified and paid for.

          I think that corporate hiring is just wasting too much time for the “process”, keyword scanning, talking and witch hunting. Then there is no time left to look for good candidates and estimate what they can provide.

        3. (I think threading is maxed)

          “You made a bad choice and hired a wrong person, stop using their services.” “…it might be a short contract project or such.”

          That situation is impossible to emulate where I work – it takes, I would say, anywhere from 6 months to a year (occasionally longer) to get an employee fully trained and able to operate. Even ignoring the difficulty in firing people (I’ve heard it’s difficult; I’ve not been in a position to try), that could easily be a $100,000 trial (salary, benefits, costs of training) – or worse, if the employee epically screws something up and another has to re-do everything or fix the mess/ put out fires/ apologize profusely to customers/ etc.

          That’s not to say I think companies should get to see a person’s whole life as relevant; I’m just pointing out that hiring someone is sometimes an unavoidable gamble, and you don’t always have the ability to hire them on trial.

          And another thing, for many candidates it’s probably not in their best interest to accept a trial position (esp. if it’s contractual) when they could spend that energy looking for a full-time-with-benefits job. And if they’re trying to switch companies, it might not even be possible – lots of NDAs try to squash such things.

          It’s simply not that simple to predict someone’s ability to do awesome (or even satisfactory) work.

        4. to: Minaria

          I don’t know where you work, but my own anecdotal evidence is that 1. software companies mostly hire on a need basis – for example, to help with a new release 2. after the need is met (3-4 months after, when the release is out), they don’t care anymore if this person quits, despite what’d been claimed during the interviewing. This person already made more money for the company then they’ve been paid, so why care? Or it becomes clear that they are not good early into working with this release. If it’s so important to keep people, why don’t companies bother to fix it if an employee is unhappy with their job? Instead, this person would get a suggestion to quit or even let go. Been there, and so had my friends. I personally would never invest an year purely into somebody’s training, it’s absolutely unreasonable, less should they be kept for so long if they don’t work out. If a manager is not able to evaluate their impact and/or legally let them go (employment at will), plan the project so it’s not screwed up (which might happen for a variety of reasons), too bad. There is something like a formula that a good SW engineer should produce at least 5 fold of what that’re paid. I.e. if there is anything that’s considered as a “training period”, then the “production” during this period should be still higher, ideally 5 fold. Even good interns would meet this rule. Strange thing, it actually creates a motivation to keep low producers (in hope they get better one day and pay off) and not to worry if the good ones quit after a few months of employment… That said, it’s still not possible to predict a person’s productivity during the interview.

          As per NDAs (probably Intellectual Property, not NDAs?), I had to dig into it myself. Sometimes there are loopholes. Say, for California, those things are not enforceable if somebody takes a contract on a side.

        5. Another anecdotal evidence… I’ve heard of a job applicant who was asking to pay off his testing (i.e. non-contract) projects, as well as mileage to get to an onsite interview. Interviewing already sounds like doing a contract with no pay… Some sneaky employers even try to get a technical advice for free, pretending to interview (been there).

    3. I don’t mind answers that indicate the applicant needed to stay out of work for health or family reasons or because they simply had difficulty finding work in the field.

      I have definitely seen hiring committees get annoyed with candidates who clearly took time off to raise their kids, even if they didn’t illegally say so in so many words. “Not committed to the profession,” is a good workaround for that one. So not knowing which kind of employer you are, how does the candidate answer?

      1. An interview is a two way decision. If the employer is going to be unreasonable in the interview then they are going to be unreasonable further down the line. Yes it does feel like you are in a weak position when unemployed and really really wanting a job, but if they don’t know what questions are illegal to ask, and have a problem with you having a life, then it probably doesn’t help you in the longer term to go out of your way to adjust your interview answers to what you think they want to hear.

        1. This was addressed in the OP:

          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!

          The reason this isn’t the most excellent choice in the world is that there is an insufficient supply of awesome-cakes employers who have generous parental leave provisions and accessible offices and pooled sick leave and diverse hiring and etc. Your choice as a mother might be between the org that requires 12 months of full-time work before considering conversion to part-time, or the part-time work with the guy who frowned a bit at your maternity leave gap and said “… we hope you understand that project deadlines are tight here and we wouldn’t want any… unnecessary interruptions [maternity leave]… in your work. Everyone here is very committed. [Don’t get pregnant.]”

          The penalties are also unequal: if you decide not to take a job, the employer (unless very small) takes a search and hire financial hit that is pretty small compared to their budgets. However, you have to find another job offer, and typically your salary was not a negligible line item in your household budget. So framing it as a negotiation between parties of comparable power doesn’t get you very far.

  4. I’m in a weird position myself, having been caught out by the combination of “well, the modern employee is going to be mobile, and dynamic and have a range of jobs” and the whole “resumes longer than five pages get binned” thing. My work and study history, if I keep it concise (as in, one line per event, no details) can fit on one page in a 10-point font. But as soon as I start adding details, or put things into 12-point, or whatever, my work history balloons into multiple pages all on its own. I’m at the point where if I want to give a reasonable summary of what I did for each one of my employers, I’m going to have to fill at least six pages with details – and I’m only forty.

    My current resume chops off at about the year 2000, because that’s as far back as I can go without going over the five page limit. I started working back in 1986. I lose over half my working life in doing this. I lose a lot of other events, too – like changing cities at the end of 1998 and the middle of 2006.

    But what really honks me off about it all? I mention something which is actually stated in my resume, and the interviewers look at me blankly. This is even MORE annoying when the people interviewing me are the various recruitment agencies around the place – I’m sitting there in front of their consultant, they have a copy of my resume right there in front of them, and instead of spending the two to five minutes of their time reading the silly thing, they want me to recite it!

    But then, the whole process of looking for work and trying to find a job is largely administered by agencies which are stuck in a model which may have last worked successfully back in the 1950s in the USA. It doesn’t work in the twenty-first century anywhere.

    1. Actually, rather a dream model of the 50s, the technology allowing to select candidates for interviewing WITHOUT reading the resumes.

      I myself used to have the famous(?) resume template, which you first look at and “what’s that? it’s not readable”. Pretty much 3-4 pages for a college graduate stuffed with keywords repeated in various fashions. It did work to generate clicks and interviews better then a readable template. Go figure.

  5. I interview, and I pretty much ask this question for one reason: because the answer might be “I was in jail”. Unfortunately, this question is so common, I feel like if I didn’t ask it, and the person turned out to be a known criminal or something, I would be considered negligent.

    There’s other concerns outside of people being ill, for example someone told me they spent a “gap” recruiting people into the church of Scientology, and I found it hard to keep this out of my mind as I interviewed them.

    I’ve never had a candidate say that they took off time due to family or medical reasons, most people put this on their resume. “I failed out of school” is the most common answer to gaps (and I think it’s relevant to a person’s ability as an employee, although I do ask why, and sometimes it doesn’t matter).

    1. I really hope you will read The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, about, among other things, how legalized employment discrimination against people branded as felons or criminals forces people who have served their time to be forever relegated to a disenfranchised underclass.

    2. A huge percentage of people who’ve served prison time were doing so for non-violent drug offenses. Because drug offenses are prosecuted differently based on the race of the offender (and white offenders are likely to avoid jail altogether), discriminating against people who’ve served prison time is basically racism by proxy.

    3. Scientology also comes to mind as discrimination by creed. If there is a risk of being concerned, then a good rule would be “don’t ask, don’t tell”.

    4. there is an excellent resource here on interview questions that can’t be asked and how to legally ask similar questions if you can.

      It is based on UK employment law but is generally good advice everywhere. In the misc section it mentions that you can only ask about offences that are relevant to the job in question. I don’t know how that relates to time in jail exactly, quite glad it has not come up!

  6. I’m a Canadian, and I like to think our criminal justice system is a bit better … although there’s still a disproportionate number of low-income and mentally ill people in prison.

    Unfortunately, I don’t think hiring a person with a criminal record is a decision my company would allow me to make– our legal responsibility would be so much higher if something went wrong with an employee with a criminal record (for example, if an employee made an error that killed another employee because they were on drugs, or stole from a customer to support an addiction, if we knew that employee had been in jail for a drug offence and chose to put them in the position anyhow our liability would be immense). Also, I think it raises insurance rates for things like employee theft.

    I do wish that interviewee hadn’t mentioned Scientology– it’s something you’re not allowed to discriminate against at all (nor would I want to), but I worry about unconscious bias. “I was on a mission with my church” would have been a sufficient answer in my mind.

    1. I’m pretty sure there is racism in Canada, and unless your company has an explicit rule saying you *have* to ask about a criminal record (if so, I would think you’d be asking directly, not asking about the reason for gaps), if you don’t ask about it at all, it seems to me like you’re not going to have an issue over hiring a qualified person who happens to have made a mistake at some point in their life.

  7. So far, this whole discussion has been framed — from the title on down — by the assumption that a resume must be a complete employment history. However, that’s not necessarily so. An effective resume is a relevant employment history, tailored to the specific position for which you are applying.

    If you’ve been working for more than about ten years, you can usually provide only a selected job history, specifying that it’s selected in the sub-heading. A selected history works especially well if you have worked in several related fields; the implication is that you are doing potential employers a service by not asking them to read through material that’s either not really of interest to them or else better illustrated by other pieces of your history.

    Similarly, if you are a contractor or a consultant, you can list your sole proprietorship or incorporated company, rather than every client you have ever had. The time covered by such work might easily include some periods of unemployment, and, in the sort of summary provided in a resume, you’re not expected to list every client (for example, in my own case, I would have to list over 60, which would be impractical in a 2-3 page resume).

    Often, too, you can use a skills-based resume, with a list of what you can do and maybe an Achievement section. An Achievement section consists of a series of career highlights, typically in three sentences: the first saying what you did, the second how you did it, and the third how what you did helped your company. Those applying for senior executive positions often use this kind of resume, on the grounds that it highlights their skills better.

    Unfortunately, these alternatives are not always practical. They’re not much good for someone newly on the job market, who may need to put everything possible on their resume. Sometimes, too, an interviewer insists on a complete chronological job history, not always because they are looking for subtle ways to discriminate but simply because they don’t know what they’re doing and have a vague idea that a complete job history is necessary.

    However, if you are in the position to use these styles of resume riding, you can usually sidestep the whole question of employment gaps with some grace. The fact that a resume needs to be truthful does not necessarily imply that it needs to be complete. Should you be asked about gaps, you should have a honest answer ready, but generally you are not expected to provide one unasked.

  8. It would seem that the solution of different resume styles is more suited to precisely people who in general experience less discrimination (all other things being equal, and they may not be): middle-aged people with a career history spanning decades; people whose career breaks, if they exist, are at least some time in the past; people who were able to work enough to maintain a consultancy.

    However, the general point is fair enough. Basically what happened in structuring the OP is that when Captain Awkward talks about what interviewers want in the third person, I read it in the first pretty easily:

    [I am] doing it because [I] want to see how you react to the question before [I] decide if it is an actual issue. [I] want to make sure that you didn’t lie on your resume… [I] want to see if you react with grace under pressure, or if you turn into a defensive weirdo

    (To be clear: I don’t know her other than from what she writes on that blog and on Twitter. From those I gather that she presently teaches, but has in the past had management responsibilities. I don’t know if she had hiring responsibility, is anticipating having it, or was told how it works in her field(s) by mentors. So I am not imagining that she sat down to a pile of resumes after writing that. But I do imagine that she’s describing either her own motives or ones she’s very sympathetic to.)

    Thus, the universalising. It does seem clear that for some significant fraction of hiring managers, a chronological resume is expected, and if not produced, the first question is “why?” and the second one is also “why?”

    In your case:

    Should you be asked about gaps, you should have a honest answer ready, but generally you are not expected to provide one unasked.

    Should this include disclosing your membership of a protected class? If so, why?

    I know people, from the quote from Captain Awkward down, have given their own reason for doing so, but I still want everyone to be explicit about if and why they think that if an interviewer comes up with a sufficiently innocuous question that has the honest answer “parental career break”/”military service”/”missionary work”/”making Hajj”/”disabled”* as an answer then they’re home free on getting the honest answer. It may be that you’re now trapped into disclosing, but in that case I’d personally phrase it as “Should you be asked about gaps, well, unfortunately you’re trapped and there’s a lot of bad options and the least bad is probably disclosing. Damn.” Even if they weren’t looking to discriminate, sometimes the honest answer gives them the opportunity.

    I may be being unfair to you, I guess one honest answer is something like “I wasn’t working between 2002 and 2005.” It’s clear from this thread alone that some people will ask pointed follow-ups though.

    * These are not all answers that identify protected classes in all possible jurisdictions, of course.

    1. Yes, different resume styles are often easier for those who need them less.

      But the main problem is that most people have no experience presenting themselves in the best light. They may feel it is somehow dishonest, and many genuinely have only a murky idea about what parts of their background might be useful on a resume. When I’ve written resumes for people, by far the hardest part is getting them to dredge up useful experience. Yet even relatively inexperienced people frequently have enough background that will allow them to try a different resume style.

      As for readying an honest answer, I should have said “an honest answer that you can live with.” When you are applying for a job, answering readily is often at least as important as what you answer. Hesitation will probably count against you far more than a less than ideal answer. By answering promptly, you may at least give the impression of being organized and confident.

      However, you need to decide what personal details you will not disclose, and be prepared to defend the limits you set. Getting a friend to grill you beforehand can be good practice.

      Of course, by answering a question by saying, “Sorry, that’s personal,” you should realize that you run the risk of excluding yourself from consideration. But then, an interview is as much for you to evaluate the company as it is for the company’s representative to evaluate you. You might well decide (as I have once or twice) that a company that would pry too deeply is not one with which you would prefer to work.

      Don’t forget, too, that an answer that can be the grounds for discrimination can also be grounds for short-listing you for the position. For all you know, the interviewer might have gone through similar experiences to you, and sympathize. Or, possibly, an interviewer might respect your willingness to set boundaries. I’ve won positions or contract for both these reasons, as unlikely as they might sound.

      In the end, it’s not for me to say what anyone’s limits should be except mine. But I do suggest that you have them very clear in your mind, and be prepared to live with the consequences of sticking to them. By definition, interviewees don’t have the most power in an interview, but that doesn’t mean that you have to give away even more power by acquiescing to everything that’s asked of you, or by not planning ahead.

  9. My issue with this question is the same as my issue with quite a few common interview questions: it leaves a lot of room for various biases to unfairly impact a hiring decision.
    In essence, it assumes a series of things that are more likely to be true for more privileged applicants, and puts the onus on less privileged applicants to “make up” for not meeting those assumptions.
    I’ve heard the reasons people do ask it, and it seems you can either find that information better ways – for example, adult criminal histories are public record – or that question probably won’t turn up the information you’re actually screening for.
    It’s a pretty small percentage of any applicant pool who would have significant issues – like being fired for criminal reasons, or having debilitating addictions – that could both hide them and make it through a hiring process. You probably wouldn’t catch those people with employment gap questions anyway.
    The whole reason most jobs have a probationary period attached is because those questions aren’t especially good at doing what they’re intended to do.
    What they are remarkably effective at is giving employers’ unconscious biases room to influence decisions by digging out personal details – like the Scientology guy – that really have no bearing on the job itself.

    1. The discrimination begins the moment you walk into the room. Studies repeatedly show that that most interviewers make up their mind about candidates in the first few minutes of an interview, before any questions are asked.

      Then, just to add insult to injury, the whole process of asking questions appears to be only 3-7% better than random chance at picking a suitable candidate (http://www.employment-testing.com/interview_problems.htm)

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