In the tech sector, we’ve had some spectacular flameouts and a tremendous amount of downsizing and restructuring. Many good people have become victims of circumstance and other people’s mistakes.
On the other hand, there are a certain number of "not so good" people who have been able to blame their own lack of employment/employment record on the economy, when the reality of their situation is somewhat different. It seems as if 90 percent (or more) of the people I’ve interviewed lately, when asked why they left their previous employer, answered: "Well, you know, it’s the economy."
Not that long ago, one of the critical points in every interview for me was a brief discussion on why candidates left their former employers. The reasons why a candidate had left a previous employer were a good indicator of why they would stay with a company or even just simply fit in.
With all the "gaps" in the pile of resumes that you need to go through, how can you tell the difference between the good, the bad, and the ugly?
Resume gaps: What to look for
Resume gaps take a number of different forms, including gaps of unaccounted for time, non-linear employment history, and very short employment tenures. The simplest, and most obvious, gap is a linear time gap. For example, Candidate X worked for Company XYZ from June 1999 to April 2001 and then worked for Company ZYX from January 2002 to April 2002.
A simple approach that I’ve seen certain candidates take with their resumes is not to list both the month and year on their employment history, just the year. It’s easy to hide missing months of un/underemployment that way. Another common approach is filling the obvious time gaps with a consulting job/position. This can sometimes be with an independent entity or as president/executive/principal of a candidate’s own consulting practice/firm. None of these things should necessarily be viewed as negative, but rather things to look at, be aware of, and identify as gaps for further investigation and clarification.
Resume gaps: Questions to ask
So you’ve identified that a candidate has gaps, so what? How are you going to tell if it’s all legitimate and on the up and up, or if you have a potential problem case in front of you with someone who’s using the economy as a crutch?
The weakness of the economy and the tech sector in particular, is a legitimate first answer to any gap-related question. What you need to do to separate the wheat from the chaff is to dig deeper and ask the tougher questions:
- Would you have left on your own?
- Would you have stayed if it were still possible (even at a reduced salary)?
- Do you have any performance reviews/letters of recommendation, etc?
- Did you get along with your peers?
- What were the exact circumstances of your departure?
- Has a past employer threatened legal or punitive action against you?
- Why did you start your own consulting practice?
- Why are you looking for another position now?
Don’t hesitate to ask what may seem like an obvious question; you may be surprised by the answers you get. The interview process is all about investigation and discovery.
Resume gaps: Questionable answers
Not everyone gets laid off or restructured. People still get fired in this economy, and people still screw up and end up quitting to avoid getting fired. Good, bad, or indifferent—these things happen. Bad economy or great economy, right or wrong, there is a different stigma attached to being fired as opposed to being laid off and/or restructured.
I’ve heard my fair share of questionable answers to interview questions. The ones that commonly get red flagged include:
- Candidates who claim to have been laid off or restructured but cannot provide a letter of reference, performance review, or recommendation from the previous employer
- Candidates who are afraid or unable to give/provide references of any sort
- Consultancies and independent practices that don’t have any clients or case studies
Reference and fact checking
I, personally, believe in the good nature of human beings in general, but I still strongly believe in reference and fact checking. If the candidate’s previous firm is still in business, it makes some sense to call and ask about the candidate and the circumstances of their departure and tenure of employment. Not every firm will tell you and, in some cases, because of the tremendous turnover in the industry, they may not even know, but at least as a manager you’ve done some level of due diligence. When checking references, I usually ask for three types if possible, supervisor, reports, and peers (and, if it makes sense, clients). Getting a mix of references will help give you a clear picture of your candidate’s character and abilities.
Good people have resume gaps and get fired every day; that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give them a chance and hire them. It’s not about proving people wrong, it's about doing your job and performing an adequate level of due diligence to hire the best possible candidate. You need to have all the facts available so that you can make the best decision for your particular environment.