Job searching while you don’t currently have a job always comes with worries about how potential employers will look at this gap. Unfortunately, even though it’s unfair and irrational, there are some companies that may discriminate against unemployed people when hiring. These employers may wonder if you lost your last job because of poor performance, whether your skills might become outdated if you’ve been unemployed for a long period of time, or whether you might quit as soon as something better comes along. However if you were laid off due to COVID-19 and the surrounding economic downturn, the situation is a bit different.
Because millions of great people are out of work due to these unprecedented events, employers likely worry less about unemployed job seekers now. As a career coach and outplacement consultant with 22 years’ experience, I know the situation was similar during the recession of 2008 and that employers were more understanding of people who had been laid off then too.
I have worked with hundreds of people who were laid off, including many who were laid off due to COVID-19’s impacts. And because I focus on public health—I work at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and I’m co-authoring the third edition of the book 101+ Careers in Public Health—I read epidemiologists’ predictions for how a global pandemic could affect the job market long before the coronavirus hit, and have thought a great deal about the ways in which this pandemic is radically changing the job search.
So when job seeking, should you disclose your coronavirus-related employment gap up front or even emphasize it? Or is it better to downplay and hold off mentioning it until an employer asks you directly (while still being honest, of course)? And how should you talk about it if and when you do? It all depends on your situation and personal choices.
Here are a few tips to help you navigate when and how to discuss your pandemic-related gap during the job search:
Fill the Gap and Try to Stay Positive
Regardless of how or when you bring up the reason you’re looking for a job, one of the best ways to address any employment gap is by talking about the ways you’re filling it, either with volunteering, learning a new skill, or taking on other responsibilities—paid or unpaid.
Though it can be very difficult to try to stay positive about your job search when you’ve been laid off, I have consistently found that job seekers who maintain and communicate their enthusiasm and keep building both new skills and their professional networks while they’re not working are more successful in bouncing back from a job loss.
Volunteering, taking courses or retraining for in-demand jobs, starting your own project or business, or looking for short-term gigs or freelance projects can all help you build your skills and make you a more desirable employee.
Working with new people is one way to grow your network. You might also attend virtual networking events, set up informational interviews, or reach out to your existing network. By establishing and strengthening professional connections, your resume, cover letter, or interview won’t be the only way employers get to know you—though you might still want or need to address why you’re currently job hunting at one or more of these stages in your search.
Acknowledge the Gap on Your Resume
Unless you know someone at the company you’re applying to who can refer you, chances are that an employer’s first impression of you will be your resume.
Most job seekers use a chronological resume format, which lists your past experience from most to least recent and typically includes start and end dates for each job. Recruiters are most familiar with the chronological format, and some are skeptical of alternatives—especially those without employment dates. (If you’re making a major career change or have an employment gap spanning years you might consider alternative resume formats, but proceed with caution and consider working with a resume writer).
So unless you’ve been temporarily furloughed, you may be stuck listing your employment end date. And that is the correct, honest approach. “Place an end date on that employment section on LinkedIn and your resume. Keeping a ‘to present’ date when you haven’t been working since, say, June 2020 isn’t helping your search,” says Lisa Rangel, owner of Chameleon Resumes and former executive recruiter. You don’t want to look dishonest to potential employers.
However, there are still different ways of conveying your employment status on your resume. Being up front gives you the chance to take ownership of a bad situation by highlighting your achievements in a positive way. This is a good approach if you feel confident that you have relevant, recent experience, and don’t have a long employment gap (say, less than a year). “Best to rip the Band-Aid off [and] own the fact you aren’t currently employed due to COVID,” Rangel says. “When a job seeker isn’t up front, it can make an interviewer wonder what else the job seeker isn’t being up front about.”
In the job entry for your last position, directly state that you lost your job due to COVID-19 and point to projects or achievements you were working on prior to the layoff, says Steve Levy, Technical Sourcing Lead at M&T Bank and cofounder of the Association of Talent Acquisition Professionals.
Here’s one example of how you might do this:
- Designed new CRM system to track client experience, which was on track to increase efficiency and accuracy by up to 20% prior to COVID-19-related layoff.
However, if you decide to downplay your layoff on your resume (which doesn’t mean you can’t be up front elsewhere!), there are a few strategies you can use. People read from top to bottom and left to right—so readers notice items closer to the top and to the left of your resume. You can downplay dates by listing them on the right-hand side of the resume and using a smaller and/or an italic font—and certainly not bold—for the dates. For instance, which of these makes you notice the dates more?
May 2019–March 2020: Sales Development Rep, XYZ Solutions, New York, NY
Or this one?
XYZ Solutions, Sales Development Rep, New York, NY, May 2019–March 2020
Another idea is to add a “summary” section to the top of your resume. This is a section with a few sentences or bullet points that highlight your key credentials and achievements. With a summary, the recruiter’s first impression is of your strengths and skills, not your recently lost job. If you’re also making a career pivot—for example, if your previous industry has greatly reduced its hiring—this can also be a chance to reframe your career story to fit into a new field.
For instance, here is how a theater house manager, who used to oversee audience relations and run day-of operations for plays and other performances, might use a summary section to pivot into customer service:
Client services professional and event manager with expertise managing complex, time-sensitive projects with multiple stakeholders, successfully managing high-touch events with budgets of up to $1 million, 30 staff, and 400 customers, while ensuring customer satisfaction.
Whichever approach you choose for your resume, you can still show how you’ve been filling your time with part-time or freelance work, volunteering, or learning new skills. It’s best to address the gap on your resume by creating an entry in your experience section outlining what you’ve been doing, Rangel says.
For example, if you’ve been volunteering or working part-time in a role related to your career, you can add an entry like this where the bullet point mentions the skills you use that are directly related or transferable to the job you’re applying for:
ABC Food Bank, Direct Service Volunteer, March 2020–present
- Accurately coordinate logistics for up to 15 deliveries of nutritious food per day and conduct effective outreach to families experiencing high levels of food insecurity
If instead you’ve been taking courses to build up your skills, you could add an entry in your Education section, like this:
Continuing Professional Studies, Virtual/Remote, March 2020–present
- Upskilling through self-directed coursework and study in user experience (UX) design and C++ coding.
Give Context in a Cover Letter
Another option is to mention your unemployment in a cover letter, in addition to or instead of providing details in the resume. You can choose to put the information toward the end of the letter or to lead with it. Because a cover letter has more room for flexibility and creativity than a resume, there is more opportunity to add context to your situation, so you may choose to be up front here even if you weren’t in your resume. Here’s one way you might talk about your layoff in a cover letter:
“I have devoted much of my career to digital marketing in the hospitality industry. My most recent employer cut its marketing budget across the board and I was laid off due to COVID-19, and I am now eager to contribute my skills and expertise to Brenda’s Virtual Gifts and Celebrations and provide high-quality marketing analysis for your team for many years into the future.”
If you’re making a career switch, mentioning your layoff can explain why your experiences may come from a different industry than the job you’re applying to. So if you’re that theater house manager, you can say something like this:
“After spending much of my career in performing arts management, I am in a transition due to the COVID-19 related closure of Broadway theaters, and am excited to use my strong client service and event management skills to provide high-quality customer service for your company.”
But keep in mind that while many employers—especially those hiring for roles where written communication is a core skill—do read cover letters thoroughly, others may not. So always be prepared to explain why you are in a career transition and more importantly why you’re excited to work for this company if and when you land a job interview.
Be Ready to Address Your COVID-19 Layoff in an Interview
Whether or not you explicitly address your employment gap in your resume or cover letter, you should be prepared to talk about it in an interview.
Use your answers to interview questions to overcome the employer’s possible worries: Focus on the positives, don’t seem like you’re hiding anything, and avoid sounding desperate for any job and instead sound enthusiastic about this job. “I’m in transition and looking for a new opportunity. Your company seems like a great fit!” sounds better than, “I’m unemployed and need a new job right away.” And always talk about how you’ve been filling in the gap: “Tell me what you've been doing; tell me specifically what you've been learning.” Levy says.
One of the first questions you’re likely to hear is, “Tell me about yourself.” If you want to be super up front about your gap, your response to that early question might sound like this:
“I am an accounts receivable professional, and I pride myself on my accuracy and dedication to high-quality work. I began this career after completing my undergraduate degree in accounting and have worked at several business supply firms for the last five years. In my most recent role, I managed more than $5 million in accounts receivable each year, and because of my follow-up, we were able to bring in 10% more revenue than the company did before I joined the firm. Now that my company has been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic and I’ve been laid off, I’m very excited to contribute my skills to your firm to help you bring in more revenue, too.”
If you’d rather not lay it out there right away, that’s OK. But you may still be asked interview questions like, “Why did you leave your last job?” or, “What have you been doing since you left your last job?” So it’s always best to be prepared in advance in case such questions arise.
For instance, in response to, “What have you been doing since you were laid off?” you might say:
“Since I was part of my last company’s COVID-19 layoffs, I have learned to be resilient, flexible, and open to change, and I am now excited to leverage my skills in a new way. While overseeing virtual education programming for my kids, I decided to take an online class on UX design to supplement my digital marketing knowledge. I’m really excited to use my training to improve user experience for your company’s website as part of a larger strategy to increase engagement and conversion rates.”
Ultimately, you can learn a lot about a future employer by how they respond to your employment gap. After all, would you want to work for a company that won’t hire you because you were laid off due to the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown or a boss who isn’t understanding about health challenges faced by millions of Americans? Job searching during a pandemic is hard; now more than ever, we can hope that employers will be compassionate.