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  • Dr. Caitlin C. Walker

Career Gaps (& why you shouldn't ask about them)

“There’s a gap in your employment history – why?” 

If you’re interviewing for a new role and are one of the nearly 70% of the U.S. workforce members that have experienced a career break, you’ll likely be asked that question, and you’re likely a woman.  

Career breaks, or gaps in employment, can be the result of layoffs, terminations, or other obligations outside of work, and they disproportionately impact women.  Research shows that most women have experienced a career break and that the lengths of their career breaks are increasing.  In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, women have shown disproportionate levels of both job loss and prolonged unemployment, with Black and Hispanic women being most greatly affected.  Despite women, race, and color all being protected classes, it remains legal to question career breaks during hiring, and these types of continued disparities have not gone unnoticed.

While the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) cites federal law that prohibits employers from discriminating against applicants based on race, color, religion, sex, pregnancy, sexual orientation, gender identity, national origin, age, disability, and genetic information, the US Government Accountability Office acknowledges that despite these federal laws discrimination based on sex, gender disparities continue to impact employment and wages.  In response to these continued disparities, there have been federal efforts such as the H.R. 17 bill that promote pay transparency.  However, there are no active initiatives to prevent inquiring about applicants' career breaks.  One in five employers surveyed stated that they would not hire an applicant who had an extended gap on their resume, despite 50% of hiring managers acknowledging that such career breaks are increasingly common.   While the EEOC states that employers cannot discriminate based on “unemployed status,” which includes current or past periods of unemployment, there is no law that prohibits employers from asking about unemployed status.  Regulations only outline that “if any employer does reject job applicants based on unemployed status, it must do so consistently.”  These laws may nominally protect discrimination against someone based on protected classes, but inquiring about career breaks will disproportionately impact protected classes.  

Not only is explicit questioning around gaps in employment not prohibited by federal law, but publishers such as the Harvard Business Review and the U.S. News & World Report have cited career gap questions among their top for applicants to prepare for.  Furthermore, surveys indicate that 51% of hiring decision-makers are more likely to contact a candidate that provides context about their career break.  With women not only being more likely to experience a career gap due to unemployment, but also being more likely to experience employment gaps to provide childcare, elder care, and other family member care, expected disclosure and explanation of career breaks actively perpetuates discrimination.  Part of the concern around career breaks is assessing the reliability and potential risk of the employee being hired.  The EEOC supports this sentiment by saying that employers can’t screen out potential employees based on unemployed status if,  it does not help the employer to accurately identify responsible and reliable employees and if, at the same time, it significantly disadvantages people of a particular race, color, national origin, religion, or sex.”  However, it’s clear that when the state of being unemployed inherently impacts protected classes more, weighting and exploring the reasons for a gap in employment inherently introduces bias.  

Regardless of what is legal, I challenge all hiring managers to move forward doing what is right.  Ask about what people have done while employed, not what they’ve done while they’re not.

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