I suspect that a patchy CV affects a high percentage of people. You know the sort of thing – obvious gaps cropping up here and there in your working history. A bad move followed by a major piece of bad luck followed by another move to an awful company, a lull in the market, and the next thing you know it looks like moths have attacked your CV.

How do you cover off on this problem as you put yourself out there in the marketplace on paper? If you just got the chance to talk to a potential employer, you could probably explain the patchiness away in an instant; but unfortunately, you have to let your CV do the talking for you.

In putting your thinking together on how best to deal with problems in this area, start, as always, from the perspective of a potential employer. If you present a piebald CV what is likely to be going through the reader’s head? It will be a rare employer who looks at one of these and thinks touchy-feely, positive thoughts – “Oh look, an unexplained gap; I’ll bet this person took a much-needed career break to volunteer in sub-Saharan Africa and learn many new and exciting skills.”

More likely, they will think of dismal, negative possibilities. Couldn’t hold down a job because of itchy feet, immaturity, or just being some kind of nomadic dolt? Burnt out? Fired and couldn’t get a job? Making license plates as a guest of the state? Couldn’t get hired anywhere because of a toxic reputation that I don’t know about yet?

Naturally, where possible, you want to put a good spin on any and all gaps on your CV, but sometimes that just isn’t possible. 100% honesty may not be your best policy, but full-on lying is rarely going to serve you well either. The world has become far too small to hope to get away with glaring omissions or fabrications about your past. There are two major reasons to not tell a big lie on a job-hunt:
  1. If you get caught, your professional credibility will be irrevocably blown and you will, like as not, lose your job.
  2. If you do get away with it, you will be looking over your shoulder every day and may find you have lied your way into a square peg in a round hole situation to boot …

When Where How?
When do you explain the fissures in your past and where/how? I would recommend getting the big reasons-to-hire-me up into the reader’s face first. Typically, your cover letter is the first thing read, so you need to move WAY past a perfunctory, “Please find herewith my CV” and get into the meat and potatoes of why you are the answer to their prayers.

Deconstruct it. Break the job you are applying for down into its component elements and rate yourself against the key success factors for the job. If you are not scoring highly, do yourself a favour and don’t apply. If you are the cats pyjamas for the job, clarify exactly why and tell them. THEN you can think about explaining how you fell off the planet for nine months. Twice. In a row.

Functional Schmunctional
The conventional wisdom is that you paper over the cracks in a gappy work history by producing a so-called Functional CV. This style of CV highlights your major skills, clustering your achievements and contributions regardless of when they occurred. For example, you may have done a small amount of account handling in three different jobs in your past; the functional CV allows you to clump all of the skills and experiences relating to those disparate times into one section of your CV so the recruiter doesn’t have to join the dots on this.

The upsides of a functional CV are fairly limited. They can occasionally be useful if you have a stop-start history of employment, or if you are trying to highlight particular activities that you want to undertake in your next job. They can also be useful if you are either applying for positions in a new sector or applying for your first job.

The downsides of this approach, however, can be humongous. Because the functional approach is a less common format than the chronological CV, any experienced reader will look askance at your application and immediately start wondering what you are trying to hide. It is for this simple reasons that I do not recommend using this format. If you don’t provide some sort of chronology or a really good explanation for the crevices, you will be waiting a looooong time for an invitation to an interview.

Ancient History
If the gaps appear way back in the ice age of your career and you have had a strong, contiguous career for the last 5-10 years, then you can go for a Résumé style CV and simply leave your early history off altogether; or covered with a one-liner like: “I spend the early part of my career in the Blah-Blah industry, cutting my teeth in junior roles and learning the intricacies of the business.” Alternatively, you can ‘cluster’ a series of patchy jobs from your past. A typical, no-holds-barred, chronology looks like this:

  • June 2004 – Present Widgeting Guru, Smidgets Inc

  • Jul 01 – Jun 04 Widgeting Wizard, Fidget & Co

  • Dec 99 – Dec 00 Widgeting Manager, Gidgets Ltd

  • Jan 98 – Apr 99 Widgeter, Digit Inc

  • Mar 97 – Oct 97 Widgeter, Legit Ltd

  • Mar 96 – Dec 96 Widgeter, Hitch It & Sons

  • Sep 94 – Mar 96 Apprentice,Widgeter, Widgets Inc

Fairly patchy, with two 3-month and two 6-month gaps on there. The one positive in this one is that the individual has stayed in the same industry and has shown steady, if unexceptional, career progression along the way. Why are the gaps such a problem then? Primarily because, in this day and age, no one is going to leave a job to go to nothing unless they have to. Gaps of this nature immediately beg the question: Did the individual go or was he/she pushed; and in either case, why?

In this case, it would be better to ensure that you get to interview, and further, to avoid becoming bogged down in that discussion at interview by ‘glossing over’ these downtimes. A résumé coverage of this person’s working history, clustering the early years, could be presented like this:

  • June 2004 – Present Widgeting Guru, Smidgets Inc
  • Jul 01 – Jun 04 Widgeting Wizard, Fidget & Co
  • Dec 99 – Dec 00 Widgeting Manager, Gidgets Ltd
  • 1994 – 1999 Apprentice Widgeter to qualified Widgeter, Various Co.s

It’s not 100% honest, but there has been continuous employment since July 2001 and most employers aren’t going to be too interested in this individual’s life before he/she became a Manager. This individual would just need to make sure that they covered off the January to June 2001 period with a clean, brief explanation. A word of caution – if some gung-ho recruiter goes looking for early references, they will probably uncover the gaps, so you’d better have your story straight and it better be consistent with what those early referees/employers are saying about you.

Reasons not Excuses
If you have moved job-type a lot, or if you have been taking numerous temporary or contract assignments, papering over the cracks like the example above is probably not going to be enough. You will need to provide some degree of explanation with each cluster of piecemeal working history. None of these are ‘safe’ per se, but they are better than nothing and you can measure the acceptability of your pitch according to your success rate and feedback from your network.

  • Considering your options
  • Travelling – the ‘much-needed career break’ approach
  • Doing contract work to fund a job search for a more fulfilling career
  • Significant (but now resolved) illness
  • Carer for elderly relative
  • Winding up a complex estate following bereavement
  • Stepping back in to a family business at a critical time

Quick Departures
These happen and they look just awful. You were headhunted for a lot more money, but the organisation was like the ninth pit of hell and you ran screaming out of the door after six months. The tack to take on this is that it took immense courage for you to do this and to admit your mistake not just to yourself, but also (through your CV) to the market. And what did you learn from this experience? Well, at the very least, I trust that you have checked out the organisation you are applying to now with a microscope, so there are going to be no unpleasant surprises on either side this time.

A note of caution here – do be careful about bad-mouthing a previous employer, no matter how much they deserve it. Any interviewer listening to your vivid descriptions of the lake of fire in the Finance department of Company XXXX will be thinking, “I wonder what this person will be saying about this company/me in a few years’ time?”

The Long View

A couple of gaps on your CV are not a bad thing – the clumsy cover-up is a bad thing. Getting caught in the clumsy cover-up is a really bad thing. Remember, a linear, un-chequered, Little Lord Fauntleroy CV can be perceived as being boring, staid, predictable, or overly conservative. Look at the CVs of some of the household name CEOs and entrepreneurs. Along with the headline-making successes, there are gaps, failures, educational holes, false starts and retracing steps along the way.

Let me close by saying that finessing your way out of a ‘patchy’ CV is simply not always possible. In this instance, you may have to take a significant step backwards to prove your stability and yourself to the market again. One thing that I do come across in the vast majority of cases like these is that the individual is, to some extent, floating along. If you are working to a plan for your career, these patchy episodes tend not to arise and if they do, you can see them for what they are and quickly take corrective action. The thing that no potential employer wants to see is repeated instances of this kind of behaviour, because that means you keep sticking your hand in the fire and you are learning nothing from the experience. Take your licks, learn your lesson and get back out there!