“Matt: Even though I consider myself to be a very loyal employee, I’m afraid that over the last several years I’ve bounced around to several different jobs, due to the economy, and also now have a few ‘gaps’ in my employment record that employers seem to be all freaked out about — to the point it’s costing me opportunities.  How would you recommend I handle these issues on my resume?”

As I’d suspect virtually all resume-writers and career coaches would agree, the issue above is the “big resume question of the new millennium” as companies still appear to place a big premium on finding stable/dedicated employees, but now tend to lay workers off so often, and so quickly, that candidates with unbroken work histories are getting almost impossible to find!  Fortunately, I think companies are waking up to the reality that the best candidates DON’T necessarily have a picture-perfect job chronology and that the hiring process needs to include a deeper examination of a person’s true skills, qualifications, and work capabilities.  Until the day arrives that the stigma around employment gaps disappears completely, however, job hunters will still have to deploy active countermeasures to minimize the impact of this issue on their self-marketing efforts.

In terms of how to do this on the resume, itself, there are only a few options available — and while they may help to a certain degree, I’ll warn you up front, none of them are foolproof.  Here’s a breakdown of some of the techniques you could consider, ranked in rough order of how “risky” or “unorthodox” they are compared to traditional resume-writing standards:

1)  List your employment dates in years, not months. This is the oldest trick in the book and employers are most certainly aware of it, but whenever you’ve got a bunch of short-term jobs on your resume, it often paints a better picture if you describe them solely in terms of years (e.g. 2008-2009 instead of 10/08 to 02/09) instead of listing the actual months employed.  If you worked earlier this year, too, but are unemployed at present, listing your most recent job as being “through 2009” also camouflages this issue to a certain extent.

2)  Insert the reason for leaving each job. I’ve met several diehard proponents of this strategy over the years, all of whom insist that professionals today should fully “tell the story” of why they left each job so that employers don’t automatically jump to incorrect assumptions (aka “you embezzled funds or had a drinking problem.”)  This camp would suggest you add a “Reason for Leaving:” line under each job title, after which you insert something like “Position was eliminated as part of corporate reorganization” or “Recruited out of company to a more senior opportunity” or something similar.  Personally, I’m not a big fan of this approach and don’t necessarily think it always solves the problem, but in some cases I can see where it might help, especially if the “reasons” you can offer are as pure and innocent as the driven snow.

3)  Leave off certain short-term jobs entirely: In the event you’ve had quite a few short-term jobs within a given year, it might be best to jettison one (or two) of them completely off the resume to diminish the “job hopper” perception, especially if you can employ technique #1 above to cover up the date range inconsistency.  The less relevant some of your shorter-term jobs have been, in fact, the more heavily I’d think about ditching them, unless they were legitimate contract positions — in which case you should identify them clearly as such, since employers are much more tolerant of such situations.  I’ve even had people identify full-time jobs as “contract” in nature, even when this wasn’t technically the truth.  This is a risky strategy, especially when it comes time for reference checks, but I know people who are ethically willing to do this — especially when they felt that the company brought them in for a short-term fix or misrepresented the long-term prospects of the job from the outset.

4)  Rearrange your work history in an unconventional way. Over the years, admittedly, there have been cases where I felt that peoples’ work chronology was in such bad shape, in terms of how it would be perceived by employers, that I recommended they completely break the mold and list their experience in a bizarre, unorthodox way.  In some cases, this meant creating a section called “Relevant Experience” where we presented the individual’s jobs not in date order, but in “relevance” order in terms of how closely their past positions matched their future target goals.  In other cases, we didn’t even include the actual dates of employment, but simply presented the time length of employment (e.g. we put “three years” instead of 2006-2009) and again, ranked the jobs in exactly the order we wanted employers to review them.  This technique is pretty devious, and again, will not endear you to a lot of recruiting personnel, but might still be worth the risk and nab you a phone call if your qualifications (outside of the date issue) are extremely relevant to the job at hand.

5)  Bite the bullet and shift to a “functional” resume format. Alas, once upon a time, a highly progressive resume format called the “functional style” emerged into the world,  where one’s skills and qualifications were liberated from the confines and restrictive nature of pesky employment dates.  If you’re not already familiar with this fairly infamous style, just type “functional resume examples” into Google and you’ll come across tons of them out there.  The problem with this resume methodology?  It developed a very negative rap among most employment circles, since the average types of people who gravitated to the functional style were military personnel, return-to-work homemakers, career-changers, ex-convicts, and the like — in other words, people who had “something to hide” (not in a bad way, please understand) in terms of their work background and employment dates.  As a result, companies now tend to associate this style with “people who are underqualified” and I find that functionally-formatted resumes still elicit a hostile reaction among the HR professionals, recruiting folks, and hiring managers I’ve surveyed.  Still, if you’ve got nothing to lose and think this approach would capture your credentials in the best possible light, go for it!  I still use them once in a blue moon, myself, especially for potential career-changers…

Ultimately, if you’ve only got some mild gaps in your employment history, you’ll probably fare just fine, especially as the hiring world realizes that fewer and fewer candidates are going to fit the “perfect” chronology they seek.  If you’ve got a much choppier story to tell, however, this can spell trouble, and you might test out some of the techniques above to see if they make a difference.  Even more importantly than resume tweaks, though, it will be imperative for you to adjust your job search strategy itself to place far less weight on resume-driven efforts (e.g. published job leads) and more on relationship-driven methods, such as networking, where you can present your capabilities free of intense date scrutiny.

And last but not least, whether addressing the “job gap” dilemma or any other areas of vulnerability you might have as a candidate, I’ll let you in on one additional secret.  As opposed to raging against the injustice of the process, and the superficial assumptions companies make about dates and such, try putting yourself in the employer’s shoes and seeing the issue from their point of view.  While I’m sure YOU are a phenomenally committed employee, I can assure you that there are plenty of slackers, ne’er-do-wells, and bona fide job hoppers around that lead to very expensive, messy hiring mistakes.  What other methods can you use to convince employers you’re not one of these people?  What would persuade you, if you were hiring, to overlook some perceived weaknesses of this kind on the written materials of somebody you’ve never met?  Answering that question successfully might lead you to some strategies and techniques well beyond what I’ve outlined in this posting — in which case, please comment, since I’d love to feature them!