The Hidden Value Of Career Breaks

After the tumultuous times we’ve had in the past 18 months, these pesky little items are going to be popping up on people’s CVs more commonly.

But how are they to be tackled from a recruitment perspective?

I’ve had leaders who flat out refused to interview anyone with an ‘unexplained gap’.
I’ve had leaders go in hard and question candidates KGB style about the details of their gap at interview.
I’ve had leaders pass on ideal candidates because their career gap made them ‘unreliable’ or ‘uncompetitive’.

These attitudes, like so many overly traditional perspectives about when, where and how people work, need to be trashed. But how do we reframe career breaks as positive experiences that add to a candidate’s value?

I’ve interviewed hundreds of candidates in my career. The ones who hands down always had the most interesting story to tell were those who’d taken career breaks.

Without fail candidates taking career breaks had done something courageous.

They’d sold their stuff and gone backpacking for a year, or dedicated 6 months to building an orphanage in a developing nation, or represented their country in their chosen sport for a season, or tried to turn their side-hustle into a lucrative business, or caravanned across the country with their young family, or enrolled in a course they’d always dreamed of doing, or taken time out to give IVF one last go, or cared for dying relatives and friends.

And here’s the thing I think we need to focus on:

Every single one of those experiences changed those people.

Taking a step off the smooth highway to traverse a bumpy dirt road takes guts and determination. It’s on those uncharted and unpredictable roads where people’s character is formed and tested.

I can’t recall anyone who simply took a career break to sit at home eating TimTams and watching daytime TV. And even if they did, whose to say that in itself wasn’t transformative for them in some way?

What I found dull was the endless line of candidates applying for a new job that was almost identical to the one they were already doing and having no compelling reason for why they even do that job.

They couldn’t articulate:

  • what it was about the job that captivated them, or
  • What motivated them to get out of bed even if they knew the day was going to be a bit shit, or
  • How the job aligned with their personal values.

Career breaks are freeing.

They allow people to get out of the daily grind and begin to assess what they really want to spend their time doing; what they feel passionately about, what their hidden strengths are.

Career breaks give people the ability to articulate their interest in applying for a role not just because they can do the job, but because the job actually means something to them!

I wonder how much more productive our organisations and economy would be if people had the headspace to figure out what truly floats their boat and do that, instead of just doing what they’ve always done?

And look, I should probably disclose my bias here. I love me a career break!

My first break came when I was accepted into Law School fresh out of high school and quickly realised it was something I did not want to do. But I had no idea of what I did want to do, so…

I became a Beauty Therapist.

I found I loved working with people and had great natural empathy, but working with some rubbish salon owners made me determined to learn how to be a better boss.

So I enrolled to get my Business/HR degree.

And unlike all my friends who chopped and changed their majors over a number of years, I was totally focused. I loved my degree from start to finish. Why?

Because that experience allowed me to learn stuff about myself I had NO chance of knowing at just 18 and 19 years old. Developing that knowledge enabled me to make clear choices about what I did and didn’t want to do.

‘But’ I hear you say ‘you were a kid and gap years are really common’.

Yeah, they sure are! I firmly believe having an opportunity to find yourself is invaluable; yet it seems ‘gap years’ are only palatable to employers if you’re 18 and on the Heathrow Express.

Why don’t we embrace the value of career breaks for adults? If we acknowledge these experiences build character and help set direction for young adults, why don’t we ascribe the same value to them when people take time out later in life?

I’ve had career breaks as a grown up too and they have been no less formative than my first!

I became a parent and took 18 months leave to care for my son which gave me a whole new skill set to draw upon including greater patience, improved research skills and the ability to build amazing relationships really quickly. It also cemented how important my career is to me and how much I love driving positive change for people within organisations.

But before I could scamper back into the office from parental leave, I was made redundant and my next ‘involuntary’ career break occurred.

I started my own business to occupy my time until my dream role eventuated (which took 12 months almost to the day) and in that year I learned things I would NEVER had the opportunity to learn in a corporate role like marketing, online facilitation, networking, strategy setting etc. It also highlighted my preference for working as part of a team instead of as a lone wolf!

So despite having ‘not worked’ in 30 months, I’m more of an asset to an organisation now than I was when I commenced parental leave back in 2018.

Detouring off the smooth career highway onto one of those bumpy old dirt roads to who knows where has tested me and forced me to try things I wouldn’t have opted to; all of which has been incredibly valuable experience.

And that’s the true power of career breaks; it unlocks potential in people they didn’t know they had!

So instead of quizzing people about why they took a career break, try and encourage leaders to ask more interesting questions that delve into the power of career breaks like:

  • What is your most interesting reflection on the time you’ve had away from work?
  • What unexpected things have you learned about yourself through this time?
  • What hidden strengths have you discovered you have from that experience?
  • How has time away from work changed the way you think about work?
  • What experiences from the past X months will you be bringing into this role?

Enable candidates to discuss why they’re a fabulous candidate because of their career break, not despite it!

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