Work-Life Strategies & Solutions

On the Evolution of Work Systems in the Digital Economy

Another Look at Employment Gaps, Responsibility, and Objectivity

“They just think that you might have a problem with drugs or alcohol,” a friend explained, “They don’t want to hire someone with that sort of problem.” So, employment gaps carry a negative stigma even though people have a wide variety of reasons for taking a few years off here and there. Due to the recession, potential employers have become more understanding as more people have them now, so I hear. However, well-meaning friends and relatives will urge you to cover them up with some story if you don’t already have a conventionally acceptable excuse to take a break. You can also gauge how much of a concern employment gaps are to those that have them by conducting an Internet search on how to explain them.

One thing I’ve noticed about myself is that the older I become, the harder it is for others to (1) scare me about the consequences of diverging from the conventional life-path and (2) convince me that so-called “mistakes” are embarrassing. Yep, I’m not embarrassed about my own employment gaps and I’m going to explain why as well as make a case for changing how we think about this issue. Must the acquisition of skills and experience be observed by an employer in order to count?

Rethinking the View on Employment Gaps

Odds are, during an employment gap, you were doing more than just eating, sleeping, and eliminating. Why shouldn’t the experiences and skills acquired informally from classes, other people, self-employment, or learning on your own count? If you enjoy learning on your own as much as I do, you’ll find that it’s even pretty easy to learn the basics of using new software programs by tapping into the various tutorials available on the Internet. Search engines are your friends. Search, “how to use [name of program]” or “tutorials for [name of program]” and you’ll see.

Also, let’s face it. There are times when you learn more during an employment gap than you learn performing the same tasks and fulfilling the same duties over and over again in an employment situation (until someone finally notices and grants you additional responsibilities). That’s why some of us experience workplace boredom.

Furthermore, at least in my geographic region specifically (California), previous employers don’t give a lot of information about you in order to guard against lawsuits. I’ve received this human resources policy memo within organizations as an employee and as someone who has called employers for reference checks on job applicants. The prevailing policy is that employers stick to confirming (1) that you were an employee and (2) the dates and time you were employed there. So, at least over here, accessible information has become more superficial.

Rethinking the View on Choices and Responsibility

The adage, “With freedom comes great responsibility” is so true! Living without a steady paycheck greatly tests your ability to be financially responsible, and some people do just fine. When I look back on my life-path, I can see why it’s diverged with respect to those who either like or are compelled by circumstance (e.g., having dependents, a mortgage, or student loan, etc.) to buy things all the time. Our priorities are different. I have loved ones who love shopping, and I’m not passing judgment on them. We’re just “wired” differently and this extends to the differing need and value we place on continuous employment.

I’ve met women who’ve bought several hundred pairs of expensive shoes. When I see something like this, I always try to calculate how much free time this can buy. This has been my mentality ever since I was a young girl, and the reason why I almost always came home from the mall empty-handed. My iron-fisted saving habit carried over into adulthood and eventually earned some good-natured ribbing from peers during college for being so against carrying a credit card balance! I was no fun to shop with as I was always thinking about the free time that the money could buy.

However, the unspoken rule seems to be that you can spend your hard earned money on anything you want but funding your own “sabbaticals” will raise eyebrows (even if you spent that time developing yourself). By the way, I’m definitely not rich. I’m just a severe penny-pincher. Ultimately, when friends or family express concern with my choice, a couple of questions come to mind: Isn’t buying my own free time a legitimate purchase? Why do I have to make excuses for this?

A Call for Objectivity

In Why Managing Sucks and How to Fix It, Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson made a case for competency-based education. This would allow students to earn credits by demonstrating mastery of skills and knowledge rather than forcing students to “do time” in a uniform manner. People vary according to the amount of time and repetition they need to master various skills. By focusing on results, students can learn at their own pace while not compelling other students to take the same amount of time. This takes the focus off how, when (including time duration), and where students acquired skills and knowledge.

This competency-based system can be extended to hiring for jobs where skills can similarly be demonstrated. Emphasis on testing for skills, abilities, and knowledge or requiring presentation of a portfolio would lend objectivity to assessing whether or not someone who appears short on number of years of work experience can perform the work or not. My call for objectivity isn’t intended to “ding” the people who have been continuously employed without a break. However, it makes sense to put some emphasis on comparing people’s performance regardless of differences in employment history timelines.

Thankfully, there are employers who will check out job applicants with employment gaps if everything else looks good. Ok, so they’ll want to confirm that I don’t have a drug or alcohol problem. There are others out there who still avoid candidates with gaps altogether however. I just tell myself that it would be hard to work for someone who’s not going to be open-minded anyway.

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