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Ask Sue
A Weekly Q&A Column About Professionalism, Etiquette and Problems in the Workplace
by Sue Morem

Explaining a Gap in Employment

Dear Sue: Two years ago I quit my job to care for my mother, who was unsuccessfully treated for cancer. I expected it to take six months or so, but my father was diagnosed with cancer a month before my mother died, and I cared for him another eight months. I was forced to make a choice between my job and my family, because my workplace would not give me a leave of absence. At the time I had considerable savings, and was able to dedicate myself to their care. After their deaths I administered their estates (which turned out to be unusually complex) and disposed of property, investments, etc.

I am currently and actively seeking work, and am concerned about my gap in employment. I wonder how much I should try to explain what I have been through. I tried to turn my role of estate administrator into a job, since it did involve accounting, law, filings, record-keeping, real-estate transactions, etc. However, I became concerned when I made a follow up call to a hirer about my application when I overheard him refer to me as the "dead-family guy."

I have learned that people are uncomfortable with illness and death and that it is difficult for someone to understand this type of experience unless they have been through it. Most of my interviews have been with very young people who probably have never experienced anything similar to my experience, and I wonder if their discomfort with illness and death creates a bad feeling after talking with me. In fact, many of my business acquaintances didn't know what to say to me and avoided me after the deaths of my parents. The people who remained friends had either suffered their own bouts with severe illness or dealt with family tragedies themselves.

You might think I am not positive in interviews, but I really am. I don't come across as morose or weepy, just factual. I've been careful to be honest without dwelling on what has happened.

I've continued to attend training and certification courses so that my skills remain up-to-date and have been working part-time on a freelance basis. I am in my mid-thirties, a very fast learner, personable, and creative. Now I just have to figure out how to get hired, especially in a competitive market. Can you help me?

Sue Says: My condolences on the loss of your parents. I do not want to minimize your personal tragedy, but do think it is important for you to know that you are not alone. It may help you to know that most people looking for work question their experience, and wonder about their changes of being hired.

People looking for work must assess themselves, which typically causes some worry and concern, especially when offers fail to come. Everyone has their own perceived inherent disadvantages; some people fear they are too young and inexperienced, while others worry about being too old or over qualified. People often focus on the things they can't control such as disabilities, health, background, etc.

Although you have a gap in employment, it is for a justifiable and important reason. I can't imagine anyone holding it against you. The fact that you have been working part-time is a plus, so focus on that if necessary. You are bound to run into apathetic, out-of-touch people, but are even more likely to connect with people who will be sensitive to all you have been through.

You have learned a lot about life and people, and this alone has added dimension to your personality. From what you have told me, you have a lot to offer a company; you are not too young or too old, you are healthy, experienced, knowledgeable, positive, a quick learner and have a great work ethic. Don't let one person's negative perception influence you. Address what has happened when in an interview and move on.

Hang in there, be true to yourself and trust your judgment. There is no reason you shouldn't be able to find a job eventually. Good luck

Sue Morem is a professional speaker, trainer and syndicated columnist. She is author of the newly released 101 Tips for Graduates and How to Gain the Professional Edge, Second Edition. You can contact her by email at or visit her web site at

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