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by Perri Capell | March 31, 2009


Question: In May 2004, my eight-year-old daughter was killed in a car accident in which my 16-year-old son was driving. I did not return to work -- I'm a health-care services manager -- so that I could spend time recovering with my family. I am now ready to look for a new position but wonder how I should explain to employers why I was out of the work force so long.

-- Leticia Fenton, Los Angeles

Leticia: Deepest condolences for your loss. That you have taken this much time off is understandable. It also makes sense that after 20 months, you may want to resume your career again.

It's unlikely that employers who learn the reason for your absence would view you unfavorably. Michael Meyer, a senior vice president in Phoenix with health-care recruiter Witt/Kieffer, says he met a physician who took two years off to travel after losing two children. Employment gaps in general don't necessarily taint job hunters, he says.

"I get resumes from people all the time who have been out of work," says Mr. Meyer. "If they have the background I want, I look at them."

Employers want to know what you can do for them in the future and truthful explanations. Be honest about what happened, but don't dwell on it. Offer a brief explanation for your absence and then try to move the discussion forward, says Kathleen M. Kuffner, a senior consultant with First Transitions Inc., a Chicago-area outplacement firm with a health-care focus.

This takes poise and confidence. Ms. Kuffner recommends saying something like, "I stayed home following the death of my daughter in a car accident. I am now ready to re-enter the work force. I am excited about this new direction in my life, and that's why I'm happy to be speaking with you."

As strange as it may seem, she notes, employers may simply want reassurances that you weren't in jail or involved with something else for the past year and a half that would taint your candidacy.

They also want to know that you're ready to work again, says Andrew McGill, vice president of HR for the Kennedy Health System in Cherry Hill, N.J., an integrated health-care provider. Briefly mention the steps you've taken to get ready for this next career move. "Explain your circumstances, and then focus on what you did to get yourself back in a good place psychologically and emotionally to rejoin the workplace," he says.

Many people who experience a tragedy become depressed or take antidepressants for a time. If this was the case with you, don't mention it to employers, says Mr. McGill. Nor should they ask you about something like this since you aren't presenting yourself as disabled and needing to be accommodated. "There is no reason why you should put it on the table," he says.

Mr. McGill also recommends doing practice interviews until you can make a polished presentation. If you aren't able answer interview questions about your hiatus, consider easing back into the work force by taking contract or temporary positions, he says.

You mentioned to me that you received severance. So, as far as explaining the gap on your resume, you can list your experience up until the date you received the severance package from your prior employer and then explain briefly in a cover letter why you have been unemployed since then, says Mr. McGill. "Mention in a short sentence that you have been out of the work force due to a death in the family," he says.

Another choice is to say on your resume that you took a sabbatical from June 2004 to January 2006 to cope with a personal loss and to assess your career, Mr. Meyer says. Or say nothing in your resume about the gap, but be ready to explain it when employers call, he says.

Demand is good for seasoned health- and managed-care professionals, even those who have taken sabbaticals for various reasons, says Mr. Meyer. Be professional when you meet with employers and realize that some interviewers will be more sympathetic than others, depending on their own experiences.


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