December 13, 2007

Tips for returning to the job market after a long illness

Q. I'm starting a new job search after a long illness. I was an executive director of a charity before I got sick, and my rsum reads well except for the glaring five-year gap. How do I address this with potential employers?

A. The answer is simple: Tell the truth, says Louise Shea, vice president for human resources at the International Rescue Committee, in New York. "Be honest and explain upfront why there's a gap," she says. "Otherwise, people will fill in the blanks" with their own theories.

At the same time, Ms. Shea says, it is important not to go into too much detail about the illness itself. "So the challenge is to come up with a compelling sentence or two that states the obvious but moves people beyond it," she says.

Don't use the words "fully cured" or anything that focuses too much on the medical aspect of your situation, Ms. Shea says. Instead, focus on getting across the fact that you haven't lost your drive or commitment, you've simply put it on hold for a little bit. It would be particularly helpful if you can point to any volunteer work or additional relevant training you may have done while unemployed, to show that you had always intended to return to work.

Susan Egmont, a recruiter in Boston who works for nonprofit clients, notes that she recently handled two situations quite similar to yours. In each case, she says, the search committee was very reluctant to ask about the candidate's health issues — and was nervous about being the first employer of someone just back from a serious illness. "They worried that the candidate might not be ready to come back to work," she says.

To improve your chances with a prospective employer, try simply stating in your cover letter that you used the time off to "successfully address a health issue," Ms. Egmont says. "You can wait until the interview to explain any further," she adds. "At that time, be factual and succinct, and assure the employer of your ability to do the work."

Although cancer may not be the actual illness that kept you out of the work force for five years, you may get some helpful ideas from a Web site called Cancer and Careers. If you do a keyword search there on "interviewing" and "job search," you'll find several articles offering examples of language and strategies you can use to keep potential employers focused on your skills and your passion, rather than your medical history.