Do career breaks suggest irresponsibility or orginality?
Might an unorthodox CV be an asset to a job applicant, or is it a liability? A year or more out of work in order to travel round the world, write a book or climb Mount Everest may fulfil a lifetime's ambition, but how favourably do employers view a career path that has wound away from the straight and narrow?
'It depends on what you were doing and at what stage in your career,' says Professor Shaun Tyson, head of human resources at Cranfield School of Management. 'Employers are very tolerant of young graduates seeing the world, but if the break occurs later in a career then it can cause problems,' he says. 'If someone gives up a good job to do something unusual then there is often a sneaking feeling that they were just fed up with what they were doing and couldn't decide what to do next.' Research by recruitment specialists Norman Broadbent International suggests that an unconventional CV is less of a handicap in financial services than in the commercial or industrial sectors. However, in any industry, says Broadbent director Christine Leonard, pursuing adventure can be a high-risk strategy. 'In middle management it could be viewed as positively harmful. Those who sail around the world or do something adventurous run the risk of appearing mavericks and, as such, are not seen as corporate players.' Only very senior managers with powerful personalities and an excellent track record may escape the harmful effects of a career break. 'Even then,' cautions Leonard, 'it would be hard to view it as a plus point.' The major problem, says Emily Heller of the executive selection firm Odgers & Co, is that for most employment conditions are already quite tough. Even those who take legitimate jobs abroad can find it hard to break back into employment in the UK as they are seen as out of touch. For their freewheeling counterparts it can be that much harder. 'Clearly it depends on the individual. Some may be able to put across a convincing case for taking two years off,' she accepts. For the employer, that case must be balanced against the experience which the candidate has missed and the contacts which have been lost.
Unilever's recruitment people take a positive view of graduates who have taken time off to pursue unusual experiences, according to spokesman Stephen Milton. 'But for those joining the company later, we only consider the relevance of their previous experience and would hold a neutral view of any other activities.' Others are uniformly unimpressed by anything other than relevant recent experience. Christine Brown of the public relations firm Ludgate Communications says that 'While the view taken of an unusual CV clearly depends on the interviewer, my personal requirement is for relevant experience. Experience of travelling, for example, is not it.' Sales executive Marion Goodbody, who spent six months' sailing in the Pacific and a year travelling round the world, certainly found potential employers wary upon her return. 'It was difficult to convince prospective employers that I was serious and would not just leave after a couple of months,' she says. 'I do appreciate their problem. It was hard to make the right noises about commitment, love of the job and always having wanted to work for them when quite clearly that was not the case.' Instead, Goodbody has made her point by starting her own business and going to work for herself.
The key to making an unusual CV acceptable, says Heller, lies in never attempting to fudge or hide the issue and putting a clear case for the business benefits which your experience will give any future employer. Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO), which has sent 20,000 volunteers to work abroad since 1958, usually on two-year assignments, believes that these 'career breaks' are viewed positively by industry. The average age of a VSO volunteer is 33. Spokesperson Lara Date says that these more mature volunteers regard the experience not simply as an adventure but in terms of professional development. 'The jobs which they take on when abroad often afford them more responsibility than their previous positions. Companies tend to understand what VSO is about and view returning candidates favourably - in spite of the fact that, as a result of their experience, many volunteers decide to go into completely new fields.' In the US, the MBA Enterprise Corps sends young American business managers to work in central and Eastern Europe on year-long assignments. Those returning have no problem in finding jobs, insists Janet Jones-Parker, corporate relations director. 'Corps members have valuable overseas experience and highly desirable soft management skills which corporations are eager to benefit from,' she says.
But Andy Burnett, co-director of the Centre of Creativity at Cranfield School of Management, argues that employers should not worry whether or not time out of work is spent pursuing something acceptable to business. 'Forward-looking organisations are increasingly interested in creativity. They recognise that diversity of experience is very important in terms of fostering a creative culture within the organisation. People with unusual backgrounds can make a useful contribution towards increasing corporate experience. They are a valuable resource, not because they can make their wild CV sound reasonable but because their CV is wild.'.