With the job market returning and companies hiring again, now comes a new wrinkle: How to write a résumé that explains what...

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With the job market returning and companies hiring again, now comes a new wrinkle:

How to write a résumé that explains what you’ve been doing for the past four years?

This was a period, after all, when people with master’s degrees drove cabs. When tech workers bounced from temp job to temp job. When the titles “self-employed” or “consultant” were euphemisms for “out of work.”

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Should you give job gaps a rosier tint? Should you list that stint at Domino’s? Should you lie?

The answers are yes, maybe and never.

Scott Likens, a 29-year-old former systems administrator in Seattle, hasn’t had a full-time job since he was laid off from an Internet company eight months ago.

He’s done some freelance IT consulting. He also took some construction work, doing siding and plumbing for a friend in the trade.

He didn’t include either on his résumé, afraid he’d seem unstable or unprofessional.

“The easiest way I handled it was just not admitting it,” he says. “I would rather take the couple months of just nothing on the résumé.”

In truth, there’s no stigma to having a spotty job history in this economy. It’s far riskier, experts say, to cover up or even smudge those spots.

This puts job seekers in a quandary.

Despite the healthier hiring market, recruiters are still getting hundreds of — or at Microsoft, 6,000 — résumés a day.

Likens and others worry that, forced to choose between a candidate with steady professional work and one who took odd jobs to pay the bills, hirers will always pick the former.

Those job seekers also might be wrong.

Microsoft recruiter Gretchen Ledgard says résumés listing employment gaps, serial contract gigs or even a retail job are the norm these days, particularly in the tech industry.

If a programmer sold suits at, say, The Men’s Wearhouse, she wants to know about it.

“It shows that they’ve actually been doing something. Even though it was The Men’s Wearhouse, they were still actively working. Because we find a lot of people who sat at home during that time.”

The red flags wave when an applicant starts stretching the truth, such as saying she worked for Amazon.com when she actually worked for a temp agency at Amazon. Or a candidate puffs up his experience to gain an edge.

A simple reference check would expose the exaggeration, but sometimes it doesn’t even take that. Ledgard, who writes a surprisingly candid blog on Microsoft’s hiring practices, got one electronic résumé still in mark-up mode, a feature that shows changes in the text.

Next to a line that said, “led a team of three engineers,” someone had noted, “Might want to increase this number to make it sound a little more impressive.”

The candidate didn’t take the advice, and Ledgard didn’t hold it against him.

“It just meant that he had a friend who wasn’t quite ethical.”

Of all the résumé blunders, lying is the most lethal, whether it’s an outright fabrication or a subtle shading of the truth.

Jude Werra is a Wisconsin headhunter best known for his semiannual Liars Index, which tracks the number of executives who lie on their résumés, particularly about their education (about 12 percent).

He says a common lie on the post-recession résumé is manipulated dates. Someone was laid off in July, for instance, but his severance lasted until November. So he says he was with the company until November.

“They don’t want the gap,” Werra says. “Like it didn’t exist in the world. And nobody cares. They just say, ‘Explain.’ ”

Some job seekers are trying to minimize the gap problem by switching to what’s called a functional résumé, a format that emphasizes skills over past jobs. Employment dates are little more than footnotes.

These would seem a nice alternative to the chronological version — except that recruiters loathe them.

“A functional résumé is made to hide, to obscure,” says Alice Hanson, a Seattle career counselor and owner of AIM Résumés. “We had six recruiters who came to a panel, and they said they hated functional résumés.”

Meanwhile, a lot of job hunters are ignoring some honest yet clever ways to turn their uneven job histories into an advantage.

Carey Thompson, 29, an accounting clerk who lives in Seattle, cleaned houses after being laid off from a law firm in 2003. She advertised her services (“I made myself like a Happy Housekeeper or whatever”). But she didn’t see that as a real business and didn’t list it on her résumé. Nor did she include her part-time job as a cocktail waitress.

“I didn’t feel it was applicable to what I was trying to look for. If it came up in the interview, I would mention it, but I didn’t think it would look good on my résumé.”

Hanson would have advised her otherwise. As a housecleaner, Thompson was viably self-employed. She could have claimed business-management skills, multi-tasking, customer service, Hanson says.

Likewise, those who spent their off time doing pro bono work or volunteering have legitimate résumé entries.

“If you’ve done volunteer work, treat it like a job,” Hanson says. “Pull that out: telephone-bank experience, project management, ability to work with a team, reliable.”

Recruiters may be more forgiving in coming months. Economic forecasters in Washington predict employers will add about 5,000 jobs a month this year. That means renewed competition for the best workers.

“Just like a housing market flips from a buyer’s to a seller’s market,” Hanson says, “I think we’re at that point right now.”

Shirleen Holt: 206-464-8316 or sholt@seattletimes.com