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Got Something To Hide?

A recently-published study caused a lot of stir when it showed that employers were more willing to hire a candidate with a criminal record than one who’d been unemployed for more than 2 years. Have you got a few skeletons in your closet? What should you tell? How should you tell it?

There was a lot of discussion floating around jobsearch and career forums after a recent study showed that employers were more willing to hire a candidate with a criminal record than one who’d been unemployed for more than 2 years. For anyone who has struggled with unemployment or under-employment in the current economy, that’s pretty harsh news. But it opens a broader set of questions. The fact is, life is a sticky and difficult business. There’s ill health, unemployment, being laid off, being fired, incomplete education, job-hopping, bad luck and bad decisions. A lot of challenging things can happen to you. How do you convince an employer that you’re a good bet for their organization nonetheless?

This article is not about the parts of your personal life that, under human rights legislation, should NEVER be asked in a job interview. Depending on where you live, an employer should not be asking about age, race, citizenship, marital status, politics, religion, sexual orientation, disability, or other personal information covered under anti-discrimination laws. This article is about the less-clear-cut issues that might influence an employer’s view of you, and how to talk about them, if at all.

Rule #1: Honesty is the best policy

Plain and simple, don’t lie. In today’s highly-networked information age, it’s far too easy to get caught. More importantly, an employer will not easily forgive or trust you if they find you’re willing to act unethically to get what you want. So, if you’re directly asked about whether you completed your degree, or whether you were fired from your previous job, and the answer is an uncomfortable one, come clean anyway.

Rule #2: “Honesty” is not the same as “sharing absolutely everything”

Did you quit your last job because your boss was an over-the-top control freak, or you hated the boring tasks you were working on? Time to dial back the level of detail. You are “seeking environments where you can use more initiative.” You “want to challenge yourself and grow, by tackling a new set of technologies and projects.” At moments like this, talk about the future, not the past.

Maybe you have a consulting business on the side, and will be continuing to do work for other clients while you work for this one. As long as you’re confident that you can do high-quality, on-time work for everyone (and you shouldn’t be interviewing for this job if you’re not), then you probably shouldn’t put that fact on the table. The same goes if you’re only in this line of work until your screenplay gets bought, or until you’ve saved enough to launch your own business. On the one hand, it’s not okay to take a job if there’s a strong chance you’ll be leaving the gig early, but on the other, you don’t want to give the impression of being eager to leave before you’ve even gotten in the door. Be cautious with any details that might make an employer wonder whether doing a really good job for their organization is your top priority.

Rule #3: Be ready to talk about the ticklish issues

As you’ll see from Rules 1 and 2, the main challenge is the right amount of detail. Not “none”, and not “too much”. Practice if necessary with friends – keep your voice calm, your gaze steady, your expression open, and use simple, short explanations. Interviewers will be put off by too-fast talking (you’ll come across as someone who’s trying to cover up) or long, wandering, overemotional explanations (they aren’t interested in an in-depth discussion of your personal life, they just want to know how this will affect your performance as an employee).

Rule #4: Take responsibility for your role in a problem

This is your opportunity to show what kind of employee you will be. Will you step up and own it if you make a mistake? Will you take responsibility for making things right? Or will you cut and run while pointing the finger at someone else?

You’ve heard it before but we’ll say it again: don’t trash-talk a previous employer or supervisor. If there was a problem, admit the role you played, and talk about how you’d do things differently if you had it to do over again. Show that you learn from mistakes. Talk about any steps you have taken/are taking to fix the problem or prevent it from happening again.

Rule #5: Be ready to show how this isn’t a problem

Maybe the issue is not a one-shot event. Maybe it’s an ongoing thing, like your ongoing work to upgrade your qualifications. Here’s another opportunity to demonstrate energy, commitment and honesty. Okay, you don’t have the same degree that the other applicants do, but you’re not sitting on your hands — you are enrolled in a program and are on track to finish it in eight more months. Be ready to talk about the ways in which you will make sure that you’ll still be able to do the job well in the meantime. That’s what an employer really cares about. Point to other situations where you have managed the same issue well.

Rule #6: Consider talking about the elephant in the room

There are some subjects about which they can’t ask you. But you can choose to tell. We are not advocating one approach or another. The law is the law. However, some applicants choose to talk about things which are very easily apparent in an interview. Someone who is visibly pregnant, or who has a physical challenge that is readily apparent, might choose to share details about the work-arounds and adaptations that make them just as able to do a good job as any other candidate. It’s not required, and we’re not advocating that course, but some candidates see it as a way to replace misconceptions and uncertainty with knowledge and confidence in an employer’s mind.

For issues that are not covered by human rights legislation, this is certainly a good approach. Don’t assume that your non-chronological resume will cover up your extended unemployment or under-employment. Employers can add, and most can tell when something is being covered up. Don’t sit silent and let them assume, because it’s human nature to assume the worst. Best to seize control of the situation and make sure it’s your version of the truth that goes onto the table.

Rule #7: Ask advice from your recruiter

Your recruiter can provide guidance on whether, when and how to talk about issues that might come up in an interview. They know the employer, they know the market, and they know the legislation governing what can and can’t be asked. And whatever you feel awkward about discussing, it’s a pretty good bet that they’ve heard it before. They’re there to help you show at your best!

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