When Bad Employers Happen to Good People

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By Mary Ellen Slayter
Sunday, June 22, 2008

When a company's reputation nose-dives, it can also bring down the standing of anyone who worked there -- unfairly or not.

Sidney Sclar, a sales consultant in Silver Spring, knows all about such bad luck. Three of his former employers have gone out of business, including one that was shut down last year by Maryland's attorney general.

It's a pattern that jumps out at anyone looking at his résumé, and one that he acknowledges has caused him difficulty, even though he says he had no part in any wrongdoing. "I never lost any money for anyone," Sclar said.

Yet the challenge is also one that plenty of other job hunters have faced and overcome.

The secret to getting your career back on track after working for a notorious employer, career advisers say, is to explain your tenure at the sullied organization honestly and diplomatically.

Under no circumstances should you just drop the sketchy employer from your résumé. Besides being dishonest, pretending you didn't work somewhere creates a gaping hole in your employment history, said Bruce Weinstein, who writes the Ethics Guy column for BusinessWeek.com. "If you don't volunteer the information, they'll have to pry it out."

And that will just make you look worse.

Instead, you want to share more information on your résumé, said Susan D. Strayer, a human resources executive and author of "The Right Job, Right Now."

"Be specific about where you worked" if that helps, said Strayer, whose own career included a stint at Arthur Andersen, which folded after it was tangled up in the Enron scandal. "For example, the Andersen incident happened in the Houston office in the accounting arm of the business. My résumé makes it clear I worked in the D.C. office in the consulting side of the business."

And don't let your embarrassment about the company's fate cause you to play down your achievements there. "Include strong, detailed, results-oriented bullets for your job there," Strayer said. "Don't minimize the work you did or the results you achieved just because the company no longer exists. You still want to demonstrate how what you did there could help the company you're applying to."

Once you land an interview, be prepared to keep explaining things -- for the rest of your career.

"Your experience may be a talking point in an interview no matter when you worked there," Strayer said. "It has been many years since I worked at Arthur Andersen, but interviewers love to talk about it because it's both interesting and controversial."

Take care not to come across as too negative, even as you distance yourself from any illegal or unethical behavior. "Be extremely professional if asked about how you feel about it or your take on what happened," Strayer said. "Focus on your workplace values and how important it is to report impropriety and remain ethical at all times. Avoid a discussion about placing blame or berating the professionals who played a role. Certainly you can indicate you were disappointed in the actions some of your colleagues chose to take, but focus more on what we can learn from companies and professionals in these situations."

In conversations, just as on your résumé, "Focus on what you did, the results that were achieved, and how that experience has prepared you well for the position for which you are interviewing," Strayer said.

Finally, as you're defending your reputation, don't forget to scrutinize that of your potential employer, lest you wind up in Sclar's situation, with a string of problems.

"You have to be really diligent," said Trudy McCrea, chief executive of Achieve-It, a recruiting, consulting and executive coaching firm. Investigate the firm's financial stability, as well as the background of people in leadership positions. "I've done Dun & Bradstreet searches on employers," she said, referring to the credit agency for businesses.

Before you accept an offer, ask to talk to customers, as well as to people who have worked at the company before, she said. Through social-networking sites such as LinkedIn, making such contacts can be relatively easy.

Definitely ask about employee turnover, McCrea said. "Some employers just burn through people," and it's not always because of the money.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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