Explaining Your Credit History; and the Case of the Vanishing Lawyers

By Lily Garcia
Sunday, March 29, 2009

Q I was recently denied a job after a credit check found I've had some collections. Most of my experience is in financial services, so I'll probably run into this issue again. How can I tactfully mitigate or disclose adverse credit history?

A If you are seeking a financial-services job, your credit history will continue to hurt you. From the perspective of an employer, a record of collections might indicate that you do not have the business acumen that a financial position demands, that you might be irresponsible with accounts, or, what's worse, that you might be tempted to steal. For jobs in the federal government, bad credit history also classifies you as a potential security risk.

Outside of banking, securities trading and government, credit checks are less common. One approach you could take would be to limit where you apply so you lessen the odds of being excluded because of your credit history.

You could also just plan to come clean about your financial problems. Perhaps you went into debt because of an illness in your family or something else out of your control. I suggest a concise letter stating that you have anticipated the concerns that employers might have about hiring a financial professional with a credit history such as yours but that you can provide every assurance, as can your professional references, that your credit history is no indicator of your character or ability to perform.

I'm in middle management at a small law firm. Of every three associates we hire, we inevitably part with two within a year. The pattern is always the same: The associate is hired, struggles with his hours for the first few months, and then develops problems maintaining a responsible level of contact with clients. Then he struggles with deadlines, and finally when the partners and I are at our wits' end, the associate pretty much stops working, stops billing and becomes a liability. We offer training and performance plans, we have scheduled weekly meetings with the associates, and we're small so someone is always available for guidance. Is firing people just the way it is?

There are aspects of a law firm associate's job you cannot change. The hours are demanding, and the work is stressful. But you can minimize the chance of firing another associate.

First, make sure you do an effective job of describing the work and eliminating candidates who are ill-equipped to handle it. If you do a good job explaining the nature of the position, many people who wouldn't be a good fit won't apply. You will tend to attract candidates who thrive in a high-pressure environment.

Carry this philosophy through to the interview. Make a list of attributes that are essential for success, and ask questions that elicit relevant answers. Think about the toughest circumstances an associate might encounter and ask hypothetical questions. This will provide you with information about the person's ability to handle the position and give the candidate a clearer idea of what to expect.

Beware of allowing your personal preferences to skew the results. If you don't trust yourself to be faithful to these factors, create a numerical evaluation system under which you assign each interviewee a score of one through five for each key function. Decide between the two applicants who have the highest score, no matter how you might feel about them socially.

But there's no guarantee your new associate will make it. If an employee is struggling, it is easy to assume it's because of poor attitude or lack of ability. But environmental factors, such as an employee's training, support and supervisory relationship, most accurately predict success.

You should evaluate your training and formalize the mentoring relationships. Many employees will forego opportunities to ask for help for fear of appearing incompetent.

Finally, listen to the employees who haven't worked out. Maybe they felt that you were not completely honest about what the job would entail, maybe they felt that they were left to sink or swim, or maybe they just don't like the clients or the work. You'll never know if you don't ask.

Lily Garcia has advised companies on employment law and human resources for more than 10 years. A weekly version of her column and a twice-monthly online chat appear at http://washingtonpost.com/jobs. E-mail questions to HRadvice@washingtonpost.com.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company