November 17, 2011

Youthful Indiscretions

Everyone has skeletons in their closet. Things that you have done that you wish you had not. Sometimes it is something small that just goes into long-term memory as a learning experience. Other times it is something that will come back to haunt you. Cleaning out the closet is not always an easy task but it is entirely necessary before you start applying for career level positions.

Over the years I have worked with numerous individuals who have had stellar academic careers with amazing technical talent that got caught up in an unemployed purgatory. When they applied for jobs they found questions on applications that were tough to answer: Have you ever been convicted of a felony? Have you used drugs? Do you have a DUI conviction?

Who knew at 18 that you might want a real job at 26?

Here is how it happens that your past catches up with you. When you least expect it – something that you totally forgot or suppressed in your memory - severely disrupts your employability. Unpaid debt, criminal history, drug use, a DUI all are things that can be dredged up by potential employers to be weighed in the employment decision.

The web has created all new searchable sources of information for investigators hired by your potential employer. Topics employers are forbidden to ask in an interview are exposed: Are you married? Are you engaged? Do you have a girlfriend/boyfriend? How old are you? Have you ever been sick? Have you ever been seriously injured? What is your religion? What is your nationality? Have you ever been arrested?

YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and MySpace have given employers and investigators a wealth of information they would never have otherwise had. Things are frequently posted impulsively without thought for the future consequences. There it is – your dirty laundry – right out in public space – pictures of you sitting suggestively on someone’s lap or guzzling beer at a tailgate party. It might not even be on your FB page… it could be on someone else’s page and there you are – exposed for the entire world to see.

Immediately after an offer of employment is made, the background checks and lab tests begin – Expect to be subjected to drug tests, a DMV check, a credit report check, a criminal background check, and an extensive web search. (Drugs can stay in your system and your hair way longer than you might think).

Trouble shooting problems after they cause you heart burn is way less desirable than identifying any and all potential issues before starting your job search. Once the application is in, and the offer is made, it is almost always too late to do damage control. The earlier things are corrected the better off you will be.

The people who do background checks are former FBI or law enforcement agents. Anything you have to hide, they will find. Whatever youthful indiscretion you engaged in will sound much worse when you are confronted with it by your now disillusioned prospective employer.

It sometimes takes a lot more than memory loss to repair the damage done by youthful indiscretions. Sometimes it is necessary to bring in an expert. Over the 30+ years that I have been a career counselor, I have sorted out the aftermath of the disaster caused by little mistakes made before and during college for a number of individuals.

I once worked with someone, who at 18, had been caught on a convenience store video camera with a new “dorm friend,” who unbeknownst to him, was using a stolen credit card. He was caught in the arrest sweep and charged with credit-card theft and fraud. He did not want to tell his parents, thinking he could handle it on his own. When he applied for jobs at 26 he never dreamed that the misdemeanor he pleaded to would be dredged up after he was made an offer. The offer was instantly withdrawn and he came to me in desperation for damage control.

The most important lessons that this person learned include: choose your friends carefully, and tell your parents when you get into trouble. No one cares more about you than your parents. No one will bring more resources to bear than your parents will. They will move heaven and earth to help you out of a jam.

He also learned that the help of an expert makes a huge difference. You do not have to suffer. You do not have to be embarrassed. I have seen it all. Nothing shocks me.

The withdrawn offer was reinstated after a critical analysis of the situation and a well-written letter carefully explained this youthful indiscretion, as well as the significant accomplishments achieved in the ensuing eight years, and lessons learned.

It is never easy to recover from something like this but it can be done. It is definitely best to sort it out with an expert before applying for career level positions.