3 Ways to Overcome Past Mistakes to Land the Job Today

How to explain criminal history and termination with honesty and dignity

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Job seekers are often intimidated by having to address previous terminations, significant periods of unemployment, or unfavorable reputation with potential employers.  Many professionals feel like they’ll never be able to recover from the effects of their past mistakes or misfortunes, especially if accusations or convictions or criminal activity were involved, which can cause even greater anxiety when having to discuss them. While your past can pose some challenges, the good news is that past professional and personal mistakes don’t have to be detrimental to your future successes. Consider these tips when dealing with any of these common difficulties.

Terminations: This subject doesn’t always come up right away, but when it does, it’s best to be forthright about the circumstances. While terminations are sometimes taken into consideration by employers when making a decision, being fired does not necessarily wave the red flag that many people think it does. Hiring managers understand that people change over time and that every company is not a good fit. What matters most is the job seeker’s ability to communicate the grounds of the termination and what they learned from the situation. If you feel like you were wrongfully terminated, share that with the employer without bad-mouthing your old boss or company. Always remain diplomatic and professional when speaking about the situation. Employers will respect your honesty and ability to communicate the termination effectively.

Long periods of unemployment: Since the height of the economic decline in 2009, many professionals have been out-of-work for 2 or more years. If you’ve been out of work for a significant amount of time, it’s best to become engaged in some other activity that will show employers your commitment to learning and professional growth. Consider taking a continuing education course or volunteering with a local non-profit organization. Another approach is to begin consulting in your area of expertise or turning your hobby into a freelance project. Though you’re not working a traditional job, these are all activities that can be included on your resume to show employers that you haven’t been losing your skills for the past few years. It’s also a good idea to address periods of unemployment in your cover letter and when first meeting with a potential employer. Hiring professionals want to know that although you’ve been out of work, you’ve been honing the skills they need the most.

Criminal history: While the law prevents employers from discriminating against persons with criminal histories, there are still many who always seem to find someone “more qualified” after finding out about a candidate’s criminal past. Similar to terminations and long periods of unemployment, it’s best to be honest when asked about any past arrests or pending cases. However, you shouldn’t feel the need to bring it up first. There are some industries where this issue will come up early on in the hiring process (i.e., law enforcement, childcare, education and government), but many jobs won’t ask about criminal history until you’re being strongly considered for employment.

Always be prepared with legal documentation or written statements that will prove the grounds for your arrest or the status of your case. Oftentimes, cases were closed but criminal records will only show the arrest, so it’s best to be prepared.  In addition, job seekers with criminal records should always have reputable recommendations from previous employers, community leaders, and others who can attest to the candidate’s work ethic.  Be sure to express that your encounter with the law happened during a different time in your life when you were less mature, made a bad choice, or were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Employers want to know that you’ve learned from your mistake and have moved on.

The worst thing a job seeker can do is to lose hope or give up because of their past mistakes. Your decision to move forward despite your past is the best choice you can make.  For more tips on how to forge ahead, check out No One Is Unemployable: Creative Solutions for Overcoming Barriers to Employment by Debra L. Angel & Elisabeth Harney (Worknet Training Services; $29.95).

Always remember the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.  In other words, don’t feel obligated to divulge negative information about your past, but if asked, be prepared to give an honest and professional response about the particular issue. As a result, you’ll be able to face these issues with integrity and hope.  The past really is in the past, and the best is yet to come in your career!

Do you have any career advancement or job seeking issues you’d like addressed? E-mail questions to careerquestions@blackenterprise.com.

Aisha Taylor (@realTAYLORmade) is co-owner and chief consultant at TAYLORmade Professional Career Consulting, a Web-based, full-service career consulting company committed to “equipping, preparing, and empowering today’s professional” globally. Check out her weekly insights on job-seeking and interviewing success every Friday on BlackEnterprise.com.

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