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Always tell the truth.

For the vast majority of us, that was something our parents repeatedly stressed.  Their lessons on the subject were reinforced with a mixture of Biblical teachings and historical anecdotes — George Washington reportedly said he could not lie when confronted with a downed cherry tree, and President Lincoln, at least in the stories from elementary school, was known as Honest Abe.

In our youth, those lessons are presented with black and white clarity, you either told the truth or you lied and the good guys did not want to be associated with liars.

Then we grow up and we make mistakes — some unintentional, others stupid.  Some of these mistakes affect us more than others, particularly those in the workplace where the outcome could affect future employment opportunities.

In discussing mistakes, particularly those that could negatively affect job prospects; we enter the gray zone of when to tell the full truth. 

The central question is what should a candidate disclose, and when and how the disclosure should be handled. 

As a general rule, I advise candidates who call me for advice to make full disclosure if the issue is relevant.  The problem here is that candidates sometimes have a very narrow (i.e. self serving) perspective about what is relevant.  A felony conviction for attempted murder that occurred 10 years prior did not seem relevant to a candidate who deemed himself fully rehabilitated.  The big hurdle was that the position he was seeking was the senior financial officer of a public company.  In that case, it is relevant and would have been discovered had any potential employer conducted an investigation of the candidate’s background.  However, disclosing a 90-day stay at a nationally known center for drug and alcohol addiction five years ago with no relapses is another matter.  A DUI arrest and/or conviction will normally surface in an in-depth background check, but a hospitalization will not.  While some state laws preclude use of a conviction in a decision not to employ, it happens all the time. 

Use of credit report information to deny employment is another sticky issue.  While federal and state laws regulate how this information is to be used, a news report last week indicated that some candidates are being eliminated from consideration because of problems on their credit report.   In an era where the Great Recession wreaked havoc on many Americans, it seems foolish to deny employment to an otherwise qualified candidate because they got behind on payments, or were forced from their homes — the victims of a perfect storm of unrelated events that destroyed them financially.

It is important to note that not all companies conduct pre-employment background investigations or vet credentials.  For candidates with blemishes, it is a crapshoot whether their problems will even come up.  For candidates with marginal issues, this just adds more complexity to the dilemma of what to disclose and when to disclose it. 

In the end I have come to believe that for some candidates — the non-felons and those with no serious ethical issues — there is no black or white answer.  If they volunteer information to an unsympathetic or lazy recruiter who does not want to take the time to vet the issue, they could doom their chances for career advancement or even a much full-time needed job with benefits.  Again, there are laws designed to protect candidates, but they are frequently ignored with a statement like “it was not a good fit.” 

There should be uniform standards to help candidates but there are none; just their judgment. 

The one solid piece of advice I can give to candidates with issues is to be prepared.  If you have an issue, do not wing it.  This is not the time for extemporaneous speaking. Prepare an accurate but carefully worded explanation and stick to it.  If there was a great lesson learned, present that in the most positive way.  Only the most cynical or lazy of recruiters do not value redemption. 

© 2012 John Gregory Self