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Weaseling out of things is important to learn.  It is what separates us from the animals — except the weasel. – Homer Simpson

accountabilityIt is hard to go through life, including your professional career, without making mistakes.  Many of these missteps are minor with little or no consequences.  Some are job ending.  Only a few are career ending.  The point is we all make mistakes and how we deal with those in terms of accepting accountability and any consequences, and then moving forward is important, especially in the job interview.

There is probably not a corporate or personal brand in the world which does not have something that, all things considered, the company or the individual would just as soon not talk about, but how we react to those facts, how we answer the questions that inevitably will come, is key to preserving the quality of the brand.

Recruiters like to ask the “mistake question” because it directly goes to the point of transparency, honesty and integrity.  Trying to act like you have never made a mistake, or to cover up those you have made, or just ignore the subject all together, is not the best way forward especially when you consider there is the Internet truth meter – a search engine with the corporate name Google, as in we’re going to Google your background.

To be effective in answering the “what mistakes have you made” question, whether it was just an embarrassing misstep or a job ending event, you must be prepared to answer it in a candid and believable way that reaffirms the concept of transparency. This is critical.

I recently interviewed a potential candidate by telephone.  He had what looked to be a good tenure with his former employer, a successful turnaround, and several other good accomplishments.  But a serious fraud was committed on his watch.  The fraud was accidentally discovered in an unrelated review that was being conducted by an outside agency — apparently someone afraid to blow the whistle to his or her boss did feel secure telling someone from outside the organization.

The Administrator was not involved but in the telling of his story he did it so badly that I became convinced before he got to the end of his explanation that he was going to drop the other shoe — that he was implicated as an unindicted coconspirator or something like that.  In fact, he was totally absolved of any wrongdoing — the fraud was perpetrated by some long-time employees who found a glitch in the MIS payroll system.  This otherwise decent man was so embarrassed that something of this importance could go undetected by himself, the CFO, and the  external auditors, for several years, that he decided to resign to diminish the bad press and to put an end to the distraction of ongoing public comment.  I admire his integrity.  He did not try to weasel out of President Truman’s desk-top sign, “The Buck Stops Here”.  He could have done a better job of telling the story, but weaseling was not in play.

By contrast, I recently heard of another CEO candidate, interviewing for a job at a large public hospital, who took great pride in emphasizing his success in turning around his former organization and highlighting his commitment to total transparency.  He did this in a public meeting with the employees in a town hall interview style session that was reported in the local newspaper.  By early the next morning, that newspaper’s online story was receiving a steady stream of comments from employees and residents of the candidate’s former hospital.  The content was not complimentary.  Apparently this candidate failed to disclose a significant accounting error that led to layoffs and the termination of the CFO.  He eventually was forced out as well.

The practical reality is that if you have made a mistake, or if you are forced out in a very public way for the mistakes of others, it is probably not a good idea to begin interviewing immediately.  Time has a way of tempering unfavorable content on the Internet.  But even then, you have to own what happened — good or bad, involved or implicated — and then provide a believable, sincere explanation of how it happened, and, it is important to stress in a positive way the lessons learned.

Most candidates can recover from mistakes and setbacks as long as the words “felony conviction” are not involved.  It just takes some time to get beyond the issue and build the confidence to provide a strong, ownership answer.  But you must be honest.

Weasels, after all, do not make very good leaders.