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One of the biggest challenges facing any job seeker, but especially for mid-level and senior executives, is when to divulge negative information about their careers or personal lives.

Let’s be honest.  There are no pat answers here, but in today’s podcast we are going to explore some ideas and strategies to help you navigate these troubled waters.

Executives — even the super star leaders — are human beings and as such, have great strengths and occasionally great personal weaknesses that can threaten the very stability of their careers and their lives.

From the personal — alcoholism, addiction to prescription pain medications, depression, or even a crisis such as a divorce, to a major career misstep that resulted in termination. The list of executives who are dealing with these issues today, or have in the past, is long and very distinguished.

But first, some context: for leaders who have confronted these issues, sought help and long ago overcame them, disclosure is more about timing than the substance.  Many weave their disclosure into stories of redemption, success, improved relationships with colleagues or a revitalized, vibrant family life.  Most employers appreciate and value a candidate who has learned from his or her mistakes and created a new path of exemplary accomplishment.  It is inspirational.

But there was a time when the issue was fresh and the stigma of this crisis loomed large.  Some of the stories are tragic, and some are tragically funny.

I am reminded of a project I had more than 10 years ago when I was running a search for a public company.  They were looking for a CFO.  We identified four or five good candidates, but the client quickly zeroed in on one individual who touched all of their selection criteria buttons.

No hint of any problems.  In our first meeting, I asked, as I always do, if there was anything in his background that I should be aware of that might preclude him from being able to accept the appointment or discharge his responsibilities if he joined the company.

“Not that I know of,” was his confident reply. He did tell me about his divorce and his relocation to the west coast to pursue an MBA because his father and brother operated a successful hospitality business there.  Indeed, according to the initial background report, three years after he relocated he earned the MBA.  So the story seemed legit.

It was a good interview and I left for the airport thinking we might have the perfect candidate — that is until three weeks later when the final report of the background investigation arrived on my desk.

There were four felony convictions.  Four!

When I called to ask for an explanation he first denied he knew anything about these little problems.  “There must be a mistake,” he insisted.

When I began asking him to explain the convictions — the terroristic threat, the aggravated burglary of a residence, and the assault with a deadly weapon – he became more angry and threatening in his tone.

Finally, I just cut to the chase and asked about the fourth conviction: the attempted murder.

There was a long pause and then he said in very small voice, “It was a very bad divorce.”

In this situation, even if he had disclosed this information at the outset, there was a problem.  Even one felony is a non-starter for an officer of a public corporation.

But for most candidates, the issue is much more unsettled.  How much do you say and when do you say it when you are changing jobs?

That is an age-old question in the realm of employment.  How a recruiter or employer will respond to such a disclosure is never a sure thing.

For candidates, the challenges and risks are real.

In my more than 20 years of executive search, I have heard stories from candidates that reflect the risks.

In one case a semi-finalist for a CEO position who was two years into sobriety, and had re-established a remarkable record of performance, was suddenly, without notice, dropped from the search.  No notification, no explanation.

“The recruiter stopped calling and would not return my telephone calls, but I knew.”

Another, a Vice President at a regional healthcare system in a relatively small city, went through a divorce he did not initiate and he did not want.  His wife was friends with many of the wives on the medical staff as well the wives of many of his colleagues.  Apparently she was sharing intimate details of her long simmering resentments and frustration with the ruptured relationship with these friends.  There was no real scandal, just two people who had grown apart.

As the gossip grew, the executive, who had just received a raise and big bonus for his performance, was told that it would be a good time to start looking for a new position.  It seems as though the CEO, a devoutly religious man who liked the executive’s ex-wife, viewed this breakup as a character flaw and held the executive responsible.

There were no headlines, but he became concerned that this would be an issue in his next job search.  The CEO, a nationally known figure, was well liked.

The conventional wisdom was that a sudden departure from this organization was like the kiss of death, career-wise.  So he knew that there would be whispers in the industry.

He too began to think about what he was going to say, and when he would say it.

Now, here is a dirty little truth about the recruitment process: many executive search partners are notorious for wanting to avoid risks — anything or anyone  — where there might be even a hint of controversy that could compromise the firm-client relationship. Especially when it comes to the all-important follow-up or add-on engagement for recruiting or consulting.  Maintaining good client relationships is the holy grail of job security in the world of search firms.

To be fair, there have been, over the last 20 years, some very notorious and well publicized executive search disasters — poor candidate vetting or undisclosed personal issues – that led to executive terminations and scorn for the search partner, so some of this search firm bias against candidates with a history is understandable.

With more employers asking for detailed background investigations as part of the candidate vetting process, candidates can no longer risk not saying anything, for fear of being seen as lacking integrity when the negative information ultimately surfaces.

Moreover, not every employer or search firm is thorough so there continue to be stories of executives with background issues slipping undetected through the cracks, especially in the smaller community and rural hospitals where candidate vetting is very limited.

But remember this: if you do not disclose, and then later are confronted with the information — well, you will probably be passed over.

The truth is that the what and when  of personal disclosure really gets down to a matter of trust.  Do you trust the search consultant or the hiring authority?

As a recruiter, I always come down on the side of “the sooner you disclose, the better it is for everyone involved” because in many cases the issues can be dealt with.  It is a bad idea to cause embarrassment for the recruiter.  But for candidates who have been burned and dropped from a search when they were transparent, trust in the recruiting process can be hard.

If you have a background issue, engage an outplacement transition coach, be completely transparent and then ask for their help in developing your story detailing the issue and a  strategy for disclosure.

There are still no guarantees but having a plan of action is a far better approach than not disclosing the issue.

If you have questions, or would like more information on our outplacement advisory services, call me at JohnGSelf Partners, we are committed to helping you succeed in your career.

Until next time.