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Advice / Job Search / Interviewing

Got a Record? Dealing With Dirt From Your Past in a Job Interview

Oh, those good old days.

The exhilaration that you and your college buddies felt when you “borrowed” your frat brother’s car—until he filed a stolen property report.

The pride you felt standing up for the rights of all humans in that huge downtown protest—until you got slapped with those remarkably tight handcuffs.

The hopes you had when you joined that “too good to be true” startup company—until you discovered they’d made you a scapegoat in some rather sketchy activities.

We’ve all got something. We’ve all got moments from our past that we consider “dirt.”

And some of us have “dirt” that, if discovered, could potentially foul up our ability to land an amazing job.

So how do you get past your past in a job interview, when something in it is not only sketchy, but also public record? While it certainly depends on the magnitude of your indiscretion, here are four general tips on dealing with the dirt.

1. Know It

The first thing you need to do is fully digest that thing you did and then consider how it may impact your job search efforts. This is no time to be the ostrich with your head stuck in the sand. Mosey over to the internet and figure out where your “checkered past” information appears online, or where it may someday. As a recruiter, I most often find dirt on a job seeker within online news articles, on message boards, and in social media profiles. I also sometimes find arrest records or court information.

And if you can find it? So can every recruiter or interviewer you meet. Know what’s out there and, in every instance that you can clean things up (e.g., deleting those Facebook photos), do. If it’s not a matter of waving a magic wand and making it go away, then it’s time to strategize.

2. Don’t Lie About It

I once had a star candidate who was in the final stretch for a job that he really wanted. It was a job that did not require a college degree, yet—for some insane reason—he stated on his resume that he had completed his bachelor’s. In reality, he was a few credits short. And the company discovered this (easily) through the company’s standard degree check process. He did not get the job.

No matter what you’re thinking you’d rather hide, know that you just can’t lie. Because when someone finds out, you’re done. So, if a job application asks you to list any criminal record—and you have one—fill that puppy out. Honestly.

3. Try Hitting it on the Head

Perhaps the best way to deal with the dirt in a job interview is to disclose it proactively. When you do this, you have an opportunity to manage the message (the same one that your potential employer will likely find anyway) and put a positive spin on the story.

For instance, say you got caught stealing beer from the neighborhood 7-Eleven a decade ago and had to complete 100 hours of community service. You might consider sharing with the interviewer how, through this incredibly stupid decision, you were introduced to some amazing nonprofit organization that you’re now deeply involved with.

If you don’t mention the arrest and frame it in a favorable light, that interviewer may just find the police report instead—which won’t showcase what you learned through the experience or the good that came out of it.

4. Don’t Try to Wing It

Whatever you do, don’t walk into that interview without a solid idea in mind of how you’re going to address the dirt. People say the darnedest things when they try to wing it. And by darnedest, I don’t generally mean “most brilliant.”

Certainly, you might want to wait for an appropriate segue to cover the topic. But it can also work if you're upfront about the topic early on in the interview. Consider something like, “I’ve overcome a lot in the last decade, including some things I brought on myself. But the great part about making mistakes early on in your adulthood? You get to take the lessons learned and become a person that you’d be proud to hang out with.”

Finally, remember this: The past does not define your future. If you’re the perfect candidate for the job—and you own up about your past—an employer is likely to forgive and forget. No matter what you got yourself into two, five, or 10 years ago, you’ve got a whole lot of career runway in front of you.

Just don’t jet down that runway in your frat brother’s vehicle. Unless you have express permission.

Photo of stressed woman courtesy of Shutterstock.