In the September 13, 2011 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader asks:

I have a challenge that I’m not sure I can overcome very easily in this job environment. I was forced to file bankruptcy due to long-term unemployment. I also received a DUI (“driving under the influence”) about a year ago. I’m afraid that, despite my qualifications, prospective employers may reject me after they do a background check. Any suggestions on how I can overcome this challenge?

My reply:

Here’s the video version of my advice, and below it is the printed version. (I don’t do videos from a script, so this is not a literal transcript.)

1. Avoid job hunting tools that can’t defend you.

Your resume cannot defend you when a manager sees a problem and wonders how it would affect his business. Nor can an online application form. Only someone who knows you can defend you and override objections by emphasizing how you’ll deliver benefits to an employer.

So the answer is clear: Invest most of your time getting someone who is credible and who respects you to contact the employer and recommend you. It’s not easy. But it’s the best tactic. A reference doesn’t have to be your former boss. It might be another manager from your old company who knows your work ethic, or even a customer or consultant. But it must be someone who will make the call and stick their neck out for you. (I know it might be painful to make such a request. But you’re in a painful situation, and like I said, you have to have the stomach for this.)

2. Help the employer focus on what matters most.

The employer is right to be worried. Any red flags pose a risk to his business. So it’s up to you to help the employer stop worrying. Be honest and candid about your bankruptcy and your DUI. But don’t dwell on them. Quickly focus the employer on your clear commitment to help him make his operation more successful. In other words, distract him from your problems in a way that engages him in what matters: his success. Show him that you’re worth taking a chance on.

(This is where some of my advice is omitted. To get the whole story next week, subscribe to the newsletter. It’s free! Don’t miss another edition!)… 

Just remember: The manager who hires you deserves this kind of effort from you, because he needs convincing. He won’t ask you to do it. You must volunteer.

The economy sucks, and losing a job opportunity because you’ve got problems in your personal or work history sucks even more. What if you’re qualified and have a solid work ethic? Should an employer reject you because you were forced to file bankruptcy due to unemployment? How about a DUI violation? Should it hamper getting hired? How would you handle this?

UPDATE: In part 2 of this pair of posts, learn How to Say It — and about the almost-magic commitment you can make that can move a manager from “No way!” to “I’m willing to take a chance on you!” Please check Bankrupt & Unemployed: How to Say It.

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  1. Dear Nick,
    What great advice you give! So many candidates are in similar positions due to the bad economy and in South Africa the unemployment rate is ridiculous. I had a situation like this a while ago I would like to share, as it proves that your advice works;
    Some years ago, in the midst of the skills crisis, a client in the fishing industry was looking for an Engineer with a Government Certificate who would also count for their Diversity stats and to make matters worse, for a factory based in the middle of nowhere on the West Coast. I worked on this job for eight months and no-one qualified was interested! I heard about an Engineer who had been fired from a well-known firm for allegedly taking part in pornographic activities while at work. Needless to say, he was in a situation where no other company or recruiter would touch him. Five references later, it turned out he was nailed for simply opening an attachment sent to him via email from outside the company, which was against company policy. This was due to complaints by certain managers that staff allegedly spent time on non-work related email, etc. Well, he was at the wrong place at the wrong time by the looks of it and every single colleague I spoke to assured me of his competence and good moral standards.
    I went to the client – telling him I had great news – I had found the PERFECT candidate, only one small problem – and I gave him the run down. The client’s response was – “don’t worry, we will keep him so busy he will have no time for any of that nonsense!”
    They met and the Engineer was hired!

  2. Nick is right that you should anticipate it being a significant problem. I obviously would not apply for a job requiring a security clearance or driving a company vehicle.
    On the other hand, utilizing Nicks other ideas about investigating companies to work for, you may consider focusing on smaller companies or find out if they even do background checks. Sometimes it is like being asked if you will submit to random drug tests. It sounds good but it costs money and time and that is something many HR departments have in short supply.

  3. Again, Nick, rock solid advice.

    I think this goes under the “things we’re not proud of” file and why background checks are dumb for your run of the mill jobs.

  4. I’m running into this right now – I’ve been employed on and off over the past three years. Stupidly, I guess, I’ve used my retirement saving to get by. My husband and I are meeting with attorneys on Friday to check out bankruptcy options. It will cost me money I sincerely don’t have to file bankruptcy. I live in PA, where there is legislation currently pending to help people who’ve had credit issues exacerbated by the poor economy.

    Get on the stick and talk to your legislators to pass these laws. Here’s a list:

    Check to see which state you are in, and where the legislation currently stands in your state.

  5. Humans are imperfect beings. Corporations are even less perfect. Any company that can’t evaluate a candidate in a balanced way is delusional. That being said, a personal bankruptcy should not be an issue unless you are applying for a position that handles money until you can prove yourself.

  6. @John Z: The “automated” candidate review process is costing employers good hires. While HR diddles the databases, good people move on and competitors are hiring them. In this case, background checks taken by themselves often are used to reject candidates. Employers might smirk at that and complain about “talent shortages,” but it doesn’t solve the problem for anyone. Jobs sit empty, and Congress blames poor education. I just don’t believe that 3.2 million vacant jobs are vacant because there aren’t enough “educated” and “qualified” hires among the 14.2 million unemployed.

  7. @Nick

    It’s the classic chicken and egg…

    Even if canidates don’t have enough “education” or “experience” or aren’t “qualified” enough – why can’t companies hire these people anyways? If they have related experiences/education, why can’t these people be “trained?”

  8. @Dave: When is the last time you saw a job ad that said a job included training? This used to be very common. A company would hire at a bit of a discount on the salary, but include training and skills development. After a short time, it had a profitable worker who felt some loyalty. This had a very unusual name to it: “investment.” Companies used to do that with their “human resources.” Some still do. They’re the only ones worth talking to.

  9. Hi, Nick. Outstanding advice once again. I’ve had clients with similar backgrounds, and have encouraged them to find and use references who will proactively reassure skittish employers.

    I also recommend honesty. One client had two DUIs in his history, going back about three years. It didn’t come up until the interview, and he brought it up, explaining that it was in his past and what he’d done to overcome it.

    Then he went further: he demonstrated by his past history what specific value he could bring to the company.

    He got the job over people who were better qualified.

    It can be very daunting to have something in your history that will work against you. A proactive approach and, if possible, a credible reference or two, combined with openness and a passion for doing the job, can make all the difference.

  10. Nick,
    Good newsletter about the background checks relative to the hiring process. I’m even more interested now after reading John’s comments here, because I’ve had strong feelings myself the last two years since I graduated school and haven’t found anything near relative to my field. Going back to this newsletter, if your state of residency does not remove a DUI from your driving background, is there any time limit an employer would regard it as just an isolated incident? I received one eight years ago, and I don’t even know whether or not I should have a reference even vouch for my ethic if all or none of them can consider it in the past. Additionally, I have a terrible credit score as of the last year because since getting a four-year degree, I haven’t been granted a single wage or pay raise from any employer to pay any of them. I’m always open minded, and I try to look at everything from a multiplicity of angles, but my morale has me feeling similar to John on your comments blog. Things are so circumstantial and vague now that good applicants are judged on minuscule, picky, and irrelevant factors. If it is the way it is, and always will be, there already is a ton of people who are worthy of many of the positions they are applying for. It’s causing economic unrest from me over here, I can’t deny. I have worked very hard to look respectable enough on paper, and I know as the guy before I went back to school that I was capable of doing tasks an educated person could. Please do accept this as an inquiry attached to a bit of venting, as I have been very “GR” over possibilities and improbabilities of cause. Thanks.

  11. Nick, thanks for another outstanding article and response. And thanks for listening to us re the video vs text. I watched your video, but it is oh so nice to have a transcript.

    @Nick, John, and Dave: good question re why employers won’t take a chance on someone who has some or even most of the skills they require for a job but not all of them and train that person. And I’m with you re the use of background checks in most cases merely being another screening-out tool used by HR to justify their jobs but that does little for the company or agency. There are times when a background check is necessary, and that’s fine–I’m thinking of folks who need Top Secret security clearance because of the kind of job they’re doing. In my last job, I was interviewed by federal investigators for federal employees (military, in my cases) who who gotten a promotion or were moving to a new command and they needed Top Secret security clearance. In one case, the investigator made an appointment to meet me, then got lost in my building. The building was a labyrinth, but I had told him he’d never find my office and to give me a call when he got there and I’d come to the parking lot and get him. He was over 90 minutes late, and didn’t ask me too many questions–I was surprised, never having met with a federal investigator for this reason before and given the nature of the person he was investigating. Later it occurred to me that he probably had another appointment elsewhere and didn’t want to be late for 2 appointments that day. The student got the clearance. Another investigator for another student was much more thorough, explained the process to me, and it was very much like deposition and/or interrogatory. There were some questions I wasn’t able to answer because I didn’t have knowledge to answer, and that was fine–other investigators would get answers elsewhere, and this student also got the clearance.

    But, at the job I had before my last job, the company started doing background checks and they had bought some kind of software or package that did it for them and was automated, so if HR entered the wrong SS# and wasn’t paying attention to the name and got a lackluster “report”, then they were so over that candidate and on to the next one. They didn’t double check, much less take the time to look at any “red flags” and the dates and figure out if it was worth asking the candidates about.

    @John: I’m not even sure that a personal bankruptcy, especially these days, in this economy, is reason enough to automatically disqualify someone from a job even if the job entails handling finances for the company. I’d ask the candidate WHY s/he declared bankruptcy–it could be that the candidate is an honest, moral person who wouldn’t steal and the reason for the bankruptcy is an unexpected medical bill for a spouse’s cancer treatments, for a child’s serious health problem, or because the candidate or spouse lost a job, went through their savings and had no other options.

    I’m with Nick on this one–the way to overcome the background check hurdle is to deal directly with hiring manager unless the hiring manager says to go through HR, or this is what HR wants. Then thank him for his time and ask him to remove your name for consideration. That kind of hiring manager is letting HR do his job for him, and we all know how good HR is doing that. And get someone else or a couple of someone elses to speak on your behalf, to write a letter of recommendation directly to the hiring manager (unless he’s HR’s lackey) to vouch for you, for your work ethic, for your abilities, and what you’ll bring to the company. Mom or your frat brothers or the guys you play basketball pickup games with, unless they work with you (I’d still leave off mom) are not good references. And if you get an interview, then address the issues to allay the concerns of the manager (Nick’s right–the manager has good reason to be concerned, but your job at the interview is to assure him those issues are in the past, that you’ve done x, y, and z to fix them) and then re-direct the manager to what you can do for the company. Don’t let him dwell on your warts, because that’s all he’ll remember. Address them honestly, then move on to the challenges the company has and what you’d do to be the solution to those challenges.

  12. Nick, it is interesting that the standard in similar scenarios is rather different for professional athletes, actors and politicians.

    American readers know the story about the football player, Michael Vick. He was convicted of dog fighting and other crimes, served jail time and lost lucrative endorsements. Yet Philadelphia took a chance on him despite a public relations backlash and when some thought Vick’s career was over. He produced a stellar season and was rewarded with a multi-year contract of $100 million.

    I can’t ad much to the great advice already provided here. I would make one suggestion that the candidate consider self-employment if doors continue to close. Then he could rebuild his reputation without jumping through corporate hurdles and cultivate current references and/or testimonials.

  13. Hi All,

    After reading comments and thinking a bit more – it seems that background checks are another crutch for people who can’t gauge people’s talent/ability/experience/etc. as well as their own job/company. It seems that people who want this sort of thing can’t handle the truth, and are unwilling to understand the proper context – bad things happen to good people.

    If the person shows me that they can do the job and show remorse, I’d kinda want them – shows me that they can overcome adversity.

  14. @Dave:

    I think that’s exactly the problem. Few employers know how to do this any more, and few bother. They want “automated” recruitment and hiring. Just look at the number of companies that rely on streams of “applicants” from job boards. Are managers really so busy that they can’t check out candidates by talking with them? Too busy to go out to industry events and actually recruit?

    Pay your money, push the button, and sort the drek. That’s recruiting. Talent shortage, my A.

  15. Please don’t miss part 2 of this post… Bankrupt & Unemployed: How to Say It.

    How would you say it to an employer?

  16. @Dave: I think so too, and I think it’s a cop-out.

    Nick, there was a story on cable news recently as well as in fortune magazine about the “skills gap”, insinuating that employers are begging for employees but that people who apply aren’t qualified. Another cable news segment called it what you did–“talent shortage”. I wanted to throw up. Education does not necessarily prepare you for work, much less work in a specific job with a specific employer in a specific industry unless you go to trade/voc. school and become a licensed electrician or plumber.

    I think employers don’t want to bother to train anyone anymore, and they certainly don’t seem to know how to interview candidates. Maybe hiring managers don’t know how to read and think critically and rather than jump to conclusions (which could be wrong) about why someone isn’t working (hello–his employer sent his job to India, or went under, or merged with another company and he got replaced) or why someone declared bankruptcy (could be because he didn’t qualify for health insurance due to a pre-existing condition and had huge medical bills).

    The DUI is little harder, but if I were him, I’d admit to my own stupidity (I got drunk and drove and got caught. I was stupid. I have a record and it cost me–I lost my license for 3 months and had to attend classes. It was a hard lesson to learn but I learned it and I won’t make this kind of mistake again. I haven’t had a drink in a year. I’ve gotten my license back. I’m handling my stress by exercising or talking to my wife, not by drinking), then move on to what he can do for the company.

    At my last job, I did admissions. I used to see this kind of thing but with poor grades. The applicants who ‘fessed up (I was young and stupid and away from home for the first time; I partied too much and studied too little and by the time I got my act together in my junior or senior year, it was too late to help my dismal GPA from my earlier years, but if you’ll look at my junior and senior year transcripts, you’ll see that I’m capable of doing well academically). The ones who whined or tried to dodge it or who thought it didn’t matter or that I didn’t read transcripts carefully and didn’t provide any explaination, well, then I could only speculate (and it was easy to be like the manager and see it as a red flag and assume the worst–you’ll be a liability for the program, sucking up time and resources and you’ll still flunk out).

    How about management TRAINING folks in hiring and interviewing? What a concept….and then they wouldn’t have to rely on automated apps and background checks that weed out the good, talented candidates who happen not to be perfect.

  17. @marybeth

    In my mind, there is no such thing as a talent shortage. There are plenty of people out there that could come up to speed in a reasonable amount of time. Those that don’t aren’t worth hiring anyways. The only shortage is when you place extremely specific/niche experience, education, salary and industy requirements on job postings thus creating an artifical shortage. No one in charge of hiring can tell me that they can’t find anyone with a straight face with all the unemployment and underemployment these days.

    I think part of the issue is that we set up people to fail. For example, we tell kids to stay in school, go to college, etc. but then we don’t continue to develop our young adults after the fact.

    I think your answer to the DUI is spot on. I think employers need to be assured that your driking will not affect on the job performance.

    One thing that ties into the 2nd part of this blog post as well. The person asking the question needs to show any future employer that he/she kept their skills sharp – whether by taking classes, doing side work, attending indusry group meetings/conferences, getting degrees/certifications, etc. This will help alliviate some fears that the potential employer has – i.e. that you sat around drinking for the last 2 years.

  18. @dave

    Nice to know that I’m not the only one who thinks the whole “talent/skills shortage” is bunk. Once upon a time, employers took the time to train new hires, expecting that it would take time for them to learn the job. Many jobs had a probationary period ranging from as little as a couple of weeks to as long as 90 days (and maybe some were even longer) in which the newbies were trained and managers watched and evaluated them. If they weren’t working out, then they were let go and no more time was invested in them. If they learned the job, then their hire became official.

    You’re right–part of the problem is that we do set up people to fail if management doesn’t invest in training them but expects them to be like Athena and burst fully grown and armed (trained and able to do the job) from Zeus’ head (from day one). That doesn’t happen, even with experienced employees because standards and job duties may differ from employer to employer even in the same field.

    I separate education (particularly college) from work because unless you’re in a vo-tech school or professional school (like pharmacy, nursing, medicine, law) your “education” is general and will not train you for a job. All education proves to an employer is that the young person can stick something out for 4 years and apply himself (assuming his GPA isn’t a 2.20) and therefore he can probably do the same in a work environment. Maybe we need to re-think this process–not every job requires a college degree (hello businesses–are you listening?). Maybe we need to go back to an apprentice system similar to what existed in the 18th century–you were apprenticed to a lawyer, a doctor, a baker, a tailor, etc. for x number of years where you worked with him and watched what he did and he taught you the job. For jobs that do require higher education, then those folks do need to go to college and graduate or professional school.

    Yes, I too think that employers are relying far too much on technology. Or they’re writing job descriptions for their software that are far too narrow and are screening out their best applicants because they don’t meet one out of the 31 criteria, even if that one criterion is something that can be learned on the job.

  19. @marybeth

    I agree with you to an extent, but education does have it’s place, especially for young people or for those who need training of sorts. You have to start somewhere.

    My sticking point is that the “big lie” is that we tell people “go to college” but then when people get out, we give them the run around of “you have no related real world work.” So, why are we encouraging people to go to college in the first place? It basically reduces your body of work to a simple check box or keyword.

  20. @dave

    Yes, it does, and yes, everyone needs to start somewhere. An employer will hopefully take a chance on a young person with no experience and give him or her that first job so s/he can get some experience. It is a classic chicken and egg dilemma–you can’t get a job without experience, and without a job you can’t get experience. That’s where my sticking point about training comes in–and it isn’t just for newbies, but even for older people who are changing employers.

    I understand what you mean about the “big lie”, and I suppose that’s what I’m getting at too, but from another angle. And a corollary to the “big lie” is that a college education automatically translates to a high paying job immediately upon graduation. It doesn’t–when you do get that first post-college job, you have to start at the bottom and pay your dues. In my own experience, many 21 year olds still have a lot to learn, including what a work ethic means. You don’t get the corner office, a personal sec’y, and praise lavished upon you for merely showing up–you have to produce something of value to your employer. And that’s where I think the disconnect is–too many young people today get lavish praise for mediocre work (trophies given out to the 9th place finisher in a race so the “non-winners” don’t feel bad) and that just doesn’t happen in the work world.

    At one time, an employer hiring a college graduate was assured of someone who proved s/he could stick with something (stuck out 4 years of college), was reasonably articulate, had some math skills, and had taken enough courses to know something of the world around him.

    I think the world is changing again and due to the economic crisis many people are re-thinking college as most of us knew it–what’s the point of borrowing tens of thousands of dollars when there’s no guarantee that there will be a job that will allow you to pay back your loans or even a job period? People who want to go to college can cut costs by starting out at a community college, living at home, working part-time (if there are jobs), and transferring to a 4-year school. If there’s one close to home, they can continue to commute and save money. But college is also a place people make connections, meet and make lifelong friends, meet future spouses, etc.

    I would just ask that employers seriously consider whether the job they need to fill actually requires a college degree or can it be done by a high school graduate and go from there. The reason so many opted for college, aside from those who knew that they wanted to be doctors, lawyers, pharmacists, teachers, veterinarians (because those folks need a college degree before they can go on to professional school) is because for a long time college was the ticket to a middle class life–a better job, the opportunity to make more money than your parents, etc. This economic recession/depression is showing that having a college degree is no longer that guarantee. Even in Nursing, which is a field that pays quite well for a 4 year degree, is letting nurses go and re-hiring them on a per diem basis–no benefits and no guarantee of steady work. A friend of mine is an engineer who had been doing gov’t contracting, and when that job ended, he got hired by a firm but later the firm eliminated his dept. He’s got more than 15 years of experience under his belt and is having a hard time finding an engineering job. He said he could flip burgers, but they wouldn’t hire him because he’s “over qualified” and it would drive him bonkers.

    If employers are using a college degree or lack of one as another screening device (like background checks and software that allows you to use buzzwords and dates to screen out applicants), then you’re absolutely right–it DOES reduce your college work to a check box or keyword.

  21. @Dave and Nick:

    I spotted this job posting last week:

    Please take a look at the qualifications and then what hours are and how few they are. Maybe a recent MLS graduate whose parents are still willing to pay his or her rent, food, car and car expenses, and more would take it, but any reference librarian who meets those skills will most likely want more hours and certainly not be stuck with the nights/weekends shift. That’s a lot of education and experience for not much of a job.

    Yes, it reads that they will consider a MLS or MLIS student, but it seems to me that their preference is not to train anyone for the job.

    This is what I think of when I see job postings that have so many qualifications that they screen out folks who don’t have them but could learn.

  22. @marybeth –

    Completely agree that 21 year olds don’t know everything. Issue is – we’ve gone from one extreme to another – where companies would talk to graduates to they wouldn’t touch them with a 40 foot pole.

    Regarding your job posting – yeah, don’t know much about librarians, but why would I want to work for them if I had a masters degree and only 15 hours/week?

  23. @ Dave and Mary Beth -> I have a friend who’s a director in the hospitality industry and learned everything on the job without having to go to university/college.

  24. Companies are now less willing to train their new hires and they’re also getting away with not providing training even when they are legally required to do so.

    The unpaid internships that are so common now are illegal in the US unless the purpose of the internship is training. If the intern is doing the work of an employee then the law says the intern has to be paid.

  25. @Thomas Bell: I’m not surprised. Many people can do the jobs provided that the employer is willing to train people and that people are willing to work hard and learn. Besides, most college degrees do not teach you how to do a particular job. You learn that from work.

    @G: Internships are one of my pet peeves. I see them as free labor for the employer, and as often as not the student intern isn’t even learning the job. At my last job, I did admissions for my program. One of the most common questions (besides how many undergraduate classes would count towards the master’s degree) was how much academic credit they could get towards the degree from their internships, and how much of the required professional work experience we required that we would waive for them because they did an internship. It turned out that the majority (over 95%) of students who did internships didn’t actually learn anything–they picked up their bosses’ drycleaning, babysat his kids, walked his dogs, paid his bills, ran his errands, scheduled his doctors’ appointments, basically served as a nanny and secretary and didn’t learn anything about the industry they were supposed to be learning about. And they only interned for a couple of months maximum, which doesn’t even come close to the minimum number of years of professional work experience we required. I think it is appalling the way employers/bosses took and are taking advantage of students desperate for internships because not to do an internship is considered the kiss of death for undergraduates. And we were seeing another disparity–the disparity of social class, so if a student came from a wealthy or at least well-off enough background so dad could afford to pay rent, food, transportation, professional wardrobe while the student did an unpaid, full-time internship for the summer or part of the summer AND foot the student’s tuition, room & board, books, and other expenses for the upcoming academic year while another student from a poorer family couldn’t afford to do an internship because s/he had to work during the summer to pay for college, then the system is giving a distinct advantage to wealthier students who can afford to volunteer for a couple of months, schmooze, make connections, etc.

  26. Great advice @Nick. First of all, the background check doesn’t meant to reject candidates rather it discloses whether the applicant is saying truth or not. So whatever you have, whether DUI or something else that may be a red flag you think, it’s better to mention it in your resume. After that, you try to defend it in the interview in some tricky way. Also show the employer how your good part or the skills would greatly benefit the company. A strong reference would help you a lot in this case. Apart from that, it’s better if you perform a self-background check; so that you can know about your red flags properly and try to rectify it before the employers come to know.