What to Do if You’re Embarrassed by a Former Employer (But Did Great Work There) was originally published on The Muse, a great place to research companies and careers. Click here to search for great jobs and companies near you.
I always tell people that your best defense is nearly always a good offense. Thus, if you suspect a reviewer may raise an eyebrow about something related to your background, assume that they will and address it proactively.
But what happens if you’ve worked for a company (or in a role) that you’re embarrassed about? How do you address these types of scenarios?
In the exact same way. Proactively. Strategically. Succinctly.
Spell it out for the decision maker and then you move on with the, “Check out what I can walk through your doors and deliver” aspects of your career story.
Here are a few specific scenarios my clients have experienced, and how I managed them:
1. You Worked for a Company With a PR Crisis
Several months ago, I had a customer who was just incredible at his job, which was in financial services. Unfortunately, one of his more recent employers had landed in all kinds of trouble when it was discovered the founder was doing some not-so-legal things with their clients’ moolah. Shortly thereafter, that company folded.
While my client had quickly divested of his relationship with this firm once this information came to light (and, he had nothing to do with the sitch), the fact remained that he’d still worked there. And he’d done some really groundbreaking work there, to boot.
So, what should he do with his resume?
We debated removing the company name altogether from the resume, and simply listing the employer generically (a la, “Financial Services Firm”), but decided that this may make it look like he was trying to hide something.
We decided instead to build wording into the description of the next job he’d landed that briefly addressed the situation, implied that he wasn’t involved in the situation, and made it obvious that he was recruited by a firm that appreciated his work.
Following the unanticipated closure of XYZ Company, was invited to manage client accounts for this rapidly growing investment brokerage.
2. You Worked for a Company in a Potentially Polarizing Industry
Another client of ours–also a powerhouse of a professional—worked as an operations director for a firm that distributes adult toy products.
She really enjoyed her time at this firm but was ready to expand her capabilities and lead within a larger organization.
Because her operations work at the adult toy products company was directly relevant to what she wanted to do next, we certainly didn’t want to remove it from the resume, but she was very nervous about calling out that she’d worked here, period.
We decided to be brief about how we described the company (and, fortunately, it wasn’t called, “Super Sex Toys Store” or anything super obvious), and then showcase very clearly her achievements that directly related to the jobs she was eyeing (like customer service, process improvement, supply chain optimization, etc.)
Played a pivotal role in transforming business operations for this novelty products company—optimizing both its retail and ecommerce distribution channels. [And go on to share a few specific highlights.]
3. You Took a Job (Well) Beneath Your Level/Capabilities
One of my favorite clients of all time was a superstar marketing executive from New York who relocated to the West Coast when her spouse landed a “too-good-to-turn-down” job. Once they’d packed up their house, schlepped their kids from coast to coast, and gotten everyone settled into their new life, she was flat-out reeling with exhaustion—and not ready to dive back into a demanding role.
And so, she decided to catch her breath for a hot minute before firing up a job search. While on hiatus, she was invited to take on a part-time job as a receptionist at her yoga studio.
She worked at that yoga studio more than two years, in a role that expanded to include all of the studio’s social media management (word got out that she was good at marketing). When she was finally ready to transition back into a corporate leadership role, she was terrified of listing the yoga job on her resume, for fear it would look like a huge demotion. Yet, without that, she had a clear gap.
We decided to list the job (absolutely). It was relevant, and it gave her opportunity to quickly explain to the reviewer what the situation was, and spell out how she was keeping her marketing skills fresh through the transition.
Following a family move to California, accepted an invitation to help a popular yoga studio grow its brand and accelerate revenue through social media marketing.*
These are just three examples that may help you position a job that you’re not so sure what to do about, but they share a common thread:
They’re proactive, they’re unapologetic, and they’re strategic.
And, in each of these instances, once the circumstance is clarified, the person goes on and highlights the stuff they’re great at, with that target next job in mind.
The more you squirm or try to disguise stuff, the greater the risk that your audience will wonder what the issue is.
And the only issue you want them to see? Is the one that screams, “She looks amazing. Let’s bring her in for an interview.”