Scapegoat suspects fallout taints search for new job

ManagementJuly 9, 2012 

Q. Because I held a key position in a large public organization, my name was publicly mentioned when a newsworthy problem occurred. The organization decided to resolve the problem by selecting me as a scapegoat, calling me incompetent and inexperienced, despite the fact I'd worked in my position for three years with regular raises and commendations.

Fast-forward -- I need a new job. I applied for multiple jobs for which I'm well qualified, with no luck. I suspect prospective employers either recognize my name or Google me, pulling up unflattering news stories.

In a phone interview, the "So, what puts you in the job market?" question stumped me. I didn't know whether to tell the whole story; I tried to and finally ended with, "It's complicated." The embarrassment led me to take a week off from job hunting even though I can't afford not to work.

What do I say and what do I do?

A. If you're asked about the situation, respond honestly and briefly. "That situation was a mess and the full story was more complicated than it appeared on the surface."

If you say too much, the details you provide can lead to more questions. If you try to explain away the circumstances, you'll appear to be defensive or blaming others.

Instead, as quickly as you can, tie that discussion back to the job interview: "Which puts me here, really interested in your company and this position -- I think I bring a lot of experience and talents to the table. I've had many commendations and raises that attest to that." If you have positive performance reviews, bring those forward as well; they're often more convincing than letters of recommendation.

Finally, keep in mind that neither your past job nor any one mistake defines you -- you define you. What makes you the very best hire any organization could land? From that perspective, craft a hard-hitting cover letter and resume that spotlights your accomplishments with bottom-line terms such as "streamlined systems to reduce annual operating expenses by $68K."

Carry that mind-set into the interview. You're good -- despite what just happened. You want a job and plan to work hard -- and can't get a job if you stay home.

Q. I've worked long, hard hours for a nonprofit. I started in accounting and then took on special projects, eventually becoming salaried.

When our executive director fired our finance director, I stepped up to fill the void, working many extra hours.

Although I applied for the job, they hired someone else, saying I didn't have the senior level experience they needed. They then asked me to handle my former job plus fill in for another vacancy. I worked so many hours a week that they offered me comp time.

Once they filled that vacancy, they told me that the special projects I did only merited a 20-hour-a-week position and they planned to cut my accumulated 300 hours of comp time to 40. Can they do this?

A. You may not be a salaried employee. Employment-attorney-turned-HR-consultant Rick Birdsall says that "the fact that they said you didn't qualify for the senior position may indicate you're non-exempt," and suggests you go to dol.gov/whd/flsa/ to see whether your work duties and experience fit the exempt or nonexempt descriptions.

What reason did they give for taking away 260 hours of leave? Do they dispute that you earned it? If you can prove they promised it, Birdsall says, your employer "took away 260 hours of appropriated earned leave and you can file a complaint with the Department of Labor."

Birdsall adds that the Fair Labor Standards Act provides for private civil litigation and enforcement, which includes an award of reasonable attorney's fees if you prevail. If you have a good case, you may be able to find an excellent attorney who will help you on a contingency basis (she gets paid after you win.)

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Management/employee trainer and the owner of the consulting firm The Growth Company Inc., Dr. Lynne Curry provides columns to newspapers in multiple states. For questions, Curry can be reached at the growthcompany.com.

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