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Lynne Curry: Confronting yesterday's problems in today's workplace

Lynne Curry

Q: I moved to Alaska to escape my past. I’ve moved like this many times before. I look for a small company that doesn’t check references and get a job. Then, it happens. Someone in the workplace won’t stop asking me questions. No matter how I try to deflect this person’s curiosity, they ask ever more probing questions.

When they realize they can’t get information out of me, they dig using the Internet. Ultimately, they learn I was married to a man formerly on a terrorist list who fled the country. 

I divorced my ex-husband and haven’t seen him in years, but our pasts are forever linked. The whispers start. In the past, I’ve left before the manager asks me to leave or co-workers I’ve started to like shun me. I’m not sure what’s left -- trying my luck elsewhere in Alaska? 

A: This time, stay. You’re not the first person who moved to Alaska to escape her past.

If you yourself did something wrong such as embezzlement or sexual assault, your co-worker had every right to dig into your past and alert your manager and perhaps others.

Your story, however, suggests a different past, one you legitimately want to keep private. As you’ve learned, you can’t. Co-workers sleuth out secrets. Although employers owe employees the right to privacy, they can’t fully protect employees from off-the-job co-worker curiosity.

The solution lies in you. If you don’t want to keep running, take a stand. Ask your manager to tell your co-workers to treat you with respect by valuing your privacy and stopping their gossip.

Alternatively, ask your manager for a chance to address your co-workers in a group. Rumors spread until someone shines truth into them.

Start the meeting by reminding your co-workers they wouldn’t want to be the target of gossip or have every part of their background dug up. Let them know you once married someone you loved, but his decisions weren’t yours. Those lucky enough to have escaped problem marriages or other tragedies might judge you for your past; however, genuinely spoken truth dispels whispers. Then, hold your head high. If you have the right co-workers, they’ll respond to your honesty and respect you for meeting gossip with courage. 

Q: My 23-year-old son has always gravitated toward big money jobs in construction. He’s a good, hard worker but has been fired from three jobs, laid off four times and quit two jobs. I know it looks bad, but he’s had more God-awful bosses than anyone I know. 

I’m working on his resume, knowing that once he gets in front of someone who can hire him, they’ll like him. Is there a rule of thumb for whether you even have to list jobs of less than a year? And how do I cover up the gaps between jobs?

A: Individuals with a sporadic job history often substitute a functional for a chronological resume. Functional resumes take the focus away from resume gaps and numbers of jobs and place it on the applicant’s skills and qualifications. To create one, divide your son’s experience into core competency areas such as safety awareness, carpentry and drywall installation.

Resumes and great interviewing skills help applicants land jobs, not keep them. While you can cover up a problem job history with a cleverly designed resume, nine jobs and three firings by age 23 indicates the problem may be deeper than Gosh-awful bosses.