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My addiction made me a terrible employee. I’m in recovery – but how can I find a new job with such poor references?

  • Author: Lynne Curry
    | The Workplace
  • Updated: July 1
  • Published July 1

Q: I'm a recovering addict who moved to Alaska three years ago for a dream job, but didn't leave my problem drinking behind. I blew deadlines, behaved inappropriately at work events and was a terrible employee. My boss kindly let me resign instead of firing me.

I got married, had a child and spent six months in rehab. I've been sober for six months. I now work in temporary sales jobs but don't make enough to live on and moving out of state is out of the question.

Unfortunately, I can't get an interview for an entry-level job, let alone one in my high-profile field. I'm afraid my poor references make me "radioactive." How do I address my past problems with potential employers when I can't even get an interview? Do I mention the situation in my cover letter?

A: You have two issues — a poor reference and the question any employer may have — why do you want an entry-level job when you formerly held a high-profile position? You need to address both issues.

First, tackle your reference problem. Visit your past employer and apologize for how your treated your job and the problems your behavior caused. Outline what you've done to completely change. Present her with any concrete proof you have that you have not only changed, but won't backslide. If this meeting goes well, ask if she'll consider indicating to future prospective employers you appear to be a changed individual. Don't push her to give you an immediate answer, just ask that she consider your request.

Additionally, realize that you receive more than pay from each of your temporary sales jobs. Each one gives you a fresh opportunity to create a new track record. Excel at each job and ask each temporary employer to write you a reference letter. These letters have the benefit of documenting that you've changed in good ways. Also, when you provide a prospective employer with reference letters, they often focus on the letters they have in their hands and don't even call other prior employers.

In addition to sales jobs, are there other jobs you can secure through one of the temporary employment services, particularly ones in which you can start on the ground floor and work your up with an employer? If so, a temporary job may become your route to one that pays you well.

You're right to focus on writing a terrific cover letter. Employers read cover letters while they only scan resumes. Read each job posting carefully so that you can write a cover letter specifically focused on each job.

Address in your cover letter that you faced a challenge that temporarily affected your career and for this reason seek an entry-level position so you can work your way up in the employer's company. By proactively answering the logical question a prospective employer may have when scanning your resume, you increase your chances of landing an interview. Don't, however, discuss your former addiction in detail. Less is more, and it's best to describe it as a challenge.

If you're asked "what challenge?" or a prospective employer learns about your addiction and questions you, don't attempt to minimize or excuse away your past with statements such as "I was going through a difficult time." Instead, "hit it head on," says Avitus HR Director Robert Lindstrom, "without dancing around it."

Lindstrom, who helps multiple Alaska employers make hiring and personnel management decisions says, "Most employers understand that everyone deserves a second chance." So, explain how you've changed and the lessons you've learned that have made you someone your next employer can trust to do a good job.

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