Q: Several weeks ago, I interviewed for the most exciting job of my career. I could tell I’d hit a home run with the hiring panel. Two days later, I was asked to interview with the chief executive officer and a management consultant he relied on to help him select the right candidate.
I was thrilled. This second interview went smoothly until the consultant asked, “Have you ever done anything as an employee that you’ve regretted in hindsight?” The question took me by surprise and my brain shut down. I asked, “Could I think for a while and maybe answer that later?” The consultant stared right at me and said, “Now is the time. We’ll give you a moment or two to think, but it’s our next question.” I recovered, and after a minute told them about a time I’d overlooked an assignment.
I didn’t get the job. Here’s what I think happened. When I was in my early 20s, my older brother pressured me to work with him in his company and to do things that made me feel uncomfortable. I admit I did them. We got sued and I stopped working with him.
He, however, continued to take increasing risks, and eventually wound up on the newspaper’s front pages and was prosecuted. When this happened, I wanted to distance from him and changed my last name. Throughout the years, I've experienced multiple instances in which I've been in final rounds of well-paying jobs, only to not be the chosen candidate. I thought changing my name would protect me, but maybe it hasn’t. How do I get past this?
A: When you have a ghost haunting your employment past — in your case. what you did with your older brother; for other applicants, being fired or having a disastrous reference — and you’re asked a direct question about it, you need to answer honestly. Otherwise, an astute interviewer senses both that something’s not quite right and that you’re not truthful.
Here’s what you need to know. You thought you’d left your past behind when you changed your name, but it is an integral part of your history. Employers can find out almost anyone’s secrets through a social media search or via background or reference checks.
The consultant’s “now is the time” likely signaled she’d uncovered your name change. Given how extreme many consider a name change, she gave you a chance to tell your story. What stopped you from answering with the truth?
You could have said, “I wanted to distance myself from a relative famous for breaking the law” or “Years ago I did something foolish and my name change commemorates that I’m not the same person.” Similarly, an applicant fired from a job due to problem behavior could answer, “I had a lot of growing up to do. Being fired was an amazing wake-up call.”
In other words, you and other applicants with problematic past issues need to expect that they might surface in the form of hard questions. How do get past this? You prepare truthful answers that put the matter to rest. If you learn a prospective employer includes background checking or consultant vetting as part of their process, you may even want to be proactive with the fact that you have one Social Security number and two legal names.
Finally, if you’ve turned your life around, you likely have good references and positive performance reviews. Include them, along with your resume and cover letter, when you apply for the next job you hope to land. An employer looking at an applicant who arrives armed with positive performance reviews and a stack of glowing reference letters normally gives that applicant a chance to explain anything curious that surfaces in the background check. And when that next happens, you’ll be ready.