Staff members in the athletics department at Penn State know a thing or two about having a blight on their resumes. Even those who were in no way involved in the child sex-abuse scandal that forced out iconic football coach Joe Paterno and President Graham Spanier will have to explain to potential future employers their time at the university with the sullied reputation.
It's a tricky thing, according to a post at Harvard Business Review entitled, "How to Job Hunt With a Strike Against You." When dealing with recruiters, though, a direct approach can be too easily dismissed, according to the authors, career management pros Maryanne Peabody and Larry Stybel. Instead they advocate enlisting a third party to write a letter telling how you are exceptional in a positive way, though you worked for an employer with a negative reputation.
If you're asked about the elephant in the room during an interview, that's a good thing, they say. It means the potential employer is comfortable enough with you to be frank. Not asking about it is a bad sign. You can ask what the interviewer knows about your past employer and if it's not much, you can frame the message in your own way. If the interviewer knows something about it, you don't want to diss this former employer and you don't want to defend it. They offer this example:
... the hiring authority states that the albatross was tired, dysfunctional, and inwardly-focused, and that they responded poorly to changing business conditions. You respond with, "You're right. But our company was complex. And within my area of responsibility, we did some exciting, innovative things. I'd like to talk to you about that with an understanding that I'm interested in helping you be the best company you can be. I have no intentions of bringing my former company's ways of doing business to your company."
They refer to other "albatross" issues such as age, staying too long at one company and physical disability. Those, they say, you should address head-on, even if the interviewer doesn't bring them up. And humor always helps.
I'm not sure the authors had this child sex-abuse scandal in mind when they wrote this post. It's certainly an area in which you'd have to tread carefully. A commenter on the piece speaks of the stress of trying to defend the indefensible and repair the irreparable, but notes:
Good experience gained in a bad environment is not worthless.