What to Do If One of Your Skeletons Gets Out of the Closet

Don Tennant

Let's face it. There are very few people walking the face of the earth who haven't done something in their lives that they wish they hadn't done, and that they'd prefer not come under anyone's scrutiny. The problem, as presidential candidate Herman Cain has learned, is that those skeletons can manage to push their way out of the closet. What Cain apparently hasn't learned yet is that when they do, you need to be upfront about them, and manage them rather than allow them to manage you.


I spoke about the skeletons-in-the-closet problem earlier this month with Jeff Diana, a human resources expert and chief people officer at SuccessFactors, a provider of HR management software. Diana had offered some interesting advice to job seekers a couple of months ago in a list of tips posted on careerealism.com:

Google yourself. Job seekers should take a few seconds to type their names into various search engines to ensure that the skeletons have stayed in their closets.

That caught my eye, so I asked Diana what sorts of skeletons he was referring to. In response, he said it's basically anything that might damage your brand:

When you look at the world of social media today, your brand is out there, and you don't really get to manage your brand. You just need to be aware of what your brand is, and that's everything from people you've had customer interactions with to people who have worked with you or for you, or people you've bumped into in the local community. You just need to be aware of the brand of you that other people are controlling out there. That can be anything from "This person was a lousy employee" to "This was the dad who had a shouting match on the sidelines of a sports game." It's amazing the types of things that people just want to blog and communicate about, and you just need to be able to have that information because other people have it, and you need to take that into account in how you present yourself from a job perspective.

That, of course, begs the question of what you should do if you find that those skeletons are out there in the wild. The answer, Diana, said, is that if it's out there, you need to deal with it head-on:

The days of being able to assume your personal information in your own are gone, with the social tools and platforms that are out there. I don't think you hide from that. I think you address those things head-on, because when people look at you, there's more to it than just a matter of a lack of privacy. You just see how human people are-everybody has made mistakes, and has things that wouldn't be the first thing they'd put on their resume, or be part of their polished self in an interview. The people who stand out when those issues come up are the people who hit them head-on. You put them out there, and you explain your side of the story. Most importantly, people just want to understand, are you real, are you self-aware, and are you learning from mistakes? Because people make mistakes.

I noted that some people argue that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior, so a past mistake can be toxic. But Diana said he thinks these things are survivable:

When you interview someone, one of the best, time-tested ways to interview people is to ask them about decisions they've made across their career-why they left jobs, what their thought process was when they went to new jobs, what they did in specific jobs when they faced different types of situations. When you look at behavior over a long period of time, you see patterns, and the pattern is what's a good predictor of the future. So individual instances aren't so much the predictor, but you have to dig deeper and ensure that the pattern is the pattern you want.

Finally, I presented a scenario in which an HR manager Googles a candidate and finds that there was a sexual harassment charge against him that was settled with no admission of wrongdoing. I asked Diana if he would see that as a deal killer, or if he would still invite the candidate in. His response:

I think you still investigate the candidate and assess his true fit for the job. It's just a piece of data you have, and you have to get comfortable with the full view you get of the individual. It's just another element in the screening process. I don't think that that, in and of itself, would be a reason to knock somebody out.

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Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Nov 17, 2011 11:33 AM hoapres hoapres  says:

One solution to the problem of being damaged goods is to become self employed.  That is not easy to do because you will have to become a salesman and market yourself.  Unfortunately it is becoming more and more likely that one is considered as "damaged goods".  Grounds for being "damaged goods" or being "prerejected" include but not limited to : 1. criminal convictions 2. credit problems 3. job instability 4.  too much experience 5. not enough experience 6. too much experience 7. too young 8. too old

You definitely should google your name and see what is out there.

Nov 17, 2011 4:29 PM Brian Tallon Brian Tallon  says:

What worries me, is what if you have a very common name, like "John Smith" (or something like that) and a potential employer "googles" your name - they get a list of thousands of John Smiths. Even if the name isn't that common and they get a small list of names, it's up to the employer (HR/hiring manager) to figure out which one is the person applying for the job. For which that can be very difficult - what if you have the same name as your father, live at the same address, and your father has a DUI charge that also involved an accident - and that data shows up online in a news article. What is to keep the employer from throwing your resume in the trash at that point...

I wonder how common the noted practice is... I don't really trust the judgement of most HR folks and hiring managers - and I guess in most cases, since they typically have a large number of applicants for each position, that they start off looking for things to exclude applicants ("quick to judge") in order to narrow down their list of applicants...

Even if they are "top-notch", the practice of "googling" a potential employee and making a judgement off of the results, is prone to mistakes (incomplete data, data from someone with the same name) and there's nothing the applicant can do, to clear up any confusion or defend their name/reputation - The applicant never knows what the judgement was - his or her resume just gets rejected without them knowing.

With most large corporations, I am guessing that they really count on the background research that they pay for (through an agency, using the applicants full name, address, social security number), rather than from "googling" applicant names.

Nov 17, 2011 5:48 PM hoapres hoapres  says: in response to Brian Tallon

But it is not the large companies that are hiring for the most part.  Small companies at least in Silicon Valley often do a google search on your name.


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