The Untouchables in the Job Market

The other day I was talking with a good friend who was a very successful and talented mortgage broker until the crash of the mortgage and finance world, when he had to scale back the business to a fraction of what it had been, and lay off almost all of his staff. He was concerned that some of them weren’t finding other jobs, because in his area of California, people who have mortgage jobs in their background are considered untouchables for other types of work. Their skills could surely be transferred to other types of jobs, but they weren’t getting the chance.

I knew that to be true. Industries that crash, like companies that crash, can take their innocent hard-working employees with them, turning them into untouchables in the marketplace, rejected before real consideration, unless they know how to counter perceptions.

If you are part of an industry or company that somehow has gotten a negative reputation, then you might have to work twice as hard to show people how great you are. Mortgage companies, Wall Street, Detroit auto makers, a scandalized or controversial company… if you’re coming out of a job in one of these places, you will have a bigger challenge.

I remember the first time I interviewed an executive who had worked for Enron, and I realized that I had a level of caution about him that wouldn’t have been there if it weren’t for that specific company name on his resume. He didn’t work in the accounting area, and he wasn’t a C-level executive there, and of course, we all know that there had to be remarkable, capable and talented people who worked for Enron, but after the scandal with the people at the top, the company name was tarnished, which ended up with me perceiving that executive just a little bit differently than I might have otherwise.

This is how it is for the mortgage industry, for Wall Street and the investment banking world, for real estate and for the automotive industry. Great employees can become tainted by something they had nothing to do with.

What can you do if this is your situation? You can learn to talk about it with a positive attitude, in a way that subtly persuades others to do the same. You can learn to tell your story to show your strengths, and to separate who you are from the company you worked for.

This is going to be part of how you present your history, and you are planting the seeds of how someone is going to perceive you and remember you, so make it interesting and make it show you in the best light.

Here are a few ideas for how to present your experience. These are just examples I’m making up to illustrate the point, so please don’t use them verbatim. Use your own words, and say what is appropriate for your specific situation. Write down your sentence, and polish it to make it perfect, and then practice it, practice it, practice it, so you’re able to have those words flow smoothly when you’re in conversation.

Refer to anything negative in a way that adds a positive note. The ex-Enron employee could say, “As you see, I worked for Enron, the company brought down by accounting fraud, but what many don’t know is that it was rated one of the best companies to work for in America, and so the company attracted some really talented people.” That sentence speaks the truth, but also adds a positive perception of the company, particularly when it’s said in an upbeat tone of voice.

Focus on your smaller group rather than the whole company or industry. For instance, the ex-Enron employee could say “That was one of the best marketing teams I’ve had the pleasure to work with, they were upstanding people and I was proud to work there, and was as shocked and disappointed as anyone when I heard the news.” This way, they can both show pride and loyalty in their team, and separate themselves from the infamous wrong-doers.

Emphasize the transferable skills that you bring to a new job. A mortgage person might say “My ability to understand what my customers really wanted, and my follow-through to make that happen, are what made me so amazingly successful in the mortgage business, and those same skills of listening to what customers want, and making sure I stay on top if the details to close the sale… that is what will make me succeed in your job, too.”

Highlight your talents while avoiding any industry-specific descriptions or buzzwords. You might be an expert in marketing autos, but if that’s a shrinking industry, don’t talk about cars. Instead, focus on what you do that is more universal and pertinent across other industries. For instance, you can position yourself as a marketer who understands consumer behavior and decision processes and marketing analytics, and don’t talk specifically about the auto world at all.

Don’t indulge in gossip or complaining, and especially don’t allow any bitterness, anger or despair to come through. One of the biggest turn-offs for people coming out of damaged industries is if you can sense pessimism or resentment about their situation, which is why some industries begin to become untouchable, so even if you feel it, don’t show it. (If you find yourself depressed or unable to change these feelings, then seek out some help to help turn your outlook around.)

Don’t badmouth your past company or industry. If an interviewer wants to probe about controversial or scandalous things that happened in your industry or company, keep it on a very high level, and don’t say anything that would be considered confidential or proprietary, even if the company is no longer around. Your character is being judged, and badmouthing is never a good thing, even if you feel betrayed. “Yes, that was a very challenging situation,” is much better than, “I know all the details about what happened, those terrible people, and… blah, blah, blah.” Don’t waste your precious interview time talking about the past and someone else’s headaches. Use that time for creating a positive impression for the future you want to create.

Never try to conceal or misrepresent your experience in your resume. Lying through omission of details or hiding behind a functional resume won’t help, and when discovered, it will destroy your credibility. Be creative with how you tell your story in your resume, and highlight what works best for you, but don’t pretend you didn’t work there or do that job. Tell the truth, just tell it with style and positivity.

Keep your head up, and remember that you are not your job and you are not the companies you have worked for. You’re a talented and skilled person who has a lot to offer, and your challenge is to craft a story about you that tells all of your work adventures in a positive way.

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