How to Overcome Even Big Challenges in a Job Interview

Last Updated Feb 15, 2011 5:31 PM EST

One of my favorite parts of the job is interacting with real job seekers to see what we can do together to recharge their searches.

After my recent "Ask the Experts" Webcast with Jill Schlesinger and Eric Schurenberg, I got an e-mail that caught my attention:

"Just watched your interview with Jill. I left work a year ago due to extreme family hardships (deaths of multiple immediate family members).

"I pled guilty to a felony many years ago. Since then, I have earned my bachelor's degree and MBA, I have done volunteer work. I have held down three jobs, back to back. I never lied about my conviction, but had help in getting in. I had a lot or responsibilities at every job including access to personal information and corporate accounts. I did take year off from work to resolve family issues, but I am ready to go back to the field and I am terrified that I will end up working at McDonald's or somewhere due to my conviction. Do you have any knowledge on how to go about applying for jobs with a conviction (drug related, not work related)? I know I can be an asset to any company and I have proven myself to employers already. (I have plenty
of references.) Any advice???"

Tough stuff, huh? Here's how I responded to this reader:

First off, I'd like you to read this piece we ran a while back, titled "To Tell the Truth: Resume Rules. It leads with the story of a woman who shot her abusive husband, went to prison, and was still able to get the full-time job she wanted by leveling with the VP of HR at the company where she was contracting. I hope the woman's story there helps put you in the right frame of mind!

Next, please consider these four points:

1. You can't go in "terrified." Any job search is scary, and you've had a rotten time of it recently with these family tragedies. (My deep condolences!) Employers and recruiters understand rotten times â€" many have experienced them first-hand. The point is, these are human beings you're talking to. Misfortune happens to human beings, and the smart people on the other side of the desk understand that.

2. Your employment and personal history is a narrative. This is your "personal brand." The narrative I'm reading is of someone who hit a rough patch long ago, got her act together amazingly well and demonstrated through education and employment a set of value-adds she can bring to an employer. Then she hit another rough patch that anyone who's human is likely to face at some time. (Loved ones get sick, loved ones die, the people in their lives have to take care of them.) Your responsible leadership during these family tragedies is both understandable and actually can reflect the qualities you'll bring to the job.

3. Lead with the good stuff, and don't dwell on the bad stuff. You still want to craft an elevator pitch, resume and other personal-branding assets that lead strongly with the specific value you'll bring an employer. The other stuff should not come up until your foot is well and firmly in that door. Which leads me to ...

4. You need personal connections within your target companies. The woman who overcame that prison history was already working on a temporary basis at the company that hired her. Whether it's working contractually, joining professional groups, looking up old classmates or finding friends of friends, you are going to need a network that will give you advocates working from theinside. As I said, you're dealing with human beings on the hiring side -- and the more inside allies you have to humanize you, the stronger your hand.
  • Matthew TheLadders

    Matthew Rothenberg is editor-in-chief for TheLadders, the world's leading online service catering exclusively to the $100K+ job market. In addition to traditional job search services, TheLadders.com also provides a host of specialized career development resources. Previously he worked at Ziff Davis Media, ZDNet, CNET, and Hachette Filipacchi.

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