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What to do if you've been fired for an ethical violation

Dear Evil HR Lady,

How do I get past a recruiter who wants to know the truth about why I left my last job?

I spent seven years at a Fortune 500 company. I had a good career there. I was promoted twice and was in my last position for more than two years. I was fired for having an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate. (I hope you appreciate the use of HR jargon there.) I knew that it was wrong, against company policy, and what the consequences would likely be if it were discovered. Ultimately, the relationship was reported to HR and I was fired. Since then, I have gone back to school and just recently earned an MBA.

Now I've graduated and I'm back in the job market. I am finding that I can't get past the recruiter's screening interview when I tell the truth about why I left my last job. With others, I have led them to the conclusion that I was laid off. (Although I did not actually lie, I did intentionally lead them to the wrong conclusion). Of course I haven't gotten any of those jobs either. My fear is that companies are able to find out the real reason for my dismissal through an employment verification. I don't want to lie, but I fear it is my only hope at finding another decent job.

Are recruiters willing to give someone a second chance? Do you have any advice on how to approach this?

Recruiters? No. They aren't in the business of giving second chances.

The reality is I doubt you have special, unique, high-demand skills, or you wouldn't have this problem. Instead, you have an MBA, which is a great degree, but not the key to endless fortunes.

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And because your skills aren't special (this is not to say that they're bad, just not unique), a recruiter is going to have 50 candidates on her desk who look exactly like you. So rather than looking to find the best candidate, her first job is to eliminate as many of those 50 applicants as possible.

I presume you aren't putting this information on your resume or cover letter, so you're at least getting to the phone screen. This means that, on paper, you are a quality candidate. Or at least higher quality than the candidates not making it to the phone screen. But HR is in the business of enforcing the rules. (We don't always make the rules, but it falls on us to enforce them.) If I've got 10 candidates who could all be sent on to the hiring manager, and I find out that you have an ethical violation in your past, you'll get a "thanks-but-no-thanks" note.

This means that your chances of getting past the recruiter are slim. So what you need to do is go around the recruiter and land yourself directly at the hiring manager's doorstep. Or rather, email inbox. You do this through networking, and while it's a bigger pain in the patootie than submitting an application through the company website, it has its advantages. If you can get the hiring manager to like you, the HR person can't veto his decision. (In most companies, that is.) Many managers will care less about strictly following the rules than the recruiter will, so they may not find your past dating of a subordinate to be a big problem.

I strongly dislike the intentional misleading of the recruiter thing. I realize that you can certainly answer questions truthfully and still lie. (Question: Why did you leave your last job? Answer: Well, as you know, the economy has been really terrible, so when they let me go, I decided now was a great time to go back to school.) While this strategy may be better than the alternative, it hasn't been working, either. This could just be a sign of a bad economy, or it could be a sign that you sound like you're lying. Recruiters get pretty adept at picking up on such clues -- they talk to a lot of people.

So, in addition to networking your way directly to a hiring manager, you'll need to work on your interview skills. (And stop intentionally misleading people.) Take advantage of the alumni network from your B-school to get some practice interviews with feedback. I'm sure you can find people who are willing to do that. You may find that you aren't as polished as you once were.

And keep in mind, since you were at the same company for a long time, and then in MBA school, you haven't interviewed for a long, long time. You're probably rusty. It's a skill, and you need to practice it.

One other tip: Try applying only for individual contributor jobs. Then you can turn the big question into one of those, "Have you ever overcome something difficult?" answers. 

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