Escape the Taint of Scandal

Escape the Taint of Scandal

After Arthur Andersen, Enron and WorldCom laid off tens of thousands of workers, many employees were left to wonder how their personal job hunts would be influenced by their former employers' troubles.

It's a sticky situation, because there's no right way to bad-mouth a former employer, yet you don't want to give the impression that you studied accounting at the WorldCom School of Business.

How Close Were You?

The trick is to distance yourself without directly criticizing your former bosses -- no matter how much they may deserve it. How you handle the situation depends in part upon how closely your work was linked to the scandal.

"If your department or job had nothing to do with the problem, then you may not have anything to worry about," says former Monster Interview Expert Carole Martin. "As long as you feel confident and can look the interviewer in the eye with a clear conscience and talk about what you did in that company, you will be fine. It is when you become embarrassed and shy about talking about the situation that the suspicion occurs."

If you worked in accounting or finance, this may be the one time in your life that not being the CFO is a good thing. If you were former Enron chief executive Jeffrey Skilling, found guilty on charges of fraud and conspiracy, employers would view you differently than if you were a lowly Enron accounting clerk.

"Unless you're the chief financial officer or a senior executive with any of these companies, it shouldn't much matter to future employers," says HR consultant Roberta Chinsky Matuson. "After all, how much impact does a general accountant have in a large organization? Everyone knows these are not the people who are cooking the books. In fact, things might work to their advantage since employers are sympathetic to the fact that many innocent people lost their jobs, not to mention their retirement savings due to a few greedy people at the top."

To Dish or Not to Dish?

One thing you can count on is that your interviewer is likely to bring up the scandal and ask for your firsthand account. The way you handle this question will reveal a lot about you as a future employee, Martin says.

"It's kind of like talking about an ex-spouse," she explains. "No one really is interested in the details unless they are revealing or shocking. The interview is not a place to shock people or become a confidant for information. This is about business, professionalism and loyalty."

Martin suggests you offer one of two responses: Don't discuss it, or touch on the troubles briefly. A tight-lipped answer would be: "For confidentiality purposes, I'd rather not discuss the company or its business policies outside my own responsibilities." This answer demonstrates loyalty, responsibility for dealing with confidential information, and a sense of pride in the company and the work you did -- a desirable trait for an employee to have.

If you feel better mentioning something, make it a positive statement, at least for your part of the situation. You could say, "I'm proud to have been a part of this company and was disheartened when its reputation was tarnished, both for me and the public."

A third option is to answer the question indirectly while turning the subject of the interview back to the most important subject: You and why you're the right person for the job, Matuson advises. What did you learn from your experience at your former employer, and how will your knowledge benefit your new employer?

No matter what your response, be sure to practice your answer before the interview. And don't worry so much. "Good accounting people are still hard to find, so human resources people will not toss aside the resumes of candidates who have worked for these companies," Matuson says.