by Maryanne Peabody http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2011/11/how_to_job_hunt_with_a_strike.html
On May 28, 2011, the Boston Globe reported that Carney Hospital President Bill Walczak fired its entire staff of 29 health care delivery employees from a 14-bed locked unit for troubled teens. It appears that the hospital had violated patient safety in serious ways. Not all 29 employees were identified as having performed poorly. The president believed, however, that it was in the hospital’s best interest to staff the unit from ground zero.
Given the negative publicity surrounding lack of patient safety, Carney Hospital became an albatross company — a company with a negative reputation in the market. Innocent professionals who were fired had to then engage in a job search with a dead, stinky albatross called Carney Hospital draped around their necks.
Addressing the Albatross in the Room
Recruiters have a simple way of dealing with albatross job candidates: avoid them. Adding such candidates to the pool poses a risk, so most recruiters simply refuse to do so.
So, what’s a job seeker from an albatross company to do? When dealing with recruiters, try to avoid a direct approach. You will be too easily dismissed. Instead, have a third party write a letter on your behalf focusing on why you are exceptional in a positive way, despite having worked for an organization that has a reputation for being exceptional in a negative way.
If you do get to see a hiring authority, it’s only natural to hope the albatross issue doesn’t come up during the interview — the topic is uncomfortable. And, you may be angry with yourself for having stayed so long at this albatross company. Be sensitive that the discomfort is mutual. Hiring authorities like to avoid unpleasant discussions like the following: “After twenty years serving a discredited company, will you bring this company’s ‘winning ways’ into our business? And if you say, ‘Of course I won’t,’ how can I believe you?”
Whether they address it with you directly or not, you can be sure that it’s exactly what hiring authorities are thinking. If they broach the topic, consider it good news. It means that they’re comfortable enough with you to tell you what’s on their minds. If they fail to bring up the issue, consider it a bad sign. It means they want a polite conversation, and polite interviews do not work in your favor.
Being negative about your former employer also won’t get you offers. The rationale is: “Today she’s saying negative things about her former employer. What might she say about me if we part company?”
Useful Interview Tactics
Here’s a format we’ve found useful with our clients from albatross companies:
During an interview, you should ask: “What Do You Know About My Company?” This question allows you to gauge how large an albatross the other person perceives you to have around your neck. If the person says, “I know very little about the company,” then you can begin to frame your time with the albatross your own way. If the person says, “Here is what I know…” let the hiring authority go into the details about what he/she thinks is known about the albatross company. Don’t interrupt, and don’t disagree.
Here’s a common scenario: the hiring authority states that the albatross was tired, dysfunctional, and inwardly-focused, and that they responded poorly to changing business conditions. You respond with, “You’re right. But our company was complex. And within my area of responsibility, we did some exciting, innovative things. I’d like to talk to you about that with an understanding that I’m interested in helping you be the best company you can be. I have no intentions of bringing my former company’s ways of doing business to your company.”
How to Differentiate Yourself: Don’t Insult and Don’t Defend
Your mission is not to change other people’s views about your albatross. Your mission is to differentiate yourself from the public perception of that albatross company. Consider saying something like: “There is no question that there was a great deal of short-sighted thinking going on at the top of the organization. The operation I worked in, however, was different from the rest of the company. I’d like to talk specifically about what we accomplished.”
We All Wear an Albatross
Albatrosses do not have to be confined to companies with poor reputations; age discrimination, staying too long with one employer, and physical disability are also common issues.
The best way to deal with your own personal albatross is to confront it head on:
The Age Albatross
Concerns about age may reflect a desire to have a youth-oriented culture and a perception that you just wouldn’t fit it. Or, your age may cause a hiring manager to assume that you are wedded to ideas/technology that worked in the past, that you lack the flexibility to learn new ways, or that you are too rigid to unlearn all the bad habits you learned over the years. You cannot win the job search game by assuming that silence is a good approach. Address the issue head-on.
The Job Duration Albatross
If you stayed too long at one company, it may reflect a concern that you had one solid year of experience that you repeated twenty times. Is that true? Can you be flexible? Can you unlearn? You need to address these potential concerns head-on. An employer may have similar concerns if you left a job after a seemingly short duration.
The Physical Disability Albatross
Physical disability is a topic most employers will not address because of its potential for legal liability. You have to confront the issue. For example, one of our clients had a club foot. He walked into the interview with very large shoes. As predicted, interviewers would notice the shoes and make no comment. My client said, “You must have noticed these large shoes. I have club feet. The good news is that it has no impact on my ability to do the job, my drive, or my stamina. It has no impact on my general health or my life span. The bad news is that you don’t want me on the company soccer team!” Confronting the issue with humor made the issue less threatening. He got hired.
As a consequence of experience, we all wear an albatross. Don’t try to ignore it and hope others will. Show that you know how to dance with it.