Been Fired? Disclosure Is the Best Policy

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By: Randy Dotinga

The humiliation of getting fired may only last for a few weeks or months. But what about the blot on your employment record? Should you fess up to your past or hope the skeletons in your closet remain behind closed doors?

Plenty of newspaper employees try the latter approach. They cross their fingers and hope nobody wheedles any incriminating information out of their references. And in some cases, they succeed.

Many journalists can recount tales about colleagues who managed to get new jobs despite less-than-ideal job histories. George Stanley, managing editor at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, recalled the case of a writer at another publication who plagiarized the work of one of Stanley’s staffers. The writer was fired, went on to another job, and got in trouble for — you guessed it — plagiarizing the work of the very same Journal Sentinel staffer. “It’s an employer’s responsibility to do some due diligence,” said Stanley, whose own staff has discovered unhappy surprises in the backgrounds of applicants.

Of course, many newspapers, both big and small, don’t fully examine an applicant’s job history. Some employers are afraid of lawsuits and don’t even allow supervisors to comment on a former employee’s performance. See http://www.editorandpublisher.com/editorandpublisher/search/article_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1726174 (E&P subscriber log-in required).

So why not fib if your past isn’t pretty? Hiring editors say the answer is simple: You’ll look better if you’re honest than if you cover up the truth and get discovered. “If you’re up front about it and let us know, I think that’s honorable,” said Oscar Miller, director of newsroom recruiting at The Philadelphia Inquirer. “Not a lot of people do that.”

On the other hand, it’s not necessary to mention that you were fired on your resume or in your cover letter. “When I’m sifting through hundreds and hundreds of applications, to me that stands out like a sore thumb,” Miller said. “It will give me a chance to pause … the normal human reaction will be to maybe not give this person as much serious consideration. People [should] get in the door, get us to put a name with a face, and then make confessions if there are any forthcoming.”

If the firing happened long ago — say, more than five years in the past — you may be able to get away with ignoring it completely. But if it was more recent, be ready to talk about it when your previous experience comes up during a job interview.

“You can tell the truth without incriminating yourself: ‘I was working at such-and-such a place, and it turned out not to be a good fit,'” said Benjamin Dattner, an executive coach and consultant based in New York City. It’s especially helpful if you took the opportunity to quit before you were fired, he said. “In terms of your career story, it makes it seem like you were much more proactive and took more control.”

If you’re a newsroom employee, editors may be sympathetic if you had philosophical differences with management. “You may have legitimate reasons about why following the corporate line was not the best thing,” said Arlene Morgan, assistant dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and former assistant managing editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer. “It might be in your favor to discuss your philosophy about journalism.”

Of course, plenty of newspaper employees get fired for reasons that are very difficult to defend, such as drug or alcohol abuse, violation of important work rules, or sexual harassment. “You’ve got to really own up to those problems and to what you did right and what you did wrong,” Morgan said.

Regardless of all the recommendations about honesty, it’s quite tempting to keep mum about unhappy incidents in your work history. But consider the risk, and remember Disney’s Law: It’s a small world after all.

One reporter considered lying about being fired while interviewing at a newspaper in the Southwest. But he thought better of it and revealed the truth. The recruiter “was grateful that I had — he agreed it would’ve come out anyway,” said the reporter, who wishes to remain anonymous.

The reporter made the right decision. By coincidence, the recruiter went to breakfast the very next week with the editor who had sacked the reporter years before.

Another reporter wasn’t so circumspect when he went for an interview at the Detroit Free Press. He failed to mention that he was fired recently after just 90 days on the job, recalled Recruitment and Development Editor Joe Grimm. “When we found out he had withheld the information — and learned that one reason he had been fired was dishonesty — we put him on the next plane home.”

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