As we've all watched the story unfold around the Affordable Care Act (ACA) website disaster, one thing is certain: more than a few people will be named responsible for this large-scale failure. This kind of highly publicized mistake is mainstream. As the finger-pointing escalates, people (i.e. hiring managers) will remember the company - and its key players by name.
However, what about all the employees who did a great job, but will be "guilty by association" for working at the company that created such a mess?
When you find yourself in the unfortunate position of working for a company with a terrible reputation, you've got two challenges:
You need to prove you didn't contribute to the company's current status.
You have to find a way to avoid throwing your employer under the bus when doing it.
It's not easy, but with the right mindset and some honest, yet tactful explanations, it can be done.
Remember: It's a Small Professional World
The first thing to keep in mind is in the professional world, we're all connected. You never know who might find yourself potentially working with (and for!) again someday. Be very careful not to say something that could get back to your co-workers or dysfunctional employer's management team.
Everyone Makes Mistakes, Your Day Could Come
Next, get yourself in the right frame of mind. Yes, you're angry and embarrassed by your employer's actions. In fact, I'm sure you can point to specific people in the organization who you're certain are responsible for the failure. But, before you start singing like a canary about their mistakes, ask yourself, "Am I so perfect I might never make a mistake that could be criticized publicly?"
Use the "Experience = Learn = Grow" Model to Explain What Happened
As you get out and network (Did I mention you should be networking since your company could end up going out of business as a result of their mistake?), people will want to hear all the nasty details. They'll push you for the inside scoop. Don't fall into the trap! Bring them back to reality by sticking to the facts. More importantly, use your employer's misfortune as a way to show your professionalism. Here are the key points to make:
This has been a "powerful" experience. Don't say "bad," and you can't say "good." Instead, use a word that conveys the intensity of the experience in a neutral tone.
We did our best, but mistakes occurred. Don't get into a long-winded explanation of the course of events that led to your employer's scandal. It opens you up to questions about each individual's participation and can put you in the hot seat. Remember the "telephone game" you used to play as a child? Words would get passed along until they were completely distorted. Well, the same can occur with whatever you say about your co-workers and management team's involvement in the failure.
I learned a lot and want to make the most of it. Focus on the lessons that can be taken away from the time you spent with this employer. Have at least three things you can point to that you'll do differently as a result of your experience. Better still, show how the failure has given you resolve to stay in the game and continue your work in this area.
Your Career Isn't Fatal - Unless You Choose It To Be
There's an old saying that applies here: "That which doesn't kill us, makes us stronger." Your employer's mistake won't kill your career. But, to keep your career on track, you will need to use the experience with a troubled company to showcase your professionalism and to prove yourself to be even more valuable to future employers as a result of it.
What other tips can you share to help those in a situation like this make the best of it? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
PS - Did you enjoy this post? Then, perhaps you'd like another I wrote here on AOL:
18 Things to Bring on an Interview