Can’t get a Job because of your trouble with the Past Jobs?

Debra Ann MacDougall advises job seekers with troubled pasts or obvious disabilities on how to present themselves to hiring managers. She and Elisabeth Harney Sanders-Park lay out their strategy in a new book, The 6 Reasons You’ll Get the Job: What Employers Look For — Whether They Know It Or Not.

MacDougall started her career at the Salvation Army, working on programs for homeless families. She was determined to come up with ways to help the chronically unemployed find jobs and build careers. Eventually she teamed up with Sanders-Park, and the two started WorkNet Solutions and WorkNet International, sister career-consulting firms that work with institutions like trade schools, federally funded workforce centers and prisons, to help people with challenges in their personal stories find and land good jobs.

When a job-seeker’s challenges are highly visible, like some physical disabilities or a serious weight problem, MacDougall recommends a direct approach. Although the Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits job discrimination based on disability, it’s nevertheless wise to be upfront about a potential employer’s possible concerns.

A client of hers who had lost an arm in a motorcycle accident would routinely answer the ubiquitous first job interview question — tell me about yourself — by saying, “You may have noticed that I have only one arm.” Then he’d proceed to explain how he coped, using a specialized computer keyboard on which he could type 85 words a minute. “He had a positive, can-do attitude that inspired other workers,” MacDougall says. He landed a job as an administrative assistant at a large company in Los Angeles.

Older job-seekers should also consider potential employers’ concerns, MacDougall says. Hiring managers might worry about an older person’s health, his capacity to learn new systems quickly, his ability to adapt to technology and his energy level. MacDougall had a 59-year-old client who mentioned in interviews that she enjoyed running several times a week and participated in discussion groups on LinkedIn. MacDougall also advised her to get an updated haircut, if she didn’t want to dye her hair, and a fashionable suit. She was hired as a sales manager in Denver.

For job-seekers with less obvious physical challenges, MacDougall recommends what she calls the “make them love you first” approach. For instance, if you have a vision problem that would require you to use a special computer screen or a bad back that makes it impossible to sit through long meetings without getting up, she recommends keeping quiet until you get a job offer. Before accepting, let the employer know about your challenge.”Tell the employer about it, but tell them after they already love you,” MacDougall says.

She explains that hiring managers are always weighing the benefits and risks of new employees. You want to convince your potential employer that you have a surplus of benefits before revealing your risks.

For more serious challenges like a criminal conviction, MacDougall says you should be prepared to talk about what you did and how you’ve changed. She tells the story of a client she calls Chuck who had been jailed on drug charges. Chuck had a moment of clarity and life change when he had to tell his 10-year-old daughter that he would miss her soccer final because he was going to jail. MacDougall recommended that Chuck share that revelation with potential employers and talk openly about how he had remade his life. She also told him to volunteer to take regular drug tests. He is now clean and working, she says.

Job-seekers with criminal records, who are HIV-positive or have alcohol or drug issues do have legal protections, and there are nonprofit organizations that advocate for people who encounter discrimination. The Legal Action Center’s website is a good resource, and the federal government has a site loaded with information about the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Sometimes your serious struggles may be far enough in the past that you don’t need to address them at all with a potential employer. For instance, if you were hospitalized for a mental illness years ago but you’re now healthy and your work performance won’t be affected, you don’t need to discuss it. “The deciding factor is whether the employer will find out about it,” MacDougall says. “If it’s not going to affect your ability to do the job, because you’ve stabilized, don’t bring it up.” The same applies to drug and alcohol problems, she says.

If you’ve had a long period of unemployment, MacDougall recommends listing yourself as a consultant on your resume. Include both paid and unpaid experience. Nowadays, she says, employers are increasingly receptive to resumes that include long stints of consulting or freelance work. “They know what the situation is out there,” she says.

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