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Cast Off from a Tainted Company?

Over the past six months, tens of thousands of employees of scandal-plagued companies such as Enron, WorldCom, and Arthur Andersen have been dumped on the job market as their employers imploded. On top of the stress of job hunting in a lousy economy, these corporate refugees have had to deal with the fear that hiring companies will view them as damaged goods, employment experts say.

Yet, career transition pro John Miller argues that these concerns may be unfounded. Smart employers know that just because some senior execs may have been crooks, not every member of a company was tainted, says Miller, a senior vice-president at outplacement firm DBM. In fact, hiring companies often view employees from troubled outfits as particularly good hires, Miller adds.

For one thing, these recruits work hard, grateful for being given a chance, he says. Also, he adds, hiring companies often end up with highly skilled workers who wouldn't be available if their corporation hadn't melted down.

That said, these job seekers can still take steps to ensure that interviewers focus on their individual strengths, rather than on the misdeeds of their former employers, says Miller, who's based in Silicon Valley. Recently, Miller chatted with BusinessWeek Online reporter Eric Wahlgren about job-hunting strategies for these employees, as well as about the overall employment market. Hereare edited excerpts of their conversation:

Q: With more people out of work -- not just from layoffs at companies reeling from scandal but also from cuts at scandal-free ones -- are you finding that more competition for jobs today than even a year ago?

A: There is. It's a combination of folks [being available] whose organizations had to go into bankruptcy or release large numbers of employees with virtually no benefits, and folks from organizations that are right-sizing or reengineering.

And in general, the business climate is still one of a lack of trust [because of corporate scandals]. It's all contributing to a lag in the time it will take this economy to turn around.

Q: When it comes to looking for work, do employees who were laid off from places like Enron, WorldCom, or Arthur Andersen have a stigma?

A: I don't think so. I think employers, if they have a need for a skill set, will evaluate people on that. And I think they're smart enough to realize that there's an opportunity to get some good people who will work harder than ever before.

If you happen to be one of those employees [laid off from a company in the grip of a scandal], you're going to put your best foot forward and focus in ways that you may not have before.

If you're a senior executive, the scrutiny factor is probably going to be a lot higher [than for lower-level employees]. You can expect background checks, interviews, and screening to take a lot longer. If you're at that level, you may need an executive coach or to work with a search firm that can present your credentials objectively.

But for the masses of people who are affected, I don't think a potential employer would automatically eliminate them because one of these companies was on a resum?.

If you're the employee, you've got to research the company you're going after and understand what its needs are. You obviously want to come across as an intelligent and prepared person who can help the company.

You also have to think about the following, however: How do you persuade your future employer that you're a person of integrity? You want to be prepared to have an honest conversation about ethics and trust. How can you show that you can work in a diverse culture? How do you demonstrate qualitatively and quantitatively what you've been able to do in the past? Those are qualities that you will discuss and have to prove with examples.

Q: What do you do if a potential employer seems reluctant to hire you because you've worked a company that has had problems?

A: If they have a policy of not hiring from your company because of what happened there, there's not much you can do. But if they're interviewing you, there was something about your background that attracted them. So I would try to focus on the needs of the organization and how you can fill them.

The real question is: What's your competitive advantage as a person going into a new job, regardless of where you come from? You need to differentiate yourself. If I have a prejudice because you came from one of these companies, you could turn me around. You must persuade me that you've invested time and energy in understanding our structure, our management team, our products, our markets, and our competitors.

If you can persuade me that you're better prepared than the guy from Company X, I probably am going to give you a chance. If I can hire the very best person for the job, then I'm doing the company a favor.

Q: Is there a way to put a positive spin on having worked at an Enron or WorldCom?

A: Yes, as long as you don't sound defensive. Talk honestly and openly about what occurred and what you were observing, and the lessons you learned. But it's a fine line, because you don't want to put down a former employer and former colleagues.

Q: We've already talked about how tough it is to find a job these days. Any other general job-searching tips for executives?

A: No. 1 on the list is networking. It's still the way most people find a new opportunity. There are all kinds of ways to do that, including staying in touch with your MBA buddies and joining professional organizations. When the going gets rough, it's the people who know you best who can vouch for you and point you in the right direction.

Connecting with search firms is another good strategy. Look for search consultants or organizations that specialize either in the functional or industry area that you're in and have them become an advocate for you.

Q: Any other advice?

A: In this business climate, hiring managers are more selective. But I think there's a lot you can do -- whether you're out of work or in a job and not that satisfied -- to take charge of your career.

People don't spend enough time stepping back and thinking about what their skills and abilities are. There are questions you should be asking yourself: "Would I get the job today if somebody was hiring? Would I even qualify for it? If my job were open, would I get it? What would happen if my job disappeared tomorrow?"

Some other questions are: "Am I continually learning and taking advantage of the resources around me? Do key players in my organization even know who I am? What do I contribute that makes a difference in the company?"

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