How to tell interviewers you’re not a jerk, despite working for a terrible company

If you work at a company whose reputation has been tarnished, one of the casualties of the corporate scandal may also be your own professional reputation. Take employees at Uber, for example. After ex-Uber engineer Susan Fowler wrote a post detailing the alleged discrimination and sexual harassment she experienced at the company, it launched an internal investigation that revealed a toxic workplace culture and led to 20 employees being fired for misconduct. In the midst of these scandals, many Uber employees sought safe harbor by applying for new jobs.

But they found that the scandals of their company followed them into job interviews. A Guardian report found that hiring managers were wary of Uber applicants, wanting to know if these job seekers subscribed to or rejected the aggressive values of “Always Be Hustlin’” and “Meritocracy and Toe-Stepping” that got Uber into trouble with customers, investors, government regulators, and employees.

Leslie Miley, a software engineer who managed teams at Slack and Twitter, told the Guardian that he would personally be wary as an employer interviewing an Uber staffer.

“If you did well in that environment upholding those values, I probably don’t want to work with you,” Miley explained.

As one former Uber employee told the Guardian, Uber employees applying for jobs are finding themselves on the defensive, forced to prove “‘Oh, I’m not an a—hole.’”

If you worked at a company that has become embroiled in scandal and you were an innocent bystander, there are steps you can take to acknowledge your work without it being a black mark on your resume. Here’s how to separate your personal reputation from the terrible company that you work for:

Acknowledge the elephant in the room

Randy Conley, Vice President of Client Services and Trust Practice Leader at the leadership development company The Ken Blanchard Companies, advises employees to proactively bring up the scandal in your job interview because “it’s the elephant in the room.”

Here’s a basic script Conley says Uber employees could use to acknowledge the scandal: “I was afforded a lot of wonderful opportunities at Uber to grow my skillset, to make some really good contributions. My personal values were a mismatch with the organization. The way I conduct myself, the things I that I believe about how you should treat people, that wasn’t shared by the organization as a whole and some of its senior leadership. That was unfortunate.”

Then leave it at that. The brief acknowledgment shows that you clearly disagree with your company’s values and decisions without going into time-wasting detail. You don’t want the scandal to take up the whole interview. The tactful acknowledgment also helps you avoid badmouthing your company in ways that could potentially violate your previous contract. The goal is to directly acknowledge the controversy, so that you can move on to the most important part of the interview: why you’re a good fit for this new job.

Lead the conversation with your personal values

If your company has become overshadowed by failure, incompetency or controversy, (Equifax and Miramax come to mind), any success you may have achieved at that company could now be looked at with suspicion as well — regardless of whether or not that’s deserved.

To separate themselves from your previous company’s baggage, you should point out at every opportunity — in your resume, cover letter and in-person interview — how your personal conduct was different from your company’s sullied reputation.

“If you carry yourself as a person of integrity and you address these things up front, you don’t have anything to be ashamed of,” Conley urges employees navigating this difficult conversation. “Just because you worked for an organization that had a breach of trust or wasn’t that ethical doesn’t mean that you as an individual are that way.”

Before heading for these job interviews, it’s a good idea to take stock of your personal values and how you’ve demonstrated them in action in your work.

Then when you get the interview, you should use this topic as a way to bring up your strengths and separate yourself from bad actors. “Whenever you’re in an interview position, you’re looking to sell your strengths,” Conley said. “You want the hiring manager to see the value that you bring. What a great example to take a horrible situation to show how you were not like that, how you positively contributed to changing the culture in your old organization.”

For employees with company baggage, you can make it a point to weave in stories about how you conducted yourself counter to the bad headlines. Mention who you partnered with on projects; if you are a leader, note how you fostered employees’ growth.

If you screwed up, admit it

But what if you do have values and actions to be ashamed of? Then you need to take a hard look in the mirror.

“One of the most powerful trust-building behaviors is to apologize and admit your mistakes. If you’ve been involved in a situation that really went south, own up to it,” Conley said.

You need to tell people how you blew it, and how you’re going to fix and address it while also acknowledging that your actions moving forward will speak louder than any apology will, he said. Emphasize how you’re committed to the situation of not letting your failures ever happen again. Then prove it.